Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

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The Future of The University

March, 2022

Duke Law Center for Innovation Policy

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

I am delighted to join Chancellor Blank, President Jahanian, President Price, and Dean Abrams for this discussion.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly has underscored how crucial university-based discoveries and innovations are. Our nation was able to develop and deploy highly effective vaccines in a fraction of the usual time, because of foundational research done on modified messenger RNA at the University of Pennsylvania, and research at other American universities, over decades, including my alma mater, MIT. 
Innovation has been compared often to a coral reef, in which previous discoveries and innovations lay down the substrate upon which new discoveries and innovations grow. The question is what can universities do—after the shock of our current pandemic—to ensure the continuous health of the reef?

One of the greatest constraints we face, of course, is financial. Public investments in research and development have not kept pace with increasing competition from other nations. And they have not kept pace with the realities of our lives and our economy, which are highly dependent on advanced technologies of all kinds.

During the mid-1960s—another era of great powers tensions (as we are experiencing today)—as much as 11.7% of the federal budget was devoted to research and development. Today, we are under 3%. 

The federal share of funding for academic research and development has fallen from 60% in 2010 to 50% in 2019, and universities are forced to seek evermore private philanthropy, or to compensate with their own funds. Since many graduate students are supported by federal funding, this is narrowing the pipeline for future innovation, because there is no innovation without innovators.

Of course, innovation bills have passed both the House and the Senate recently, and the eventual consensus bill may improve the situation to some extent. But these bills have to be funded through the budget process, otherwise, as recently pointed out in Science, any increase in research funding may be largely aspirational. 

We all know that open fundamental research undergirds our innovation engine. However, the funding in earlier times for fundamental research was driven by national purposes, particularly coming out of World War II and especially after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite. 

That means, that to truly deliver important discoveries and innovations to the world, we need more than funds from the federal government: We need strategic focus. We need it especially because of an underappreciated reality of our highly interconnected world: When there is a triggering event, we all are subject to intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences. 

Clearly, the appearance and spread of SARS-CoV-2 is such a triggering event. Other recent examples include the container ship Ever Given becoming wedged in the Suez Canal in March of 2021, and disrupting an estimated $10 billion of global trade per day; and a freeze in Texas in February of 2021, which caused a grid failure that shut down the world’s largest petrochemical complex, and caused shortages of the chemical compounds used to make an array of products. 

In a world with inherent instabilities that include climate change, insufficiently secure cyber-systems, non-state actors, and geopolitical tensions of all kinds, such triggering events are likely to become more frequent, if we do not work actively to forestall them.

In the face of such risks, our powerful innovation ecosystem needs to become both more agile and more robust.

Our federal government has a key role here that only it can play. Risk assessments at the federal level must become more holistic and integrated, examining the effect of one risk on another, and identifying possible potentiating effects. In conjunction with universities and industry, the government should be planning for hazards that could compound other hazards—and offering funding for discoveries and innovations designed to respond to, and mitigate, them as part of an overall innovation policy. 

When crises do emerge, the federal government should be able to quickly assemble resources, and mobilize and coordinate all aspects of our innovation ecosystem—from research through manufacturing and distribution. 

We have precedents for such cross-sectoral resource-pooling: In 2020, my university and other universities—including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—joined forces with IBM, the National Laboratories, and others to create the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. Members lent time on their world-class supercomputers—as well as their in-house expertise—to researchers at any institution taking a computationally intensive approach to studies of COVID-19. 

Important findings emerged from Consortium projects, including the identification of drug compounds that could be repurposed for COVID-19 infections. With the Consortium as a model, the National Science and Technology Council now has published the blueprint for a National Strategic Computing Reserve—to provide standing computing support for future emergencies. 

In terms of what universities themselves can do as individual institutions to foster cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary efforts to address sweeping risks and opportunities, at Rensselaer we operate very consciously within a paradigm we term The New Polytechnic. 

The “polytechnic” in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” At Rensselaer, we view ourselves as a crossroads for collaborations across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations—focused on humanity’s greatest challenges, enabled by the most advanced tools and technologies. 

Over my tenure, we have encouraged such collaborations by constructing the physical and technological platforms for truly cross-cutting work. One example is our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, which is not only one of the most technologically advanced performing arts centers in the world, but also a laboratory for all things digital, at human scale. 

We also create the intellectual structures for cross-cutting work, including research centers that reach across departments and schools. One example is the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory housed at EMPAC, which is creating smart, immersive situations rooms and classrooms that are able to understand and react to their occupants, and to supply them with information, with the goal of vastly enhancing group learning and decision-making.

Another example is our Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems, or EBESS, which is addressing the challenges of the world’s cities, whose population the World Bank projects will more than double by 2050. Meanwhile, our built environment already contributes 40% of annual global carbon emissions.

Based in New York City, EBESS, which includes leading architecture and engineering firms as partners, recognizes that an integrative approach is required to decarbonize the many interconnected systems of our daily lives. EBESS envisions sustainable infrastructure that is both net-zero and climate resilient—through the use of renewable energy systems, sentient building platforms, and new materials—and that is integrated with intelligent communications, transportation, and supply chain networks—as well as the policies to support them. Our partner, the Brooklyn Law School, is contributing its expertise on this front. 
However, as we all know, it is not always easy to translate the advances generated under the auspices of universities to the marketplace. When university resources permit, supporting faculty and student start-ups until they are “de-risked” and ready for private investment is valuable.  

At Rensselaer, we created the first incubator wholly sponsored and operated by a university in 1980—and many great companies emerged from it—before we moved to a more distributed model of support in 2007, as large physical spaces began to be less important to start-ups. 

Participating in and supporting shared infrastructure for broad-based technology development is another important way that universities can contribute to the national innovation ecosystem. A good example is the 16 innovation Institutes of Manufacturing USA. The idea for this network arose out of a report on advanced manufacturing that I co-authored in 2011 as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Each institute brings together government, universities, and manufacturers of all sizes, to forward a particular type of advanced manufacturing technology, such as smart systems, robotics, and biopharmaceutical production methods. 

The institutes have been successful in moving a number of advanced technologies out of the laboratory and along the technological readiness scale towards use in industrial enterprises.

Finally, because there is no innovation without innovators, universities must redouble their focus on broader effects to develop the human capital for our innovation ecosystem. Minorities and women are extremely underrepresented in a number of science and engineering fields. And we appear to be moving backwards on key fronts. In 1998, 27% of bachelor’s degrees in the computer sciences were awarded to women. Twenty years later, their share had declined to under 20%.

I long have termed our national failure to draw the full complement of talent into our innovation ecosystem a “quiet crisis.” By being strategic about outreach and recruiting, by increasing financial aid, and by eliminating the structural barriers and bias within their own institutions, universities can help to draw women and minority students into science and engineering, and to inspire them with the possibilities.