A Blunt View of the Cutting Edge

Rensselaer Polytechnic's Shirley Ann Jackson warns of a day of reckoning if the U.S. doesn't nurture young scientists and engineers

In 1973, Shirley Ann Jackson was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in theoretical physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That was just the beginning of a mold-breaking career. Since then, Jackson has racked up these achievements: She's president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute since 1999, and the first African American to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Today, Jackson is one of the leading voices on the need to direct more young Americans into science and engineering, and in advocating for more funding in basic research. Recently, BusinessWeek's Sarah R. Shapiro spoke with Jackson about the research challenges ahead. Edited excerpts follow:

Q: What are some of the hurdles the U.S. has to overcome if it wants to maintain its innovative edge?

A:

There are two key areas that the U.S. has to pay attention to. Innovation is rooted in scientific discovery and invention. So, two enabling things that have to be present at all times are: support for basic research across a broad range of fields and the ability to have and to access talent. In the end, it's people who create the kind of breakthroughs we're talking about.

Supporting basic research across a broad field really is important because many of the most exciting areas and questions are multidisciplinary, and they lie at the intersection of different fields. As far as mining talent, that really means that one has to be able to access, nurture, and develop domestic talent, drawing on young people from groups that have historically been underrepresented in the sciences and engineering. By that, of course, I mean young women and underrepresented minorities.

Then one has to be able to continue to access talent internationally, wherever it might come from. That's why many scientific groups have been concerned about these issues. In addition, those sorts of issues affect the overall ability of U.S. scientists to collaborate worldwide with the best scientists.

Q: Are other countries or regions doing a better job of attracting and training science and math students than the U.S.? If so, why?

A:

What one can honestly say is that we still truly have the best graduate programs in science and engineering. We are still the greatest innovators. And we have the kind of economic system and capital markets that support the exploitation of technological innovation. So on that side of the balance sheet, one can argue that we still have great advantage.

On the other side, other countries have noticed our example and noticed the success we've had. Therefore, other countries are investing on a proportional basis, in terms of a fraction of GNP (gross national product), a large amount of money, and other types of support, to develop their own human capital and to develop the infrastructure for innovation.

Q: Do you think the U.S. is losing students to other countries?

A:

We still are at the top of the heap. But there are signs where, in terms of publications and the major prestigious journals and breakthroughs in certain areas (like stem-cell research), in terms of production of new engineers and scientists, other countries are really racing forward. If you look at countries in Asia on an absolute numerical basis, they produce many more engineers per year.

It's not just a question of where we are on an exact comparison today but on the basis of projecting ahead 10, 15, 20 years. If we don't increase support for basic research and if we don't develop our own talent while continuing to mine talent from around the world, then the question is where will we be? That's where the concern is.

Q: Where and what kinds of problems will that create for the U.S. in the future?

A:

Technological innovation, coming out of basic research and invention, has been the driver, the engine, of our economy and has been the basis of our having the highest standard of living in the world. So the stakes are clear. If we want to maintain our standard of living, preserve and enhance our security, and remain the world's strongest economy, those are the stakes we're talking about.

What we're seeing is erosion because fewer of our own young people are interested in science and math. Part of it is that it hasn't been viewed as being very glamorous. But in addition, in terms of early education and performance in science and math, we haven't done so well in recent times. So these things are all going to exacerbate a growing trend -- a quiet crisis that could lead to a perfect storm if all of these factors come together, which they seem to be. It's really more of a projection.

You know it's funny, I was reading an article recently about oil and about whether we're reaching the end of cheap oil on a relative basis. Depending upon whom you talk to, some will say the problem is imminent, meaning within five years. But others will say that it's much further out -- decades. But all agree that, ultimately, a day of reckoning will come.

I'm not saying that our economy is about to fall apart -- or that we don't have talented people doing research and working in science and engineering. This is really a question of looking at some developing trends that, if left unchecked, can lead to a day of reckoning.

Q: What are some of the most promising areas of innovation?

A:

The whole biotechnology area is one that's ripe, particularly as it relates to the marriage of the basic biological sciences with the physical sciences and computation. There's an area known as nanobiotechnology. Some people refer to it as bio-nanotechnology, but it really has to do with being able to manipulate and image things on a nano scale and marry living tissue with manmade tissue and materials.

This [field] also deals with things that range from the ability to transplant stem cells to improve functions of damaged heart tissue, to creating biometric materials that can repair or replace damaged tissues or organs in a body, or creating protein gel, which can speed the healing of wounds.

But there are multiple frontiers. One of the frontiers is the ability to do the basic science at that level. The second is the ability to manipulate and develop new technologies that can treat disease or injury. The third is the ability to create new products and new treatment methodologies that can be exploited for human health.

Another frontier is breakthroughs in astrophysics and being able to understand the universe at a more fundamental level. There have been a number of breakthroughs or discoveries of galaxies. Some people would think of these sciences as opposite ends of the spectrum. One is the ability to understand, at a deeper level, what happens in terms of biological functions [concerning] the ability to do stem cell-based research, to treat long-term and debilitating illnesses and injuries. And the other is answering the deepest questions of the universe.

Both of them are very exciting and both require a lot of talent. Those two areas I find exciting.

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