Shirley Ann Jackson: Energy, Ethics, and Education

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., became the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on July 1, 1999. She holds a doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics from MIT (1973) and an S.B. in physics from MIT (1968).

Prior to coming to Rensselaer, she held senior positions in government, as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; in industry and research, as a theoretical physicist at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories; and in academe, as a professor of theoretical physics at Rutgers University.

Described by Time magazine (2005) as “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science,” Jackson is past president (2004) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and former chair (2005) of the AAAS board of directors. The AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society. In 2003, she delivered the William Carey Lecture of the AAAS. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering (2001). She also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), the American Physical Society (1986), and the AAAS (2006). She holds 39 honorary doctoral degrees.

Jackson is a member of the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange (since December 2003). She chairs the New York Stock Exchange Regulation Board. She serves on the board of regents of the Smithsonian Institution and is a director of IBM Corporation, FedEx Corporation, Marathon Oil Corporation, Medtronic Inc., and Public Service Enterprise Group Incorporated. She serves as a trustee of the Brookings Institution, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the Council on Competitiveness.

Jackson is the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. — in any subject. She is one of the first two African-American women to receive a doctorate in physics in the United States. She is the first African American to become a commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She is both the first woman and the first African American to serve as the chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and now the first African-American woman to lead a national research university. She also is the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

In 2002, Jackson was named one of the Top 50 Women in Science by Discover magazine, and recognized in a published book by ESSENCE titled 50 of The Most Inspiring African-Americans. She also was named one of “50 R&D Stars to Watch” by Industry Week magazine. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998 for her significant and profound contributions as a distinguished scientist and advocate for education, science, and public policy.

She is married to Morris A. Washington, Ph.D., also a physicist. They have one son, Alan, a graduate of Dartmouth College.

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Ethix: Energy is a critical issue for the 21st century. Energy issues are at the center of global conflict and environmental problems, and are a separator between the “haves and have nots” of the world. How do you think about the issues of energy?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Fundamentally, energy issues are about economic development, economic sustainability, improving and preserving the standard of living for people, and, ultimately, national security and global stability. The West has a lot of embedded infrastructure, a certain standard of living, and a way of life that is not particularly focused on conservation and sustainability. Commercial enterprises, residential lifestyle, and freedom that relates to personal transportation, are all dependent on energy. It plays obviously into national security both in the sense of stability for a given country, but also in the sense of the defense posture.

If we are looking from the point of view of the East, we tend to think in terms of rapidly developing economies versus those that have been on a slower path or have yet to evolve. In the rapidly developing economies, the biggest thing that is of concern is access to reliable and relatively affordable energy supplies.

And then you still have over one-and-a-half billion people in the world who have no access to electricity, so they are not even on the train.

Global Energy Issues

What is the sustainable path to creating access to energy for all of the world’s people? If it is oil, for example, is there enough oil or are there enough alternatives? And can nations become independent of global pressures by gaining energy independence?

I frequently talk about energy security and not energy independence per se. Energy is really a global market both in terms of providers and users. But there also are multiple sources of energy, and the best source depends upon the use. So we need sustainability not just from the point of view of the source, but in how the energy is used. All of this plays into security, in the economic sense, and in the environmental and military sense. So energy is at the heart of national security and stability, and global stability as well.

People talk about energy independence, and they generally think about oil. That is on people’s minds because of the price at the pump, because of the geopolitics of oil, etc. But the answer lies not in one source: whether there is enough, how should we get it, and who should have it. Rather, it lies in recognizing that all countries have to have access to energy. The roadmaps to do this will differ by the country and society. This leads to a straightforward way of thinking about energy in terms of redundancy of supply and diversity of source coupled with a conservation focus. This in turn leads to optimizing the use of energy in terms of using as little as necessary for a given purpose, with environmental stewardship as part of that focus.

Tell us how you see sources of energy other than oil fitting into the picture.

What we need is a roadmap that connects appropriate sources with usage. Take electricity generation, for example. Is the use of oil and natural gas the most reasonable or cost effective source of energy for generating electricity? Or should we be thinking about nuclear power, thinking about clean-coal technologies, or the use of fuel cells depending upon the size of the enterprise. If one is thinking about transportation, then one can think about fossil sources, biofuels, again fuel cells, hydrogen and some as yet unthought about or undeveloped propulsion design. So when I talk about a roadmap, I am talking about a policy framework, thinking about the spectrum of use and what the sourcing should be.

Every energy choice that you make has environmental impact.

Let us go deeper and talk about lighting, one of the uses of electricity. In the United States, the commercial use of lighting comprises something like 25 percent of electricity use, so there is a lot of opportunity for so-called smart lighting. We have different types of semiconductor materials and light emitting diodes to create light sources that are much, much, much more efficient in terms of electricity use and also provide much longer light sources. So these are some of the things that I think about.

Role of Nuclear Energy

You mentioned nuclear energy. What do you see as the future of nuclear energy?

Well, I have never been a sage to make an absolute prediction, but I think what you are really asking me for is an opinion. In my opinion, nuclear energy should be a part of the mix on the road to energy security. It is not the silver bullet. In the roadmap I talked about, it has to do with the large base-load electricity production and offers more utility here than anything else in that arena.

Yes, it is fraught with the problems on the public concern side. There is no ideal world, but we need to work toward ideal frameworks. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), set up within the United Nations, is actually an organization that has more than one mission. One of its missions focuses on the safe use of nuclear power. Another of its missions relates to overall economic development, particularly in developing nations, and the use of nuclear sources in medicine, in agriculture, and in other important arenas. A third part of its mission, which is what most people hear about, has to do with safeguards and security. The multilateral framework the IAEA provides, while not perfect, is nonetheless very important.

Of course there are concerns with nuclear power, and the recent events in North Korea remind us that we must think about nuclear power from a global perspective rather than devolving back to nationalistic programs. But nuclear power can be a part of the global roadmap for energy.

Creating an Energy Road Map

If this is going to be a world solution, who should be working on this roadmap? We cannot do that just in the United States.

I agree everybody should be working on this. Every nation, starting with the U.S. as the largest consumer of energy per capita, should focus on how it can create national policy and practice, while keeping in mind the global nature of the problem. We need to be concerned about what the pathways might be to sustainability. But national solutions do not exist in isolation. They really do relate to what is going on in other places.

How does global warming fit into this overall framework of thinking about energy?

People have been concerned about the impact of various gases and particulates in the atmosphere for some time, both from a clean-air perspective and from the potential to either create or exacerbate global warming. Now, there are a lot of debates about whether the changes we see in climate are cyclical with some long-time span or whether they really are the result of global warming. But I take former President Clinton’s point of view, that at a certain level it does not matter if it is exacerbating a long periodicity cycle or actually driving in a given direction, one ends up in the same place. So environmental consideration must be a fundamental part of our energy framework.

National solutions to energy problems do not exist in isolation.

What about the role of other energy sources? Hydro power is very big in China at the moment, eliminating the hydrocarbons but having a potentially huge disruption for the natural environment. Then there is solar and wind energy.

Many people think of hydropower as being the perfect solution, that one can dam up some water and power some generators, and one can do that. The real question becomes, what is the trade off for that source of energy, depending upon what is accessible to a given country and what the environmental impact is. But the real thing that most people do not appreciate is that any time man is interacting with his environment, there is going to be environmental impact. The question becomes how do we mitigate and/or lessen that impact.

If you talk about the Three Gorges Project in China and you are creating that much change, obviously you end up having a major change in the environment. But if you use nuclear power, you are generating nuclear waste and that has an environmental impact. If you extract oil and gas and you do not sequester the carbon, you have an environmental impact. If you say you are going to use ethanol, you are making a choice that you are going to use agriculturally productive land to create a fuel source. You also will probably be overworking the soil, and that has environmental impact. So every energy choice that you make has environmental impact. That is where science, innovation, and technology come into the picture. This roadmap is going to require the input of technology to policy.

Technology and Policy

Interestingly, at the intersection of technology and policy is where the ethical questions arise, because we encounter a whole new set of issues where we have no experience. So could you elaborate on your views of the intersection of technology and policy?

Let me try to talk about it with a couple of different examples. Coming out of World War I, Winston Churchill made a decision that the British navy should move to diesel-powered ships, to make them faster than the Germans. That is a policy decision. That drove the technology choice to a different propulsion system and energy source. But it also then drove its own policy decision, having to do with sourcing the oil, which at that point was coming from Persia, which led to a new geopolitical alignment.

A second example is in the biomedical arena. There was a young man out in the Midwest, who somehow shot himself in the heart with a nail gun and essentially went into cardiac arrest. It damaged his heart and his heart capacity went down to some small fraction of what it should be. The doctors worked on him with help from some input from scientists using stem cells to regenerate heart muscle, but he did it without Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval. I do not know what has happened ultimately to this young man, but he had some restoration of heart function. What was the appropriate ethical position and what policies would govern this kind of decision?

Ethical issues in technology are clearly not confined to energy, as your last example illustrates. Can you elaborate further?

I have talked in another speech about biodiversity. Plants in many of the tropical climates have toxins of certain types. In these areas, the plants naturally evolve toxins to be able to fight their predators, and people find that those toxins have medicinal use. So, who should benefit in the economic sense if that is developed into a commercially exploitable product? The person who developed the intellectual property by extracting the material and developing it into a pharmaceutical, or the country of origin? Now, when we extract minerals including oil, the country of origin benefits in a certain way. But in the case of plants, there is a subtlety having to do with development of intellectual property by using libraries of species that are taken from another country. So there are holes in terms of how these things are dealt with, and who should benefit. International law does not provide a real framework for answering these questions.

What do you see as the areas of technology that will be most important in the 21st century?

To me the big drivers are biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and energy technologies — but energy technologies are informed by the other three. So you could argue that the big three are “nano, info, and bio.” Some people are now referring to them as the golden triangle.

Bio sits in a world by itself, but it is, as well, an undergirding technology that can have implications not only for human health and welfare but also for environmental stewardship, agriculture, and chemistry in industrial processes.

Information technology has a broad meaning; it is not just about communication networks. It is about imaging technologies and it has an importance in the energy arena, for example, in managing the electrical grid and the energy markets associated with electricity. It is important in transportation, entertainment, and many other areas as well.

The big technology drivers are biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, and energy technologies.

Nanotechnologies are about fundamental materials, understanding physical phenomena, and chemical phenomena generally at a very small scale. But nanotechnology plays into bio in the sense of things like tissue engineering or the marriage of synthetic materials with biological materials. It has a role in terms of developing catalytic agents that can influence biological processes or even chemical processes, and has a role in developing new and unique materials for things ranging from drilling for oil and gas to replacement tissue for damaged human tissue.

Even a DNA sequencing is very much information intensive so you see that intersection getting very tight. A whole new space has to do with protein dynamics, understanding how proteins interact, looking at biological systems not just from a reductionist point of view but from a systems orientation to really understand organisms.

Several years ago, we interviewed Leroy Hood, the founder of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. His statement was that biology is becoming a branch of the information sciences, so this triangle tightens even further.

You have raised an interesting point. There are many scientific questions, potential technological advances, and ethical issues that arise where the fields intersect. And information technology, engineering, computation with the life sciences, etc., are exciting and interesting places to work. We are very concerned about dealing well with the intersections here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Science and Technology Education

Let’s move these questions inside the academy. Do you have concerns about the science and technology future of the United States?

Yes. I have called this “the quiet crisis.” We have a whole generation of scientists and engineers who came of age in the post-Sputnik and space-age era, and there are not a whole lot of people in the pipeline to replace them. A lot of our science and engineering strength and innovation now has come from people coming from abroad to study and work here and be part of the fabric of our science and engineering enterprises and helping to drive innovation. Now there is concern about fewer of them coming. Many people attribute it to 9/11, and that has been an exacerbating factor, but actually the underlying trends were there for a decade before.

There are many scientific questions, potential technological advances, and ethical issues that arise where the fields intersect.

As other countries develop, they want to develop and maintain their own talent pools, and so people are finding they have opportunities where they come from, at least this is the case of certain Asian countries and the Indian subcontinent. Then our own young people have not been engaged and prepared to study these subjects. U.S. students do not do so well, certainly by international comparisons, in science and math. And then there is a whole vast untapped group, the under-represented majority — women and minorities. We do not seem to really accept that it is an important source of talent and therefore, have not focused on nurturing and developing that talent.

What ideas do you have for nurturing and developing that talent?

This requires personal and institutional solutions. On the personal side, we have to value science and engineering and those who do it. We have to expose kids to the science and math world, and we have to provide examples that can get them excited. On the institutional side, we need to have a stronger science and math curriculum across the United States. We need to introduce kids early to higher-order-thinking skills both in the language arts, but also as they play out into other areas.

The interesting thing about being a scientist, and this part dissuades people as well, is that it is cumulative, meaning the new concept builds on the old. To really be a first-rate scientist requires strength in mathematics, and mathematics is also cumulative. You cannot do calculus if you don’t know algebra, complex variable theory if you cannot do calculus, etc. And all of it depends on being able to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and read.

So we need to go back to some of the basics and think about ways to engage young people today, recognizing that they are much more media savvy, much more exposed, connected, and wired at an early age. And we need to think about how those same technologies can be tools to both teach and enhance what young people learn. The irony of it is, we live in this technology-rich soup today and everybody is connected, and everybody is running around with a digital recorder or cell phone, etc., but there is more taken for granted and less and less understanding of where it all comes from.

To overcome this, we need to strengthen the teaching of science and math, particularly in the early grades. And we need, certainly starting in the middle school level and above, discipline-based teachers, those who have degrees in science, math, engineering. This means we need to be able to certify scientists and mathematicians as teachers in a more accelerated way, to bring the expertise into the classroom. These science and math teachers should have contracts allowing them to work with corporations, even universities, in the summer.

Lastly, we need to make the case for the importance of learning science and math, even if one does not become a professional scientist or engineer. One has to understand that literacy in science and math is part of being an educated person, particularly in a world where technologies are evolving and developing so quickly and where a lot of the kinds of policy and ethical choices one has to make rests with having some rudimentary understanding. We also need to make the case that the study of science, math, and engineering can lead to multiple pathways, whether in finance, in teaching, in law, in medicine. It is a fundamentally excellent education.

Implications for Rensselaer

As president of this university, tell me what steps you are taking in addressing these issues here?

We have always had a focus on educating those who would apply science to the common purposes of life. That is why engineering is so strong at Rensselaer, but that also is why we have a school of architecture and a school of management and technology. These areas are undergirded by the sciences, the humanities, the arts, and social sciences. But we are also bringing them together, not just treating them in isolation. We create multidisciplinary groups in a multidisciplinary-design laboratory in the school of engineering, for example. One of our goals is to help students see that a lot of important questions are at the end of sections or fields. We need to help them understand how value is created commercially with technology, but also where some of the ethical questions arise.

We have a focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, but not enough in my mind, on ethics and leadership. In the end all of these things play together, not only the discoveries that come of science and technology, but the use of them in ways that can benefit people, create wealth, and be sustainable. And we are concerned about this in the global context. We are moving to put into place an international experience as a requirement for all of our students, which is not common among schools where so many of the students are engineers and scientists. We are working out relationships with institutions in other countries, other universities, research labs, businesses, and media opportunities, so that our students can do things that are purposeful but have that international context to understand how those things play out.

I have called the future of science and technology in the United States “the quiet crisis.”

We are also working on pipeline programs, some that are specifically targeted to young women and minority students. We have middle and high school students spend time on the campus. We have programs with the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts; we have Design Your Future Day for girls. We have Black Family Technology Awareness Day and so on. We also sponsor other kinds of competitions and provide technology for some of the local schools. This is our recognition that, what we have show up at our door is a product of what comes through the K-12 system. That is not our primary mission, but our mission is linked to that, and so we cannot think that we can sit in isolation and not do some intervention ourselves.

Women in Science

What are the barriers that keep young women from science and technology?

I think not enough young women get the right kind of early exposure in the science and technical areas. They can take the usual math classes, but rarely have the opportunity to understand the sciences and engineering. A second factor has to do with things that happen to girls along the pipeline. At the time that children are coming into puberty in the middle school, many girls drop out probably because of social pressures, self-image questions, and how people view kids who are smart in science and math.

We need more efforts to create a community for young women who have an interest in science and math, both locally but also in a region or nationally so that they can be with others who share a similar interest. Then higher-education institutions have to do something about how hospitable they are. Do they have family-friendly policies that allow woman to develop and progress in their careers, but not feel they have to put off marriage, childbearing, and childrearing? We have been making some major changes in our institution to do that in a way that even affects our graduate students.

Globalization and the University

Globalization is a powerful force in the business world. How does it affect the university world?

I think there are three kinds of embedded issues. One is the globalization that technology has wrought, particularly the Internet. This is the kind of thing that Thomas Friedman talks about in his discussion of “the flat world.” People almost anywhere have access to the Internet, to certain knowledge bases. They can interact with each other across geographic boundaries. When people interact in that way, boundaries disappear. While one may not be physically present with another person, there is a kind of a common language of the Internet. This then challenges both the pedagogical and locational models of universities. There is a lot more online learning, and, in fact, there are countries where distance learning is the model. The University of South Africa is one example.

Second, with that kind of global connectivity, student learning opportunities come from having students connected with students elsewhere to access each other’s thinking instantaneously. For a university like Rensselaer, the question then becomes how does that play off against the residential model for undergraduate students? So we are experimenting with things, with having our students connect with each other and with their professors in a more local way, using the Internet.

In this age of globalization, who are we educating and for what?

Third, there also are also new opportunities for student interaction. For example, students can work on real problems with businesses that are somewhere else. Many businesses are organizing themselves where parts of their business are distributed around the world, and Internet connection can allow them to be part of a global design team. I believe the residential experience is important particularly for undergraduate students and for graduate students for certain kinds of programs. But they can still participate in this rapidly globalized world of business.

Other questions globalization challenges us to address are: Who we are educating and for what? Our ability to continue to attract students from around the world, to tap the complete talent pool nationally, and to bring all these bright people together in a kind of cauldron of activity is important for the growth of our students, for multicultural understanding and sophistication, and for their ability to be leaders. We create international experiences for our students because there is still is no substitute for going and understanding how people live, where they live, etc. So these are some of the ways I think globalization has a great impact on universities. It is an exciting time.

Business Ethics

There have been some significant business ethics problems over the past decade. How does this affect your thinking about educating the future leaders of our corporations?

Sometimes the media suggests the idea that business ethics is an oxymoron. But some of the most ethical and compassionate people I know are business leaders. I think the lapses we see in the end are lapses of individuals and character. There are times when those lapses play into the legal framework, the judicial system deals with them. But I do think it suggests the need to have ethics permeate the experiences we provide for our students.

To some extent, ethics is rooted in the overall moral framework one comes from. Nonetheless, there are always places where the knife-edge issues or questions arise, and we could do more in the university context to highlight them for our students, even to do scenario learning where students are faced with those sorts of questions, and we provide guidance to help them work through them. We try to create circumstance where we bring people from different ethnic, religious, and national origin backgrounds together, not to give them the answers, but to help them develop the ability to look at things from a fundamental perspective.

That said, I do believe there is such a thing as fundamental integrity and we need to ensure that we ourselves are examples of that for our students and that we reinforce that point with our students.

Trajectory of a Leader

Let’s talk about you personally. You made an interesting transition from the government to president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. How did this happen?

I would argue that it is a natural evolution. I am a unique combination of unique parents, both of them focused on the highest achievement, very organized people, who could do multiple things at a time. I believe I inherited my father’s genes relative to particular interest in science and technology, but my mother’s genes relative to love of reading. This was coupled with some events of the times. At a critical point in my educational progress, we had the Sputnik satellite that launched the whole space race and with it, an intense interest on the part of this country about attracting people into science, math, and engineering. Near the same time came the desegregation of the public schools with the Brown versus Board of Education decision, which opened pathways to the types of schools that I would not have been able to attend otherwise. So the coalescence of the Brown Decision and the Soviet launch of Sputnik, coming out of the family background that I had, all were highly deterministic in terms of where I ended up.

My father always said, “Aim for the stars so that you can reach the tree tops, and at any rate you will get off the ground.” If you do not aim high you are not going anywhere. I did well in high school, and that’s why I went off to MIT. I also knew that the trajectory’s direction was one that related to science.

When I went to college, I did not specifically set out to become a university president, but I did set out to become a scientist. I dabbled with engineering for a bit, but I decided I liked quantum mechanics and so I did physics. I view things from this perspective. If you have ever studied physics, you will think about an object with an initial velocity and direction. A career is like this. Education sets a person on a certain trajectory, but where that trajectory ultimately takes the person is a function of both of the initial angle, which has to do with how high one aims, as well as things along the long way.

My earlier career was spent essentially doing research, initially, in elementary particle theory and then later in condensed matter theory at Bell Labs. I also worked at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a high-energy physics laboratory, and at the European Center for Nuclear Research.

I became a professor after I had been at Bell Labs for a number years. I had worked on a lot of problems myself, but in the end I wanted to be able to teach young people and introduce them to research. But I was always interested in these larger questions, some of the ones we have discussed on science, technology, public policy, and education. I was appointed to three different boards and commissions by three different governors from New Jersey.

Leading a university has not always been easy, but has always been a privilege.

I was also asked, while I was still at Bell Labs, to join the board of a nuclear utility company that operated nuclear power plants. After I had been on that board for a short time, I was asked to chair its nuclear oversight committee, a board-level committee that provided oversight of the nuclear operations. I was on the committee four years and was then asked to chair that which included Dennis Wilkinson, who was the commander of the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus. I learned a lot about the issues at the intersection of technology, policy, and business.

I have never been a political person, but I was asked if I was interested in an appointment to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about two years after President Clinton took office. While I was thinking about it, they asked if I wanted to be chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If one is asked to do something at that level, one tries to do it.

At the end of my four-year term, I was asked by the White House to continue as chair and to serve another term with the commission. But about the same time I was approached by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and asked to interview for the position of president. I got permission from the White House to do this.

My nomination went to the Senate to be reappointed, but about the same time I was offered the job here. And so the question was, what then would I do? I believe very strongly in public service and want to make a difference, and here was an opportunity to lead a university that had the same kind of tradition as my alma mater, a real focus on applying science and technology to make a difference. There were some challenges as well. I am known a bit as a change agent, and the board wanted me to move the university in a particular direction and to articulate a vision for the future. So the opportunity to lead a great institution was very exciting: to help it evolve for the 21st century and to build the future by educating the young people who come here and to help the university more strongly evolve into a research university whose ideas could change the world. I felt it was a unique opportunity, and I decided that rather than stay in Washington, I would come here to Troy.

How do you look at that decision now?

It was the right thing to do. I think you know it has been exciting. It has not always been easy, but has always been a privilege.

Being Centered in Leadership

Positions of leadership can be lonely and at the same time there are perks with the office. What do you do to keep yourself centered?

Well, I go home. My mother is 91-and-a-half, so whenever I am in Washington, I always spend time with my mother. And I try to talk with her every day. You know, your mother will always treat you the way you were treated when you were 15, and will always remind you of who you are. As well, I interact with those with whom I grew up. That’s both comforting, and it reminds of me of the way we were, even though many of them as well are quite successful. Then I read. I read things from an historical perspective, I read biographies, and I read the Bible, particularly when I am the most upset. I tend not to invoke religion because I lead a nonsectarian university, with all the diverse religions and cultures. But I do try to extract from my personal commitments and remind myself of some lessons I learned early in life, and try to bring them into play.