What investments in science and technology must we make to show economic leadership, environmental stewardship and greater energy independence?

Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson

- President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
- Former chair, Nucler Regulatory Commission
- President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

As a trailblazing physicist, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and adviser to President Barack Obama on science and technology, Shirley Ann Jackson understands the complexity of America’s energy challenges. She said the nation must overcome a national “addiction to a silver bullet approach” to solving problems.

“We need a portfolio approach to addressing our energy issues,” Jackson said. “Energy security is national security. Energy security is economic security. The situation in Japan, the BP oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa – they tell us that we are facing intersecting vulnerabilities. That requires a national conversation and a more sophisticated and committed approach to dealing with energy in a comprehensive way.”

Jackson said political leadership will be crucial, and she also emphasized the importance of education. In her current role as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, she sees evidence that the next generation will get serious about developing sustainable solutions to the growing demands for energy and not “lurch from one thing to another.” She said it is her generation’s job to be inspirational.

“I educate young people like you and I think, because of you, the future is great. Those of us who have been around awhile have an opportunity and responsibility to inform. But we also have to try to uplift.”

More from Shirley Ann Jackson

Would you please describe the quiet crisis you have often referenced?

The quiet crisis represents the looming gaps in our science and technology capability because of looming gaps in our science and engineering workforce. It’s really due to three things.

The first is that a fairly large percentage of our current science and engineering workforce, U.S. citizens, are those who came of age in the space era. They have begun to retire and, increasingly, more of them will retire in the next five years.

The second is that we have been the beneficiary of exquisite talent from abroad here in the U.S. The immigrants have come and powered our industries, and have created new enterprises. But now while they still come, more of them go back home. Many more of them have opportunities where they come from, particularly in developing countries, emerging economies that are growing very rapidly such as China. So we can’t depend upon that the way we could in the past.

And the third is simply that our own young people, the coming generation, are not so well prepared. They do not perform so well in science and math and don’t express the same degree of interest in science and engineering.

What are the implications of the quiet crisis for America’s innovation and security?

The simple answer is that innovation derives from people, and in the end if we don’t have the people who are making the discoveries, creating the kinds of innovations we’ve depended upon and have built our economy on for the last 50 years, then we won’t have the economic strength that we really need. Economic strength and innovation are keys to security as well. One can look at it in a very technical way, but the important thing is simply to understand that we need a high performing workforce, particularly in these fields to secure our security, whether it is economically, in terms of energy or homeland security and defense.

How can science and technology help us realize more security and lessen our dependence on imported oil?

Well, we talk about energy independence every now and then. I do not. I talk about energy security, because in a global world, with global trade transportation and multiple ways to access energy, one has to think about the security of the energy that we need to power our economy. So what has to happen in that regard? The first is to know that there is no silver bullet. There is no one source of energy that will solve all of our problems. That then means we need a robust portfolio approach that protects us against shocks. Whether they are shocks due to natural disasters or geopolitical events or for other reasons, we need innovation. Because if we are going to find new sources of energy, if they’re extracted sources, we have to be able to do that in a more environmentally benign way, and these sources will be harder to find.

If they are renewables, they certainly depend upon innovation, new materials, new designs of things. The only way we’re going to get there is through robust innovation across a broad range of fields, because there is no one field that has the solution to everything. Therefore, we have to be able to think our way through prioritized and focused investment.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where you’ve been president for more than a decade, has been named as a national model of an environmentally conscious and responsible institution. Tell us what you’re doing on those fronts.

We are doing several things to be as environmentally conscious as we can be and to have a sustainable campus. One, with our existing infrastructure (we’ve been around for a long time; the current campus is over 100 years old) we’ve done back-fitting of technology to controlled energy uses. We’ve come up with new ways to look at the usage patterns in buildings, to be able to take buildings and facilities off-line so that we can channel our energy use. In addition we’ve looked at substitution of energy sources and recycling as well. We even use cooking oil in our golf carts that take people around our campus. Then when we build new facilities, we always go for the LEED certification. But beyond that, we actually try to take what we learn and discover in our laboratories and design studios to inculcate them into what we do to make our new facilities the test sites for new technologies. Of course, we have more emphasis on renewables, including the use of wind turbines and other things.

Are you optimistic for the America that our grandchildren will inherit?

I am. I think we have to make certain hard decisions in areas that relate to our economy, how we educate our young people, and to our investment and support of basic research. If we do those, then I’m not worried. Why? Because our children and grandchildren are wonderful and they are very focused. So if we hand to them a society, an economy where we’ve made some hard decisions we need to make, and it’s a balanced portfolio in that regard, and we educate them the way we should, then we’ll continue to be the greatest country on earth.

Shirley Ann Jackson is a physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Described by TIME magazine in 2005 as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science,” Jackson has held senior leadership positions in government, industry, research, and academe. Jackson has served as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission under President Bill Clinton and is currently a member of President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Prior to taking leadership of Rensselaer, Jackson conducted research at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories and taught theoretical physics at Rutgers University. Jackson was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998 for her significant and profound contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for education, science, and public policy. She holds a doctoral degree in theoretical elementary particle physics and a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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