U.S. must encourage science or fall behind, educator says
Shirley Ann Jackson, right, chats with Belinda Akpa, assistant professor of chemical engineering, at a scientific poster session in the UIC Forum during Jackson’s visit to campus Monday.
Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin
America must focus on scientific discovery and technological innovation if it is to stay economically competitive, Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told a UIC audience Monday.
“Developing nations are copying us in investing in higher education, science and technology,” said Jackson, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
China, she noted, increased its number of natural science and engineering degrees from 239,000 in 1998 to 807,000 in 2006 three times the U.S. figure.
And China was second only to this country in peer-reviewed research in 2008, she added.
The United States offers few incentives for the production of clean energy, and the centers for development of wind and solar power are located elsewhere, Jackson said in her speech at the UIC Forum.
“Business and government are excessively cautious,” she said, favoring less risky, short-term projects.
Four elements are needed, Jackson said:
• a focus on natural and biological sciences to promote advances in clean energy and health care.
• transformational ideas, with business and government supporting basic research by universities.
“Basic research gave birth to the Internet,” she noted.
• translational action to bring ideas into the world, marked by a balance between the commercializing and free sharing of scientific ideas.
“We must support fledgling startups that come out of university research,” Jackson said.
• capital investment. In addition to financial capital, infrastructural resources “which no single company can afford” are needed not to mention human capital in a country that is not educating enough scientists and engineers, she said.
America attracts huge numbers of international students to study science and engineering, while failing to inspire its children to pursue those fields, she said.
“We must reach out to women and minorities,” Jackson said.
Although women are earning half the degrees granted in the biological sciences and chemistry, they receive only two out of 10 degrees in engineering, computer science and physics, she said.
Four in 10 African American and Hispanic high school students don’t graduate on time, she added.
But things have improved since Jackson attended MIT.
One of her professors there advised her to study metallurgy, saying, “Colored girls should learn a trade.” She had the highest GPA in the class, she said.
Jackson went on to become the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at MIT, in theoretical elementary particle physics.
Recruitment of new scientists and engineers should include “not-so-young people” who are done raising families, have lost their jobs or are changing careers, she said.
Scientific discovery is exciting enough to entice legions of new researchers, Jackson said.
“We may soon be able to resurrect extinct species like the woolly mammoth, use microbes to manufacture biofuels and combat global warming by making clouds more reflective things a fifth grader would describe as ‘awesome.’”
“Avatar,” promising to be the highest-grossing movie of all time, offers a planet populated by plants and animals “that are imagined so completely that even biologists are fascinated,” she said. “Science can be a box-office draw.”
Jackson was interviewed Monday evening by Walter Massey, chairman of the Bank of America, in a forum sponsored by UIC and The HistoryMakers, an archival collection of African American video oral histories.
“We’ve made a much greater commitment to research [at Rensselaer],” she said, speaking before an audience of about 200 in Student Center East.
“My job as president is to project the institution into the larger world and pathways for research partnerships pathways to make people aware of our school.
“It happens to be easier because I’m a scientist.”
Speaking of her legacy, Jackson said, “If I look back 20 years from now, I would like to say that I took what talent I had and developed it to the fullest.
“I’ve always tried to make a difference wherever I was.”