Speeches and Writing

Innovation: Whether or Wither?

Presentation to 3M Carlton Society Awards
September 15, 2011

I'm here today to talk to you about a crisis.

A crisis in science education and in the future of innovation in the United States.

It is not just an American problem. It has implications for the entire world.

If we as scientists and citizens don't work on this matter now and in a large way - if we don't push our political leaders to make science a priority in our national investments - our sons and daughters will not benefit from the kinds of discoveries that we have enjoyed because of the thoughtful investments of our parents and grandparents.

This is an alarm and a call to action. And this is the perfect venue … hundreds of you who care about new knowledge and new products and who work for a company like 3M, which is synonymous with innovation.

Mr. Buckley, Carlton Society Award winners, distinguished fellow investigators, other guests.

It is an honor to address you here today on a topic that I feel so passionately about.

Richard P. Carlton, for whom the Carlton Society is named, was a University of Minnesota grad. That is a marvelous fact to me. We are the state's only land grant research university, and the Carlton connection is a reflection of the longstanding relationship of a global 3M and the U, for which I seek a higher international profile.

Partnerships in science and business around the globe matter, as do strong and lasting relations between socially responsible corporations and world-class research universities, like 3M's magnificent relationship with the University of Minnesota.

Over the past half century, this company has led Minnesota's business community in its philanthropy to the U, its aggressive recruitment of our graduates and it's mentoring of students through internships, among other things. From the Carlson School of Management to our Dental School, from the Medical School to our College of Science and Engineering, from endowed scholarships to endowed faculty chairs to funding advising support for first-year students, 3M has been there. Thank you so very much.

You know that one of the first barriers to any professor's academic rise is gaining tenure. When I was a young assistant professor at the University of Washington in 1983 I needed research support.

I received it in the form of a Young Investigator Award, funded by … 3M.

I will always be indebted to this company for that. Thank you.

I don't mean to be the Academic Who Cried Wolf, but I do want to talk bluntly with you today.

I know there are 3M scientists watching and listening all over the world. So, I don't mean to be Ameri-centric. I am mindful of the global scientific, higher education and business landscape on which we operate.

A weak United States in areas of research and development, in areas of discovery and innovation, will be a real dead spot in global discovery and innovation … for you here, for us on campus.

I do celebrate the global growth of science and innovation. But, honestly, I would like to see us remain first among equals so we can continue to lead the world in innovation. I do believe a rising tide lifts all boats - and all research - and that innovation here in the United States drives it elsewhere.

Journalist Thomas Friedman, who I recently saw speak on our campus, uses the image of the U.S. as a tent pole to the rest of world on matters of innovation and human rights principles. For years, we have held up so much of what is good on this planet. But Friedman's new book is entitled, "That Used To Be Us."

And that title tells the story.

Because we here in the U.S. want and need to do better doesn't imply at all that we want others to do worse. There is no finite pie to discovery, innovation, good science and breakthroughs.

No, this is about moving forward together as a global scientific community, just as you in 3M move forward as a global enterprise everyday.

As we think globally about where stand, we MUST act locally to forge ahead. In schools just a short walk away from these headquarters, in schools in your neighborhoods and communities, Minnesota's children are falling behind.

For a company like 3M, which has 65 percent of its sales outside the U.S., there could be a sense that what's happening in Minnesota doesn't matter much. But it does. Fortunately, 3M have been a thoughtful corporate citizen, I know. Unfortunately, not every company is.

A dynamic 3M and a robust University of Minnesota must pay close attention to some startling numbers, and we must act. the higher education and corporate communities together.

Richard P. Carlton himself once said: "Our company has, indeed, stumbled onto some of its new products. But never forget that you can only stumble if you're moving."

We are NOT moving forward. We are falling behind. As the face of Minnesota changes, consider this:

  • In Minnesota, in 2010 test results, only 48 percent of our white students scored proficient on the state's 11th grade math test.
  • Only 40 percent of our Asian students, 18 percent of our Hispanic students, 17 percent of our American Indian students and 13 percent of our African-American students scored proficient. We are failing in our obligation to educate our citizens.

What are the implications for us as a center of innovation, for this state as a job producer, and for our overall quality of life?

By 2035, demographers tell us almost half of the population of the Twin Cities metro area will be people of color. They cannot fail now in the basic sciences and math and expect to support a state long known for its discoveries in the health sciences, manufacturing, agribusiness and high-technology.

Where will the American scientists of the future come from? What is 3M to do in the face of a failure of American education to produce the kinds of scientists that this company and others, that this nation and the world need?

If those Minnesota numbers are troubling, let me toss out some other current statistics. These are the sorts of facts that make me even more committed to ensuring that the University of Minnesota remains among the nation's top research universities and remains accessible to the people of our state, the state where 3M was founded.

  • 30 years ago, 10% of California's budget went to higher education, and 3% to prisons. Now, 11% goes to prisons and 8% to higher education.
  • The U.S. ranks 48th in the world in the quality of math and science education.
  • No new nuclear plants or oil refineries have been built in the U.S. in over 30 years.

As an aside, for nuclear fission energy - here it is not so much technology as it is political will.

France, for example, derives 75% of its electrical energy from nuclear energy, and is the world's largest exporter of electricity. The key is in France there are three standard types of pressure water reactors - in the U.S. each reactor is purpose built, and our 104 reactors are operated by 30 different power companies. Nuclear produces about 20% of our electricity.

This confuses the French who point out that they have 3 kinds of reactors, but 100's of cheeses, while the U.S. has 100s of reactors, but only one cheese. I like the French situation better.

Back to some statistics:

  • Over a recent period two high-rise buildings were built in Los Angeles - over 5,000 were built in Shanghai. By the way, if Shanghai were a country, it would have the highest science test scores in the world.
  • 69% of U.S. public school students in the 5th through 8th grade are taught mathematics by a teacher without a degree or certificate in mathematics. How's that for a prescription for not liking math?
  • The U.S. is 27th in the world in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.
  • The two largest suppliers of students who receive Ph.Ds. in the U.S.? Peking and Tsinghua Universities, in Beijing.
  • 49% of US adults do not know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.

These situations, and many more, demand a call for action. Several groups have taken steps to organize what should be done in the United States. Again, what we do here, how we teach here, what we discover here, it won't stay here. It will belong to the world, too, just as all our innovation has gone global.

A report called "Rising Above The Gathering Storm" was commissioned by a bipartisan Congress in 2005. So it is now six years old, but its relevance and impact remain.

That report asks the question: "What are the top 10 actions in priority order that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise in the United States? What is needed to successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21 st Century? What strategy, with several concrete steps, could be used to implement each of these actions?"

To paraphrase, it was Sir Ernest Rutherford who once said: "Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking."

People like us here all need to start thinking. History will guide us.

The last generation of deep concern over science and engineering was defined by Sputnik - Sputnik 1 launched on October 4, 1957, when I was one year old. The satellite was about 2 feet in diameter and weighed less than 200 pounds - therefore smaller in those two dimensions than I. Sputnik 2 was launched on November 3, 1957, and it carried the first living passenger into orbit, a female dog named Laika.

The outcome was a national scare for the United States as we feared our enemies would own space and worried about the ICBMs they developed to launch weapons. This concern generated a variety of new policies with goals of ensuring that the country's chief rival did not win the competition for global dominance.

An important result was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which focused the federal government's attention and resources towards improving the quality of science and language education, and in getting more students into college overall. This also led to an enormous inflow of funds into scientific research and development.

As Friedman said, that used to be us.

The changes entrenched the United States as the leading global power in the second half of the 20th century, and fully established American higher education as the envy of the world. Those actions, and investments, set us up for the future and educated many of us.

Now, of course, in American corporate science, a legacy of innovation survives and thrives. I understand your company's goal is to double your new product index between 2005 and 2015. That is spectacular.

It does remind me of a friend who was the chief technical officer at a major corporation. There they have a commitment that a third of all products need to be newly commercialized. My pal had been a tireless supporter of that metric.

He already had two teenaged daughters, but during that process, he told me that his wife was pregnant.

I thought, "Boy, I believe that's taking this commitment to new product introductions a bit too far!"

You've got to love a guy who loves his job.

Still, productivity alone is not the only way to advance science or culture.

Robert Solow won the Nobel Prize 1987 for his economic model recognizing capital, labor, and innovation.

The idea is that, in contrast to the economics we learned in high school, there is more to the picture than capital and labor. We get some capital, we employ more labor, we make profit, we have more capital, we hire more labor…. And pretty soon we run out of labor. Solow's observation was that the difference is the increase in per-capita productivity.

This kind of the productivity we deal with every day. Just think back to how we did business 20 years ago. I had a question - I called you. You were out. I left a message. You called back. I was out. You left a message. I called back. Eventually we connected. I said, "Yes." You moved on.

Elapsed time, 20 minutes, maybe two days. Remember phone tag?

Now, you text me. I say, "Yes". Elapsed time, 20 seconds.

With that sort of impersonal speed, I don't get to tell you my new joke, and I don't hear about your kids. But there are other ways to do those things.

The point: Analysis says 50 to 80 % of U.S. growth in the 20th century was due to worker productivity. We in the U.S. have benefited enormously from this increase in productivity, but let me give you this quote from Solow:

"There is no evidence that God ever intended the United States of America to have a higher per capita income than the rest of the world for eternity."

And here is another one:

"The U.S. does not have a monopoly on opportunity anymore." - Steven Chu

Productivity is not texting. Productivity is based on knowledge.

The Gathering Storm group was a distinguished collection of top-flight CEOs, university presidents and Nobel Prize winners. They offered recommendations in four areas.

  • The first need is to vastly improve K-12 science and math education. We need that nationwide. We need that in Minnesota.
  • The specifics include annually recruiting 10,000 science and mathematics teachers by awarding 4-year scholarships. Assuming each teacher impacts 1,000 students in his or her career, that would educate 10 million minds.
  • We need to strengthen the skills of 250,000 teachers through training and education programs at summer institutes, in master's programs, and other ways.
  • We have to develop and use K-12 curriculum materials modeled on a world-class standard, and I know that 3M scientists have been wonderful contributors to curriculum improvement in some of our local schools.
  • We need to support and grow statewide specialty high schools
  • We need to open the road to inquiry-based learning as soon as possible. Summer internships and research opportunities provide especially valuable laboratory experience for both middle-school and high-school students.

I am a strong supporter of access to science for the nation's growing minority communities. The statistics about Minnesota's failing students of color should drive us.

At the University, a consortium called the Northstar STEMAlliance is already working on increasing minority students with STEM degrees. Over the past three years, we've seen an increase of more than 50 percent … but it still only amounts to about a total of 200 students. A good trend, but not enough.

Involvement of all sectors of the world's population is essential to our future, and it all begins with education. A diverse workforce is a strong and creative workforce.

Let me give you an example of thoughtful product development for targeted consumers.

At a Frontiers of Engineering Symposium conducted by the National Academy of Engineering a few years back a female chief product designer at Ford made a presentation. She spoke about designing the door handle for the Ford Taurus, which is a car marketed to women.

Well, she put her hand on the door handle and instantly broke a nail. Nobody on the design team had fingernails long enough to break, until she came along.

How can you have an excellent design if you don't have people on the team representative of the community to which you want to sell the product? I know 3M knows that - we need to make sure more people know that!

The second broad area is to sustain and strengthen the nation's traditional commitment to long-term basic research. That is, research that has the potential to be transformational to maintain the flow of new ideas that fuel the economy, provide security, and enhance the quality of life.

This would require an increase in federal investment in long-term research by 10% each year.

There should be a balanced research portfolio in all fields of science and engineering research. As you know, the most significant new scientific and engineering advances cut across several disciplines.

These investments should be evaluated regularly to realign the research portfolio, and should be structured to promote both early and established investigators.

This is where the research university comes in.

World-class research institutions - of which there are less than 100 in the United States - are at the leading edge of innovation, scholarship, and solutions that contribute to the nation's economy, security, and well-being.

We don't just digest or disseminate knowledge. We create it. We fight cancer. We develop bio-imaging. We investigate why Somali children appear more prone to autism.

We educate leaders so they can discover. We are the engine of the region's and the nation's economy. We support and recruit the best and brightest and most curious students. They stay here to work for companies like 3M. They make our cities thrive. New ideas and new products change the world. A research university drives the knowledge that creates the new products.

Funding? Let's look at our priorities. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy invested $2.37 billion on applied R&D, or one-one-hundredth of one percent of our GDP. By comparison, that's about $1 billion less than we will spend on a tax benefit for employee parking.

The third area that the Gathering Storm group examined was our people. They, we, make the United States the most attractive setting in which to study and perform research so that we can develop, recruit, and retain the best and brightest students, scientists, and engineers from within the United States and throughout the world.

They recommend:

  • Increase the number and proportion of U.S. citizens who earn bachelor's degrees in the sciences and engineering, by providing 25,000 new scholarships each year to US citizens attending US institutions.
  • The U.S. ranks 17th among developed nations in the proportion of college students who are getting degrees in science or engineering. It was third 30 years ago.
  • Increase the number of US citizens pursuing graduate study in "areas of national need" by funding 5,000 new graduate fellowships each year.
  • Finally: Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world to innovate; invest in downstream activities such as manufacturing and marketing; and create high-paying jobs based on innovation by such actions as modernizing the patent system, realigning tax policies to encourage innovation, and ensuring affordable broadband access.

This is a nation that responds with vigor to crises - from the Manhattan Project to the Apollo Project to 9-11 - but we do not often change appropriately to slower catastrophes. Our slowness to move to alternatives to oil and conserve energy is probably our best, or worst, example.

The decline of our prowess in science and technology is one of those slow catastrophes, but a catastrophe nonetheless.

Last year, five years after the release of "Rising Above The Gathering Storm," many of the same members of the committee revisited progress since 2005. Here's what they found. It doesn't sound like progress to me.

  • A new research university with a $10 billion endowment opened … in Saudi Arabia
  • Over 200,000 students will study science and engineering oversees … from China
  • 14 new 'world class' universities were created to make a global nanotechnology hub … in India
  • A new facility was opened as an international center of biomedical research … in Luxembourg

In the U.S., from 2005 to 2010?

  • 6 million more youths dropped out of high school
  • $2 trillion was spent on K-12 education
  • National debt increased from $8 trillion to $13 trillion.
  • Now 57% of oil used comes from outside the U.S.
  • The Minneapolis public schools' high school graduation rate was about 73 percent in 2010, down from 76 percent a year earlier. No minority group had a rate of high school graduation higher than 60 percent.

So our challenges are substantial and important. They come at a time of decreased financial ability to address the competitiveness challenge.

What are we up against?

At Stony Brook University, where I was provost before coming here, we were collaborating with South Korean colleagues to provide degree programs near Seoul.

The two cabinet level ministers I dealt with led the Ministry of the Knowledge Economy and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. We don't have such ministries in the United States. We should.

Immediately after the Korean War, the country was devastated and had a per capita income of about $100. Today, South Korea ranks 15th in the world by nominal GDP. South Korea is mountainous with almost no natural resources and its small territory means there is no large internal consumer market. They adapted an export-oriented economic strategy to fuel their economy, and in 2010, South Korea was the sixth largest exporter and tenth largest importer in the world.

The drivers of that success are simple: a government focuses on education and technology infrastructure. In the United States, we are up against a failure of vision and political will.

Our final challenge is the outlook for U.S. higher education. That's the space where I live.

Our higher education system has long been the envy of the world, but it is under tremendous stress as state governments stagger under crushing budget burdens. At state universities across the nation the fraction of state aid has declined dramatically, and now tuition provides more revenue than does the state. For example, at the U in 1978, my first year there, the State provided 43% of the budget. This year it is 18%. Just this year we experienced a 7.8 percent cut in state support.

Those cuts have profound consequences on cost and student access. And innovation.

Still, look at my University. We received our $800 million in research grants and contracts last year. We are hard at work at innovation, as best we can be. Why "all that money?" skeptics might ask.

What has the University of Minnesota contributed to global society over the past century? I can name the Green Revolution, driven by plant pathologist Norman Borlaug that helped feed the world. I can claim the development of taconite technology to benefit Minnesota's Iron Range, not too far from Two Harbors, birthplace of 3M? How about the development of Ziagen in our labs to fight AIDS? Or the invention of the pacemaker by Earl Bakken that created Medtronic?

I can't guarantee you that we will deliver such ground breaking discoveries in the future. But I can guarantee this - absolutely guarantee this - that if we as a state and nation don't prioritize our commitment to science and innovation, we at the U won't be able to drive the innovation of the future here in Minnesota.

What hope do we have?

The first is our imbedded culture of innovation. Google, Apple, Microsoft, 3M and many other innovative companies are based in the U.S. We have the best rule of law, the best intellectual property protection, the best sources of venture and angel capital, and we have a scale that is hard to match.

We have a substantial agricultural base that lets us feed ourselves, and we have a history of assimilating immigrants and harnessing their skills.

But this remains a time of profound risk to our science and engineering enterprise, and frankly to the pipeline that brings top-flight scientists to an extraordinary place like 3M.

I encourage each of you as scientists and citizens as strongly as possible to not sit idly by as this slow catastrophe unfolds. Please study this problem and should you reach the same conclusions as I and others have, reach out vigorously to our policy makers and political leaders. Tell them: "Look at the data. Attack the problem. Now!"

Industry and the academy can be two key drivers to all this, especially partners like the University of Minnesota and 3M. We can't sit back and watch great institutions of learning dry up. We can't sit back and watch American innovation decline.

As the pillar of American education and innovation teeters, the world will feel its effects.

We are scientists. We invent solutions. We are problem solvers. We must tackle this overarching social and political problem together.

We can't afford not to.

Thank you 3M for being a model for innovation and a great friend to the University of Minnesota. Congratulations to the new Carlton Society members, and thank you for having me here today.