Jackson calls for renewed support of ‘culture of science’

RPI president urges support of science in Centennial Lecture

In her Centennial Lecture Series presentation Thursday, Shirley Ann Jackson said the future of Rice and other U.S. research universities depends upon public support for science, and she urged the audience to better communicate the value of science and science education.

“Science is a cultural enterprise,” said Jackson, a physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It must be adopted and carried fourth by each generation. In the U.S., we’ve been falling short in achieving this, which puts support for scientific discovery and technological innovation at risk.”

Jackson, the fourth speaker in the lecture series, began her presentation by offering up dozens of technological accomplishments that have occurred in the United States since the time of Rice’s founding 100 years ago. In recounting the nation’s many successes in medicine, computing, transportation, cognitive science, energy, materials science, communications and more, Jackson showed how reliant people are today upon the fruits of a culture that invested and believed in science.

“The question becomes, Does the general public know about these discoveries and innovations or does reality TV supercede the reality of science and technology in our lives?” Jackson asked.

In answer, she contrasted the technological successes of the past century with depressing new statistics that highlight the U.S.’s failure to educate its next generation of scientists. For every Ph.D. granted in science or engineering in the U.S. today, she said, there are 18 law degrees and 50 MBAs awarded. Recent surveys find only 17 percent of U.S. high school students are interested in science or engineering careers, she said.

“Undergirding all that we take for granted is the support of an enlightened public, one that understands what scientists and engineers do,” Jackson said. “People, especially in a democracy, have to appreciate the value of supporting and committing to an investment in science and technology. That includes financial commitments to support basic scientific research as well as an endorsement of stronger science education in our schools.”

Jackson called for action in three specific areas to bolster the U.S.’s flagging support of science. First, she said the nation must tap the complete talent pool in educating and training the next generation of scientists. She called for more across-the-board support for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, as well as for greater emphasis on attracting women and underrepresented minorities to STEM. She also said the United States should make it easier for highly qualified foreign students and scientists to work and live in the country.

Second, she said the U.S. must “rejuvenate the three-legged stool,” the innovation model built on industry, government and academic input that served the country well over the past century. Due to the rapid decline of leading industrial research labs, Jackson said, Rice and similar “universities are becoming more important as sources of basic research.” She also said universities must seek more private industry funding, both to partner more closely with industry and to make up for waning public support of basic research.

Finally, she called for a strengthening of the U.S.’s “innovation ecosystem,” including new funding models for startup companies, innovative approaches to provide startups with access to research facilities, tools and trained workers. And she reiterated her call for renewed federal and state support of basic science to foster innovation.

“The endpoints of basic research at a university, in terms of commercial technologies, often cannot be envisaged, even by the researchers themselves,” Jackson said. “Yet history shows that out of that open kind of exploration, thriving industries are made. So when we fund basic research, we’re funding serendipity. Even a sober, frugal, postrecession United States must invest in serendipity because without it, there is no vitality in the innovation ecosystem.”

Jackson reminded the audience of President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice Stadium 50 years ago at the outset of the Apollo moon program. She said the nation also faced difficult challenges at that time.

“We faced an arms race. To most, we seemed to be behind in the space race, and many believed that the Soviets had captured technological leadership,” Jackson said. “Within the country, America was riven by pockets of stark poverty and cruel segregation.

“And yet, President Kennedy, without hesitation chose the hard but promising path. And because of this, he successfully used an attention-grabbing goal to ‘organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.’

In closing, she said the nation must make a similar choice to renew its commitment to science.

“This is something we can do and must do,” she said. “Securing our future depends upon it.”

The Centennial Lecture Series will conclude Oct. 17 at Tudor Fieldhouse with Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr.’s presentation, “A Conversation with the Chief Justice.”

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.