Big Think Interview With Shirley Ann Jackson

A conversation with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president.
  • Transcript


Question: What inspired you to become a scientist?

Shirley Ann Jackson:
Well, as I was growing up, I was always interested in math and always interested in the world around me; natural phenomena.  That tended to express itself in being interested in things and nature so I would collect live bumblebees and do experiments with them that related to changing their diets, their habitats, the amount of sunlight and darkness they were exposed to.  Then I would add in wasps and yellowjackets and I’d try to understand how the different species behaved; levels of aggression, what changed with diet. And I’d keep very detailed notebooks.  And then I’d keep them in jars lined up under our back porch, we had a crawlspace. 

But as I went along, I got more and more interested on the mathematics side and things that related to the physical world.  Although, I really didn’t decide to become a physicist until I was a freshman in college. 

Question: What can we do to encourage more young people to go into the sciences?

Shirley Ann Jackson: One, I think we can just introduce young people early on to the wonders and the beauty of science, and its ability to help them understand things to explain things to do hands on as well as minds on kinds of activities early on.  To build that both formally into the curricula in K-through-12 education; but also outside of classroom experiences including making use of more community-based resources like museums and the like. 

We have to excite them, that’s the point.  We have to excite them about the wonders of the natural world.  We have to invite them by letting them know that they, too, can become scientists or engineers or work in these fields or at least have an understanding of what science is and what it does.  But also have people understand that there are interesting pathways and good ones today for careers and that they get to work on really cool stuff and really important things.  And I think all of these are the ways.  But then, if we want to go beyond that to look at more structural issues, the single most important rate-limiting step has to do with having good teachers.  Because a good teacher makes all the difference in a young person’s life.

And so we have to, then, have teachers who are well-prepared.  Who, if they were not education in the sciences and engineering, have professional development programs that can bring them more up to speed on these things?  We have to have more degreed teachers—teachers with actual degrees in science, mathematics and engineering.  And so really having good teachers, well prepared teachers and we should hold up the best examples.  The best teachers and what they do and have more testimony to that affect.  But then the media has a role in terms of how scientists and engineers and mathematicians are portrayed. And the scientists and engineers and mathematicians tend to be portrayed in a somewhat exaggerated way in the media.  Now one could argue that all characters in a fictional story have some degree of exaggeration of whatever they’re characteristics are, but I think we’ve tended to have a somewhat distorted view; although programs like "Numbers" I find pretty interesting because they kind of change the construct of it.  But I think the media has a role. 

I think, obviously, parents, but in the end, teachers, strong curricula and then holding up examples; whether it’s the Google guys or the person who helped to decode DNA.  These are the kinds of things that I think can all help; but preparation is what is always needed because to do science takes a cumulative background.  You can’t do advanced mathematics if you don’t know calculus; if you don’t know trigonometry, geometry, algebra and you certainly can’t do those things if you can’t add, subtract, multiply, divide, no fractions, et cetera.

Question: You have said that there is a "quiet crisis" as America is falling behind in science and technology. Why?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Over the last 20 years or more, the actual growth in technology- and science-linked jobs has been about 4.2 percent per year.  The actual availability of U.S.-born workers in those fields has grown at about 1.5 percent per year.  And then when you look at jobs in new areas, in the nanotechnology arena for instance, people say one of the greatest challenges they have is finding a well-qualified workforce—and that’s at a baseline level; we’re not talking necessarily people with Masters' and PhDs.  At the higher educational levels, we really are not attracting as many young people as we should, particularly to not only get first degrees in these fields, but to move on and get graduate degrees. 

Now fortunately for us, we’ve been able to attract really exquisite talent from abroad and so that’s been kind of the secret sauce that we’ve always been able to attract talent from abroad.  But you know what?  Other countries, now, they’re emulating our model.  They are creating massive research infrastructure, building up their universities.  Creating new enterprises with a lot of government support.  And they are beginning to attract many of these educated people in the sciences and engineering back home.  But there’s a global race for talent, so they’re also being attracted to places that may not be back home; but they’re not necessarily countries that are where we would think. And so that means they aren’t necessarily staying here. 

So yes, I think there is still a quiet crisis because it’s a subtle point.  It’s quiet because we sort of don’t know what the situation is until its upon us; partly because people quietly retire, there are trends that occur, but we don’t see the real underlying trend for years.  But also, it takes a long time to create a high-functioning theoretical physicist or nuclear engineer.  And so it’s a time factor that makes us not see it.

In addition, a lot of the technologies that we take for granted and where a lot of the cool things come from; whether we’re talking iPods or iPads or Kindles or X-Boxes, really are built on technologies that were developed 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, and discoveries that were made that long ago. 

So it’s quiet.  It comes and creeps in on us, but it’s a crisis because it turns out that scientists and engineers only comprise about five percent of the workforce.  And so by the time we come to grips with the situation, the fact that it takes so long to really educate a person; to really be well-grounded in these arenas, it’s a crisis, because we can’t fix it fast at that point.

Have President Obama's policies done anything to improve this?

Shirley Ann Jackson: The Obama Administration has a very strong commitment to science and engineering; to supporting basic research; to appreciating the role of science and technology and helping to solve some of our greatest challenges; whether we’re talking energy security or climate change.  If you witness who the Secretary of Energy is and the kinds of things he’s been trying to propagate; if you look at who the new Director of the NIH is, the National Institutes of Health, and you look at the kind of things that he has done in his career and what he’s trying to do at NIH, there’s a re-centering on the fundamental role of science and engineering.  But there’s also a lot more support for basic research, but more importantly, there’s the leadership from the top because the President himself speaks about the importance of this.  And in fact, challenges scientists and engineers as well to take more of an active role in reaching out and educating and exciting the young people then helping people to understand it.  And he’s doing this against a backdrop, as you know, of a very difficult economic and budgetary situation.  But the scientific community is very much more hopeful, I would say.

In the wake of the recession, how does science education need to change?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  Well, there’s a level at which one could argue that all industries to be at the leading edge and for us to be globally competitive and rebuild our manufacturing and our export base have and need a root in the latest breakthroughs in science and engineering and, having said that, let me go back to the commentary about the U.S. auto industry and whether we should write it off. 

You know, there’s kind of a story that people probably don’t think about so much and that is 20 or more years ago, the U.S. was very worried about losing its lead and edge in advanced chip... microprocessor design and manufacturing, at that point, to Japan.  And so with the government support, a consortium of what are really some fairly large companies, came together to lay out a technology road map as to what the industry needed to do and where the government could support what the industry needed to do to stay ahead of the curve, to sort of catch up as it were, and then stay ahead of the curve.  And that roadmap essentially has been followed and that’s why we have the great Intels and the other major chip design and manufacturing enterprises still in this country and where a lot of the manufacturing, not all of it, but a lot of it still goes on here.  So I wouldn’t quite write the auto industry off, although there are a lot of structural issues and changes that need to occur. 

But having said that, if one wants to think about the workforce of the future and what kinds of characteristics people need to have: people have to be a lot more intellectually agile than they are because things change so fast, and markets really are global and innovation is everywhere, and people, even if they work for one company, are going to find that they’re going to be working with counterparts around the globe and that they’re going to need to at least understand and appreciate how to at least ride the wave of new and evolving technologies to optimize what they do in their own business processes and their own enterprises, even if those enterprises are not "high tech," so to speak.  But at the same time, as I always argue, we need more scientists than engineers because the way to really be globally pre-eminent is to be innovative and stay ahead of the innovation curve.  We still are the most innovative country in the world, but where we’ve been lagging is continuing to invest and move ahead in those areas that have kept us ahead from the focus on fundamental research; having the kind of infrastructure one needs to help new entrepreneurial startup companies cross the various valleys of death; create the kind of workforce that is minimally scientifically literate and out of which, we hope, will come more scientists and engineers.

What conditions are necessary for scientific innovation to occur?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, you know, I often speak about an innovation ecosystem and I say that there are four key things that such an ecosystem has to possess:

The first is strategic focus and that strategic focus can be a national strategic focus, which is one I like to talk about a lot.  It can be within the context of a given enterprise.  The strategic focus—thinking about, you know, what the big issues are; what the big challenges are; where the big trends are; where is the world going?; what are the great things we need to think about—is always important because it helps to sort of size the problem as it were, or spur the dream.  But then we get nowhere if we don’t have discovery, if we don’t have transformative ideas and that is where basic research and freeing people to think about things in a very creative way leads to, you know, "aha" moments that we don’t anticipate.  That’s what makes them aha moments.  So we have to have and appreciate the power of transformative ideas and set the conditions for that to happen.  But ideas are not enough.  Everybody has an idea.  The real issue is if one has something that is really important, it is potentially transformative, how does one get it into the marketplace?  How does one get it into practice? And that is difficult. It requires translational pathways that, ironically in some of the newer arenas, are not so easy. It’s not just as simple as pure venture capital. And a lot of the venture capital and early investors want to have more proof of concept and then proof of scale and so there is a kind of a patient capital that needs to exist that perhaps in the right circumstances, if it really involves some breakthrough technology that may be broadly transformative as opposed to the province of one enterprise, maybe the government has to support some of that.  And then the final key element is capital; but when people think of capital, they tend to think of financial capital and it is one key element of capital, financial capital, patient capital.  But then there’s also what I refer to as infrastructural capital and then, of course, there’s human capital.

Infrastructural capital relates to the fact that if one is in some new area, like nanotechnology again, some areas of biotechnology really break through arenas.  They may need to be shared infrastructure for test beds for scale-up demonstrations for prototyping.  It may need computational capabilities for modeling and simulation that a start-up firm cannot afford and so they have to be mechanisms to provide that kind of capital, that kind of infrastructure for those enterprises.  And then human capital we’ve already been discussing in discussing the quiet crisis, because if we don’t have the people, there are no transformative ideas.  If we don’t have the people, there’s no one to either create or move along translational pathways. And if we don’t have the people, then the other capital doesn’t matter, because there won’t be anything to invest it in anyway.

Do humans have a reasonable shot at engineering our way out of the energy crisis?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  We have to have a comprehensive energy security strategy.  I refer to it as a road map and it really has to do with scientific discovery and technological innovation and the application of that in the energy arena, and I love to talk about it and I will in a second.  But it also has to do with behavioral change and the behavioral change that is ideal if people can come to consensus on it.  But maybe people have to be incented or disincented in certain ways.  Maybe there has to be a price on carbon to get people to think about issues that relate to climate change.  And what ends up happening is some people believe in climate change; I’m one of them.  Others do not.  But the irony is in many ways, the same issues that one has to address for energy security are ones we need to address for climate change mitigation.  What do I mean by that?  Well, the whole scene with respect to fossil-based energy sources is changing in terms of many more players; a race around the globe for those; producer countries having much more control over energy supplies; these things playing out in the geopolitical arena; fluctuations and prices of gas at the pump, and so on.

So if one wants to be less subject to the vicissitudes of any evolving geopolitical landscape and the vicissitudes of a volatile market, then one has to think in terms of redundancy of supply, but diversity of source.  And so that means we both have to think about how we get more out of the sources we already have; how do we use them in a more environmentally benign way?  For instance, thinking about technologies like carbon capture and sequestration, if we’re using fossil-based sources particularly coal, for instance.  How we can get more efficiency out of what we do use, such as fuel efficiencies of car fleets, automobile fleets. But then how do we develop new sources of transportation energy, for instance.  How do we use conservation to take energy intensity out of what we do in our daily lives; whether we talk about more use of mass transportation; more use of information technology to control energy usage in our homes and businesses, et cetera.  How do we think about the development and investment in new renewable sources of energy and really push to the edge in terms of where we can and should go there?

So it’s not a "one size fits all." It’s thinking about yes, we’re very carbon-intense right now so maybe there needs to be an incentive, a true price on carbon to begin to change behaviors. But maybe even as we use such high carbon content energy sources, we need to think about how we can use less of them for the same thing.  And then, how do we mitigate the effects of them with things like carbon capture and storage.  But importantly, how do we develop new resources, more electricity-based generators that can depend on things like wind and solar.  How do we develop new bio-fuels if we think we still need liquid fuels for a particular kind of transportation sector, for instance the airline industry?  I don’t think the airline industry is going to become purely electrified shortly, whereas we can go a long way in that direction with ground-based transportation.  Because range is clearly an issue, even for automobiles if we think of battery technologies.  And so we have to push further on those sorts of undergirding technologies to be able to have a future.

Then we have this whole infrastructural issue.  We have old infrastructure in this country.  It needs to be rejuvenated, both to be more reliable and safe, for what we already use it for.  But as we do that, we need to think about how do we design it in a way to put more intelligence into the grid.  How do we design it in a way to be able to attach sources of energy that have more intermittency associated with them?  Do we understand the dynamics and how these things affect the stability of the electrical grid; whether it’s on a regional basis or nationally?  How do we have smart appliances that can connect to the grid?  How does the grid read those, but how can they be really smart enough, not just to dial back on energy use, but themselves can sense some of that dynamics and have less impact.

These are really hard problems, but they’re very exciting and important problems.  And so if we’re going to move to a more electrical transportation future, we’ve got to think about where that electricity is coming from.  How it gets connected into some broad based infrastructure that allows us to create a national system of transportation and so on.  And so there are problems that have to do with new materials; problems that have to do with modeling and simulation; problems at have to do with new types of computer controls; problems that have to do with new kind of devices.  And so all of these things, if you think about them, play across a broad front involving mathematics, computer science, physics, all different fields of engineering and material science.  And people are even thinking about using, you know, more biologically based organisms to help clean up things.  Even more biomimetic processes for manufacturing, new types of things at nano scales.  And if we can push these things, that helps as well, not only to come out with important new tools across all these fronts, but it also actually helps to take energy intensity out of what we do. 

So use what we have better, use less of it through conservation and efficiency, that’s a big gain and there are very clever things we can do today.  Think about new propulsion systems, new materials that allow us to have new propulsion systems and new storage technologies and ultimately develop and push the alternative sources of energy.

What alternative energy sources are most promising in the near future?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, people are already making a lot of progress with respect to wind energy.  There’s a lot more in terms of a design of turbines, new designs that look more like jet engines as opposed to the typical windmill, but whichever of those sorts of things people are contemplating, there’s been a lot of work on structural strength and stability because of using new types of and developing new types of composite materials that lead to better performance, but higher reliability.  So wind is one.  But we’re going to have to think about wind differently, that’s why people are thinking about new wind turbine designs because it’s not just about having, you know, the hundred-acre wind farm; whether it’s on land or, more controversially, on sea, but that’s one example.  But what people ironically are doing is well, is going back to... almost back to the future. And let me explain that.  We have a center at Rensselaer called the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology and it’s a joint venture between us and our School of Architecture and the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.  But the real point is to use clever use of materials, new nano-structured materials.  Use clever design of buildings.  Use embedded technologies to actually bring down the energy use of a building.

So, for instance, using creating walls that are made of hydroponic plants that, themselves can suck toxins—including, of course, carbon dioxide, but other toxins—out of the air and as they do that, they also help to create and bring down ambient temperatures.  Use nano-structured desiccant materials to take humidity out of a building.  It depends on the climate one is in.  Use embedded wind turbines to capture the barest streams of air convection, and use them to help cool the same building and to even generate some power.

So these are things that people are thinking about.  Developing new materials for solar panels that increase their efficiency and absorptive capabilities.  In fact, one of our faculty created what we call the world’s darkest material meaning material that is, as far as we know, is the most light absorbent of any material developed.  And so that has great implications when you’re thinking about solar energy.  Also has applications in other arenas as well.

How are energy issues interconnected with other environmental issues?

Shirley Ann Jackson: We’ve been talking about global population growth.  The number of people who live in poverty.  The people who don’t have access to basic energy and so energy security is about having reliable, sustainable, non-high-cost access to energy.  But what people are finding is an increasing issue has to do with water.  And so, in the end, we’re going to end up having a nested set of issues that relate to energy, climate change, water and health.  And they play off of each other.  It’s the phenomenon of what I call intersecting vulnerabilities.  And so the scarcity of water is going to be—and people believe it is already coming—increasingly dominant.  But again, how we deal with that can come out of the use of technologies.  Ones that allow people to have the energy to perhaps purify water, to desalinate water.  These are big, big projects. 

But also how one uses vegetation to preserve water, not unlike the sort of "grand cactus" idea.  But here’s one for you; using nano-structured desiccant materials that can draw moisture out of the air and then have that come through and drain into some reservoir to give people potable water. 

Thinking about how one can do cooling and inherently hotten hostile climates so in fact, there’s less water use that people need. 

How we can lessen the intensity of our water use which gets linked as well to the intensity of our energy use so as not to use up water, how can we recycle it more so that we don’t have to draw native sources as much. 

These are critical issues, these intersecting vulnerabilities and if we don’t have those taken care of, people cannot be healthy and we can’t have adequate food.

What are the chances that climate change is not as bad as we think it is?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  Well, you know I was a regulator in the nuclear arena and, you know, nuclear science and technology, nuclear energy is an area that people tend to feel as strongly about as some social issues.  So much so that maybe it is one. 

When you’re in that arena and you know it is an important technology, and it has a role in this energy future we’re talking about, but it is a very sensitive technology that has to be handled well in design, in construction and especially in operation and it has a very sophisticated regulatory infrastructure that it really needs to accompany it.  But the real message is: when you’re thinking about the use of nuclear power, then risk has two components.  It’s probability of something untoward happening and its consequence. And there are certain arenas where the consequences is so high, that even if one things the probability is small, then one has to take mitigating steps.  And so that’s what I would say in answer to your question about climate change because whether we think the probability is a high that it is already upon us or will be within a short time, when we think consequence, then it says that maybe we mitigate.  And whether we think that climate changes are due to some fundamental long periodicity, natural evolution that depends on other things, if there is any exacerbating affect that we have on top of that and we think we can lessen that exacerbating affect, or if you think we really drive what we see; in either of those cases, because of consequence, we should do something about it. 

But even if we don’t believe it at all, just as you mentioned, the question of two billion people that really don’t even have access to real energy, where people are still living in poverty—and everybody wants to rise and developing countries wish to rise—then just the global competition for what, in the end, is always a limited resource says we ought to be smarter about how we use it... you know, what effect it has.  And so that’s what always links these two things; energy security and climate change.  And so what you really do in the one impacts, and can impact in a positive way, what happens in the other.  So if you believe in climate change and therefore, we should go to alternative renewable energy sources, or you believe in energy "independence," and I never talk about that, I always say "energy security," then maybe you go to renewables as well.  And so that‘s where I think we all need to try to come together a little bit more.

How effective do you think sequestration and carbon capture can be?

Shirley Ann Jackson:  I do think they can be effective.  It is not easy, but there are known compounds that can capture CO2 from flue gas and there are techniques for pumping CO2 into, you know, storage reservoirs.  But there still are studies that need to be done and understood in terms of how much of an engineered reservoir do we need?—  that is what is the role of engineered systems as opposed to natural reservoirs. And if we think we want to use natural reservoirs, then we have to understand things like porosity, escape paths, how long can the carbon or the CO2 be sequestered and are there other things that we can use that involve natural vegetation or things that bio mimic natural vegetation that can actually bind the CO2, or even turn it into more elemental forms of carbon?

So the answer is yes.  I think it is a solvable problem.  Is it a challenge?  Absolutely.  But, you know, the Department of Energy already is starting to do a number of projects and demonstration projects and interestingly enough, a number of energy companies as well are starting to look at these things and to begin to do things to sequester carbon.  And the irony is the kind of infrastructure that we use to extract gas and to get oil is the same infrastructure that we could use to sequester carbon dioxide.

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman