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Forecasting the challenges of a 21st century university with Shirley Ann Jackson

iSGTW speaks to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institutepresident Shirley Ann Jackson, PhD, ahead of her April 8th keynote address at the Internet2 Global Summitin Denver, Colorado, US. President Jackson, former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, current member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and an inductee in the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering, has held senior leadership positions in government, business, and academe.

"The world is awash in data. The challenge and opportunity is how best to harness this new 'natural resource' to address the key questions of our time. I will be talking about the crucial role of universities, in partnership with organizations such as Internet2, in answering these big questions." - Shirley Ann Jackson. Image courtesy Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

You are president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, US; a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; and involved in a range of other public policy roles. Yet you began your career with a PhD in theoretical elementary particle physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, doing groundbreaking research at Bell Labs. Why did you make the shift from the lab to university leadership, with a stop in Washington DC as chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission?

There is an essential role for those of us in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields to play in the public policy arena. Scientific discovery and technological innovation are at the heart of the answers to many of the key challenges and opportunities of our time including energy, water, food, health, financial, and national security, and the linked challenges of climate change and the allocation of scarce resources. The answers will be found in collaborations across all three sectors - business, academe, and government. Scientists must actively engage and lead in each of these arenas, whether working in a lab, as I did at the start, or leading a great university, as I now have the privilege of doing. Applying science to the big questions is what I have endeavored to do throughout my career.

You are giving a keynote address on day two of the Internet2 Global Summit. What will be the focus of your remarks?

The world is awash in data. The challenge and opportunity is how best to harness this new 'natural resource' to address the key questions of our time. I will be talking about the crucial role of universities, in partnership with organizations such as Internet2, in answering these big questions.

When you speak of the power of data as a new natural resource, what do you mean?

We live in a data-driven, web-enabled, supercomputer-powered, globally interconnected world. We need to harness the power of these new tools and technologies - working across disciplines and sectors and regions, building a strong innovation ecosystem - to address the great challenges and opportunities of our time, and we need to prepare the next generation to succeed and lead in this new world.

You often speak of developing a strong 'innovation ecosystem' as a critical component for economic security. What are the essential elements, and what is the role of the university?

Universities play a significant role in generating the ideas and sparking the innovations that drive the global economy and sustain our security. Sustained investment in interdisciplinary research, across all sectors - business, government, and academe - is critical. The key elements of a strong innovation ecosystem are strategic focus, idea generation, translational pathways, and financial, infrastructural, and human capital. The most important, of course, is human capital; having the people with the necessary tools and talents, which is why I am so focused on education.

In a speech to the UK's Royal Academy of Engineering last year, you outlined your vision for a 'new polytechnic,' to enhance leadership and education in this new digital economy. What changes are you forecasting?

We need a new way of working and learning to fully harness the power of science and technology, particularly in the arenas of big data, high-performance computing, and web science. The urgent, global concerns that we face are more complex, ever more subject to intersecting vulnerabilities, and cannot be resolved working in isolation.

As the world becomes more digitally interconnected and data driven, we will use data in ever more sophisticated ways, while exploiting our ubiquitous interconnectivity. Doing so requires breaking out of disciplinary silos, and exploiting new technological tools including employing high-performance computing, data aggregation, and analytics. Leaders must acquire new skills for a digitally interconnected environment, scholars must be encouraged and enabled to use these new resources in their teaching and research, and students must be prepared to lead and succeed in the digital world.

What changes are you making at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to realize your vision of this 'new polytechnic?'

The ability to aggregate, integrate, validate, structure, and fully use the burgeoning mass of information available will define success in this data-driven future. At Rensselaer, we are transforming ourselves to develop and apply these new tools and technologies.

Last year we launched the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (Rensselaer IDEA), led by world renowned web semantics expert, professor James Hendler. The Rensselaer IDEA brings together talents and strengths in web science, high-performance computing, cognitive computing, data science and predictive analytics, and immersive technologies, and links them to applications at the interface of engineering and the physical, life, and social sciences.

Additional examples include upgrading our supercomputer to the petascale; AMOS is one of the most powerful university-based supercomputers in the world. IBM's Watson computer has 'enrolled' at Rensselaer to expand its cognitive computing skills. Rensselaer professor Francine Berman is leading the US in a global effort - the Research Data Alliance - to enable scientists to access, combine, and preserve research data. We have partnered with Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine in New York, US, to push the boundaries of data-driven health research.

We partnered with IBM and The Fund for Lake George in the Jefferson Project, a collaborative, sensor-enabled effort to make upstate New York's fabled Lake George the smartest lake in the world, and a global model for environmental research and protection of water resources. And our Lally School of Management has a new focus and degree programs on big data and analytics.

Across all of these new programs and platforms, we are educating our students - the next generation of discoverers, innovators and entrepreneurs - to make a difference in this context. This is our big IDEA.

Do you have any concluding remarks for our readers?

As I have said, data is the new natural resource of the 21st century, and therefore we must focus on its sustainability. As with all valuable resources, it is important how we generate it, how we mine it, how we manage it, how we preserve it, and how we connect it. The Internet2 programs and partnerships are fundamental enablers to harnessing the full potential of this priceless commodity. I look forward to attending the Internet2 Global Summit, and invite your readers to tune in.

President Jackson's keynote, scheduled Tuesday, 8 April, at 10:30am mountain time, will be available via live webcast.

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