True innovation requires big tech, academia and government to work together

For the entirety of my adult life, I have been intricately involved in researching the basis of new technologies. At AT&T Bell Laboratories, I conducted research that contributed to the understanding of electronic and optoelectronic materials used in semiconductor lasers that are now part of many devices. As a professor of physics at Rutgers University, I was fortunate to be able to teach undergraduate and graduate students, conduct groundbreaking research, and supervise Ph.D. candidates who would go on to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. 

I served as chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a role to which I was appointed by President Bill Clinton, where I initiated a strategic assessment that put the agency on a more businesslike footing. As a member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), I advised the White House on policies in many areas of science, technology, and innovation. From 2014 to 2017, I was cochair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

My experiences have allowed me to contribute a deeply informed perspective to a spectrum of corporate, nonprofit, and advisory boards, including FedEx, IBM, Medtronic, Kyndryl, the MIT Corporation, the Nature Conservancy, the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the International Security Advisory Board at the US State Department, and the US Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. And for much of that time, since 1999, I have been president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

These leadership roles across the technology industry, academia, and government have given me unique perspective and insight. What I have learned is that it is only through the mobilization of all three, acting in concert in an innovation ecosystem, that we can meet the biggest challenges of today and tomorrow.

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The speed with which vaccines against covid-19 were developed and deployed demonstrates the power of the US innovation ecosystem when mobilized in a crisis. Remarkably effective vaccines were funded, developed, tested, approved, manufactured, and distributed in a fraction of the usual time. Yet they did not come out of nowhere. The vaccines were based on decades of fundamental scientific and engineering research conducted at MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, the National Institutes of Health, and elsewhere.

Moreover, as we all know, vaccines alone have not overcome this pandemic. Covid-19 has revealed weaknesses in our health-care system, our supply chains, our labor markets, our social safety net, even our political system as a way to mount coherent responses to a complex problem. As a result, we have lost over 889,000 American lives as of this writing and severely strained much of our social and economic fabric.

The pandemic also exposed a deeper truth: that certain triggering events leave us all 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 failure of poorly maintained Pacific Gas & Electric equipment, which sparked deadly wildfires in California,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 deeply interconnected world with inherent instabilities that include climate change, inadequate cybersecurity, non-state bad 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.

The risks are not merely economic ones that hurt our knowledge- and technology-intensive economy; they are strategic ones that threaten our national and global security. We need our powerful innovation ecosystem to become both more agile and more robust in the face of them.

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 danger on another. In conjunction with universities and industry, a government coordinating body should be planning for hazards that could compound other hazards—and offering strategic focus and 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 needs to be able to assemble resources, and to quickly mobilize all aspects of our innovation ecosystem—from research through manufacturing and distribution—to stem the damage.

Our current crisis offers a precedent for the future: in March 2020, as the pandemic flared, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, MIT, IBM, the Department of Energy National Laboratories, and others swiftly joined forces to create the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. A number of important findings emerged from consortium projects, including the identification of drug compounds that could be repurposed to fight covid-19. With the consortium as a model, the National Science and Technology Council has now published the blueprint for a National Strategic Computing Reserve to provide standing computing support for future emergencies.

Fortifying supply chains

If we are to learn from the pandemic, the strategic vulnerabilities that must be addressed include, of course, global supply chains. Intended to be efficient and cost-saving, a number of them proved insufficiently resilient in a crisis. The federal government must determine where bottlenecks could set off cascading consequences and plan for ways around them, in part by improving our ports, expanding our domestic stockpiles, working with our allies to establish new sources of key goods, and supporting domestic manufacturing capacity for critical supplies.

Having experienced shortages of everything from life-saving personal protective equipment to swabs and reagents for testing during the pandemic, the United States clearly needs to focus on medical supplies and key pharmaceutical ingredients. Other critical products include semiconductors, which underlie so many innovations; a shortage of them has forced plant closures in the automotive industry. A particular problem in this case is that 92% of the most advanced  chips are manufactured in Taiwan. With China insisting that Taiwanese reunification with the mainland is inevitable, the risks here include a conflict between great powers and disruption to industry around the globe.

Modern manufacturing 

While the United States continues to lead in the research and development aspects of the semiconductor industry, it is at a disadvantage in manufacturing, which is extremely capital intensive and which costs less in other nations, in part because of government subsidies. We need the federal government to step into the breach here. The Innovation and Competition Act passed by the Senate, which includes $52 billion to boost domestic chip production, offers a good start.

We also need to address potential bottlenecks in raw materials that could greatly weaken our economic and national security. China has near monopolies in some of the materials used in advanced technologies. It is the world’s major supplier of so-called rare earth elements—minerals that are crucial to electronic products of all kinds. Cobalt and lithium, which are used in lithium-ion batteries, are also key, especially as we move toward the increased use of electric vehicles. China refines an estimated 58% of the world’s lithium and 65% of the world’s cobalt, much of which is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Chinese-owned companies.There are domestic sources for some of these resources, such as cobalt in Idaho.But identifying alternative ways to process represents a critical way to address this problem in the short term.

For the long term, we must invest in research and development to help us bypass such chokepoints by finding ways to use more earth-abundant materials. And we must invent new materials as well. The federal Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) was launched in 2011 during the Obama administration, while I was a member of PCAST, to harness powerful data and computational tools for discovering new materials through experimentation—and putting them to commercial use more quickly. Currently, the MGI is working to unify a broadly accessible Materials Innovation Infrastructure, where tools and knowledge are shared to accelerate research, development, certification, and deployment.

The looming climate crisis and beyond

Other areas critical to economic and national security are those that can mitigate climate change—everything from direct air capture of carbon dioxide to smaller, safer advanced nuclear reactors to—down the road—commercial-scale fusion energy. We also need to view such systems within the context of our built environment, which generates about 40% of annual global carbon emissions through construction. Our cities are not optimized for sustainability, climate resilience, or human well-being. We need advanced technological solutions—renewable energy systems, sentient building platforms, new materials—to decarbonize the systems of our daily lives and make sure they work for the benefit of all.

Our vulnerabilities in cybersecurity—particularly in physical systems that give bad actors an opening to cause grave damage from afar—indicate that we need to work  vigorously on creating inherently secure quantum communication technologies and moving toward a quantum Internet. To protect our vulnerabilities and minimize the consequences of disasters, we must advance both artificial intelligence— with its capacity to make predictions based on imperfect information—and quantum computation, which lends itself to solving complex optimization problems.

Pandemic preparedness and early warning systems for health threats are also a clear priority. We have underfunded basic research on infectious diseases and must correct this. We already have considerable disease surveillance capabilities that should be deployed in a more strategic and coordinated way.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is creating a national database for wastewater surveillance data to guide the public health response to covid-19. Such a database could be part of an ongoing early warning system. We also need to sequence many more samples from patients with puzzling infections. We have the capacity to create biosensors that could detect novel threats, and those sensors could be put in airports and train stations—or anywhere crowds of people pass—around the world.

When we do detect a novel threat, advances in synthetic biology and biomanufacturing mean that we could set up systems to create diagnostic tests and vaccines in short order. The development of the mRNA platform allows for a “plug and play” approach. Within reach are vaccines that protect against a full family of pathogens, such as a universal influenza vaccine and a pan-coronavirus vaccine. If we made investments in preparedness more proportionate to the potential costs of future pandemics, there would be spinoff benefits in our understanding of microbiology, immunology, and public health technologies.

And to make important discoveries arising out of university research more attractive for private investment, we also need the federal government to work with universities to financially “de-risk” those innovations in every realm.

Tapping the full talent pool

Finally, because there is no innovation without innovators, we need to invest more in our human capital. It is an enormous advantage to our innovation ecosystem that US universities continue to draw the best and brightest students in science and engineering from around the world. In 2020, temporary visa holders outnumbered American citizens and permanent residents among recipients of doctoral degrees from American universities in crucial fields that include engineering, computer science, and mathematics. We  need sensible visa and immigration policies that encourage international students to study here and to remain here after they complete their degrees.

It also is long past time to address what I have described as a “quiet crisis” in the development of the talent pool: our failure to draw sufficient numbers of young women and underrepresented minorities into fields such as computer science, engineering, physics, and mathematics. Together, these groups represent a substantial majority of our population, so failing to inspire them to participate in science and engineering leaves our innovation system less vigorous than it should be. 

The factors in this failure are myriad, including our highly unequal system of public K–12 education and the persistence of unconscious bias even in the academy. This is a crisis. It represents a key economic and strategic vulnerability, and it should be addressed vigorously, both at the highest levels of government  and in  the private sector.

Addressing all these issues will not only minimize shocks to the many systems we rely on in our lives and professions. It will also support important discoveries and innovations, seed new industries, and undergird US leadership in the most important technologies of the future. In this sense, a national innovation policy focused on preparedness in a highly interconnected world will pay many dividends beyond meeting the crises that look most urgent today.

Shirley Ann Jackson is an American physicist and the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

A timeline of Shirley Ann Jackson’s career

1955: Begins collecting live bumblebees and observing their reactions to changes in diet and light exposure.

1973: Earns her PhD in physics, making her the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate at MIT.

1976: Joins the theoretical-physics research department at Bell Labs after postdoctoral work at Fermilab and a stint at CERN.

1985: Begins advising New Jersey governor Tom Kean on how the state should invest in science and technology at its research universities.

1991: Joins the faculty of Rutgers University as a professor of theoretical physics.

1995: Appointed chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by President Bill Clinton. She’s the first woman and first African-American to serve in that position.

1997: Helps establish the International Nuclear Regulators Association, serving as its first chair.

1999: Becomes 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She is the first woman and the first African-American to hold the position.

2001: Becomes the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

2004: Serves as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

2009: Appointed by President Barack Obama to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

2016: Awarded National Medal of Science for work in condensed matter and particle physics, science-rooted public policy achievements, and inspiration to the next generation of STEM professionals.

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