The Washington Post Commentary: Invest in what is next

Shirley Ann Jackson, president, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

This piece is part of a roundtable centered around innovation prescriptions for the new Congress and President Barack Obama’s second term.

Pause for a moment, and think back on what you did in the last hour. What device did you use to communicate with other people? How did you get from place to place? What medication did you take? What is in your immediate environment? How is the room heated or cooled. How is the air circulated, the area illuminated, or the food made? How did you check the time, the news, the weather, or your child’s homework assignments? Now, reflect on the last ten years. It is difficult not to be in awe about how much our daily lives have changed because of advances in science and technology.

Imagine the change the next 10 years may bring.
The daily routines of our lives are dependent on scientific discovery and technological innovation in pervasive and essential ways that most people rarely stop to think about. Yet, we find ourselves at an interesting inflection point.

On the one hand, new tools and new thinking — particularly in the areas of “big data,” high performance computing, and Web science -- offer the potential for extraordinary scientific discoveries and technological innovations that could change the way we communicate, work, travel, and live. These pervasive changes could drive our economy for generations. “Big data”-driven innovation will be a force for change in science and society during the next 50 years, in much the same way quantum science was for technological and economic development in the 20th century.

But looming, deep federal cuts in scientific research and development funding could do significant damage. These cuts stand to dramatically slow the pace of economic growth in the U.S., undermine our national security, hinder our competitiveness, and reverse any recent gains we have made in developing the human capital -- the young scientists and engineers – so essential for innovation.

Ironically, other nations are not standing still, and, indeed, are emulating the model for growth and development that has made the U.S. the most powerful country in the world.

It is a time of tremendous potential in science and technology. But it is also a time of tremendous risk, since the U.S. could very well miss the moment if lawmakers fail to invest in what is next. It is up to the Congress to decide.

Read the Washington Post article