Shirley Ann Jackson, PhD, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told an audience of 200 at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) that a “quiet crisis” is percolating in the United States – a crisis that if not stemmed could jeopardize the nation’s global competitive edge.
The crisis stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for scientists and engineers and its ability to produce enough of them, said Jackson.
“As the generation educated in the 1950s and 1960s prepares to retire,” she said during her Feb. 8 lecture, “our colleges and universities are not graduating enough scientific and technical talent to step into research laboratories, software and other design centers. This gap represents a shortfall in our national scientific and technical capabilities.”
The need to secure the nation against terrorist threats that endanger its people, infrastructure, economy, health, and environment, makes this education gap all the more glaring. Another national need that more technically educated citizens could help solve is the nation’s lack of energy security.
"I believe we already know that we can no longer merely drill our way to energy security,” said Jackson. “We will have to innovate our way to energy security. Energy security requires our highest innovative capacities — in fossil fuel extractive technologies, and as we explore hydrogen-based fuel cells, methane hydrates, and alternatives to fossil energy sources such as nuclear power, in which there is a resurgent interest.”
Spurring innovation and bridging the education gap will require a national commitment to develop the talent of all citizens, especially the under-represented majority — the women, minorities, and persons with disabilities who comprise a disproportionately small part of the nation’s science, engineering, and technology workforce.
“For the United States to remain competitive in a vibrant global innovation and research environment,” said Jackson, “it must have access to the best minds. The nation’s technological strength depends entirely on its ability to attract, educate, recruit, and retain the best science and engineering workers. Our government, universities, and industry must act now to develop the intellectual capital of the future.”
Jackson, who holds a doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics from MIT, spoke at the invitation of NJIT’s Albert Dorman Honors College, the Educational Opportunity Program, the Murray Center for Women in Technology and the Technology and Society Forum Committee. Her lecture was the second event in NJIT’s 2006 Technology and Society Forum Series. The forums explore the connections between the technological expertise that students study in the classroom and the real-world geo-political issues that affect the quality of human life. Christopher Phoenix, director of research at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, will speak at NJIT on April 5, 2006.