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Discovery and Innovation: Our Endless Frontier

  • Date: 06/16/2008
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: Rotary Club of Toledo
  • Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today and for your warm welcome.

    You know, Rotary International and The University of Akron have several things in common.

    For example, we both believe in making the most of our opportunities for service -- and that, regardless of our jobs or occupations, each of us has a duty to serve society.

    Our two organizations both believe in the advancement of international understanding, goodwill and peace based on the relationships we form as we come into contact with others.

    I also would venture to say that, while neither The University of Akron nor Rotary has stated it explicitly, we both believe in the pioneering spirit . . . and that individual and collective discovery and innovation have been the defining characteristics of American success.

    In fact, just a few years after the Toledo Rotary's founding in 1912 - though the exact date is unknown - a great American, Clarence Birdseye, made an accidental discovery that changed our nation and the world.  

    Working as a fur trader in Labrador, he noticed that if fish were pulled out of the water and frozen quickly in sub-zero temperatures, they tasted almost like fresh fish when eaten.

    When he returned to the United States, Birdseye used this knowledge to perfect what is now known as "flash-freezing" - a technology that revolutionized the food industry and helped launch the Birds Eye company we know today.  

    Now, let us fast forward to 1998, when American researchers discovered that a form of RNA - the cellular material that transmits genetic information - can block targeted genes.

    What does that mean? It means that one day, we may be able to turn off genes that cause hereditary conditions like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and Down Syndrome.

    The point of those two disparate examples is this:

    Discovery and innovation - whether by ordinary people doing ordinary things, or through experimentation and discovery in the laboratory - built America and the world.

    Medicine, communications, transportation, business - every segment of society and culture - has been shaped by discovery and the ability to apply it in meaningful ways.

    Not all innovation has been good.  The leisure suit comes to mind.

    But on the whole, innovation has been an astoundingly good thing.  And America has benefited greatly from its leadership role in research and technology.

    Americans invented the airplane, the airbag and aspartame . . .

    Bar codes, credit cards, and corrugated cardboard . . .

    Kevlar, Morse code, and the light bulb.

    Fiberglas - developed by Owens-Corning next door - is a triumph of the American spirit . . . as is modern mass production.  

    Henry Ford perfected the assembly line, which lowered manufacturing costs and allowed ordinary working people to buy a car . . . travel to where the good jobs were . . . and return home at the end of the day.  

    Our increased mobility made work more profitable . . .  commerce more economical . . . information more accessible.

    And the result was world-changing.

    Average incomes and homeownership skyrocketed. More efficient and cheaper transport of goods led to a stronger economy. Space and time collapsed, as people around the world traveled farther, faster and more comfortably.

    By leading the way, Americans carved out a competitive position that has been the envy of other nations for more than a century.

    But what now?

    If trends continue, China's economy will rival ours by 2020. India's will catch up in the 2040s. And those two countries, with large populations and educated workforces, are only two players on a global stage.

    America remains the "heavyweight champion" of the world, but a new generation of contenders has emerged.

    The big question isn't where we are right now, but where we will be in 20 or 30 years. Will we remain competitive in the ways that have allowed us to improve our standard of living year by year, decade by decade?

    If we are to remain world leaders, I believe three things must happen.

    First, we must support and strengthen cooperation between research universities and business.  Academic and business partnerships, facilitated by government, drive today's technology economy - and they will become even more important as our competition gets tougher.

    Second, we must find new ways to demonstrate the importance of lifelong learning, including going to college, and personal discovery and innovation.  The pioneering spirit, which allowed us to grow and prosper, must be encouraged in every American, from the youngest child to the oldest adult.

    And third, we need a game plan for science and technology, perhaps like the one America pursued shortly after World War II . . . a plan driven by strong leadership and explicit goals.

    Of course, there are those who see virtually insurmountable problems in how we are preparing our young people today and how we set our educational and economic priorities. 

    In their view, we've fallen woefully short in federal spending on research and in our expectations for math and science education in our schools.

    The pessimists believe we're fighting a losing battle - that we're ceding our global leadership in innovation and technology. And that we've reached a point of crisis.

    I don't agree that we're in crisis.  But I share a fear that we may take so much comfort in our past accomplishments that we will fail to see the urgency of our challenges.  Think about what it will take . . .

    • To solve widespread environmental problems that threaten human health . . .
    • To ensure adequate food and clean water for an exploding global population . . .
    • To develop clean, inexpensive, sustainable sources of energy.

    Think about what it will take . . .

    • To stop the spread of disease around the world . . .
    • To care for aging populations and manage other demographic challenges . . .
    • To find ways of settling regional and global conflicts without war.

    If you think about it long enough, I think you will conclude that solutions to the world's most difficult challenges will come from people with both intellectual skills and boundless imagination.

    Unlike the world of yesterday, which ran largely on manpower, the world today runs on ideas, information and advanced technology . . .

    . . . technology that can only be developed through science and research,

    . . . innovation that can only occur by asking "what if?" and testing the answers until that "ah-ha" moment arrives.

    THAT is the role of our American research universities, in partnership with others. They are responsible for about half of the nation's basic research.  And we should be equipping them for an even greater role in meeting the challenges of tomorrow.

    There is no better example than California's Silicon Valley.

    Silicon Valley is practically synonymous with America's high-tech economy. With the world's largest collection of venture capital, several research universities and a unique entrepreneurial culture, the region has become America's leading technology hub.

    While the phenomenal success of Silicon Valley can be traced to a number of factors, research universities were instrumental in its growth.

    Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, and the engineering schools at Santa Clara and San Jose State produce more tech graduates than any other region of the country. Graduates of those programs tend to remain in that area to work at existing high-tech companies or to start their own.

    Cisco Systems . . . Silicon Graphics . . .  Sun Microsystems . . . All were started by Stanford professors or administrators.

    University faculty and administrators sit on the boards of some of the area's most prominent high-tech companies . . . and graduate students routinely are placed in local start-ups to learn about entrepreneurship.

    Attempts to quantify the return on investment in science and technology have resulted in incredibly diverse estimates. But one thing economists do agree on is that, when new knowledge is quantified in a market environment, it creates fuller employment, capital formation, increased profits, and surpluses for reinvestments.

    What we must do now is leverage the power of our successful research universities . . . and their partnerships with private business and government.

    That's what The University of Akron and Lorain County Community College are doing with the Innovation Alliance. This program redefines boundaries between the two institutions for the sake of innovation and economic growth in northeastern Ohio.

    The Alliance is working with businesses on innovative back-office operations and shared mechanisms to drive down costs and increase efficiencies, and we are working with schools and industry partners to create the next generation of skilled scientists, mathematicians, engineers and technicians.

    There are centers of excellence on university campuses all across Ohio, and they are particularly fertile ground for innovation and technological advancement that will drive economic activity. For example:

    • § The University of Toledo's solar cell research program . . .
    • § Kent State University's research and development in liquid crystals . . .
    • § The University of Akron's work in polymer science and polymer engineering . . .
    • § Ohio State's Science and Technology Campus Corporation . . .
    • § And Wright State's Knowledge Enabled Information and Services Science program . . .

    University-based research programs across the state are resulting in commercialization of new technology, attraction of new investment, and creation of high-wage jobs. In fact, that is what Ohio's Third Frontier Project is all about.

    But simply building the machine won't get us going. The bigger question is, who is going to start the engine?

    In my role as President of The University of Akron, I have the privilege of getting to know some of the brightest minds of the current generation.

    They leave our campus to pursue many different callings.

    Some leave with degrees in applied mathematics, automated manufacturing engineering technology, biology, chemical engineering, and other technology-related fields.

    Some leave with degrees in education, business management, labor economics, law, and social sciences. Still others leave with degrees in art, music, philosophy, sports management, and other non-scientific fields.

    Each of these disciplines has great value in our complex and unpredictable world. In the coming years, many of these young people will find themselves applying their education in ways they could never have predicted.  And working in ways we cannot now imagine.

    A recent article in the Wall Street Journal noted that, while America still has numerous companies, more and more of them are virtual companies made possible by advances in communications technology. They are decentralized, global in nature, and operating around the clock.

    We also still have jobs, but the "office" is increasingly at home, connected to bosses and co-workers electronically. Today, some workers have never met their supervisors and don't expect to.

    Meanwhile, Inc. magazine reports that 18- to 24-year-olds are starting companies at a faster rate than 35- to 44-year-olds. And the Gallup organization reports that 70 percent of today's high schoolers intend to start their own businesses.

    . . . 70 percent!

    And, half of all new college graduates believe that self-employment is more secure than a full-time job working for someone else.

    This new dynamic is both exciting and disconcerting to me.

    It is exciting because it is just the recipe for flexibility, agility, innovation, creativity, personal discovery and economic growth that this country will need to solve its biggest challenges.

    But it also is disconcerting, because it presents a potential hazard. You see, in such a highly individualized society, there is a real risk that people will see little need, or have little opportunity, to pass their knowledge and wisdom to those who follow.

    When I talk with my students I like to ask what they hope to do with their education. But I also like to know if they are willing to be teachers and guides for those who will come after them.

    If Ohio is to successfully start its engine - if America is to retain its prominent place as an intellectual, technological and economic leader - we all must be willing to foster an environment that allows it to happen.

    My students - and all of us - must begin to embrace the notion that America's sense of discovery will be fed - or crushed - by the words and examples we provide to our young people.

    And they, in turn, will pass the same along to the next generation, and they to the next, in a perpetual cycle that will have either positive or negative implications for our country . . . and for our world.

    There is little dispute today that we must make math and science more relevant to young people or that we must challenge them to develop the analytical and problem-solving skills needed to tackle the challenges of our time.

    There is little dispute that we need more college-educated Americans.  In fact, I believe the moment may have come for our nation to embrace compulsory college education, just as we found it advantageous in an earlier time to compel attendance at primary and then secondary schools.

    But true learning and innovation cannot happen without a love of learning - and that is why our homes, schools, universities and workplaces must all become incubators for inquiry and discovery.

    Each one of us must find a way to nurture the natural curiosity that every young person has, to encourage our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, to become as great as their dreams will allow.

    Finally, these actions I am advocating - the need to strengthen partnerships between research institutions and businesses - the need to create a national sensibility supporting innovation and discovery - and the responsibility we have to mentor succeeding generations - cannot occur readily without a plan.

    And we can't afford to wait.

    A few years ago, it was popular in business-improvement circles to talk about "burning platforms." The idea was that change is difficult in times of relative calm - that people are more apt to try new things and acquire new knowledge when it becomes a matter of extreme urgency.

    Companies often cling to old ways, re-engineering their processes only when they near implosion.  IBM found that out in the early '90s, when the company started bleeding billions of dollars and knew it had to change or die.

    Nations often do the same. The Soviet Union held onto a failed economic system, despite its inability to serve the people, until it had no choice but to reform, coming apart country by country in the process.

    Even the United States has, at times, been lulled into complacency, only to be motivated and reinvigorated at times of emergency.

    World War II presented the nation with a burning platform. Defeating Hitler and Hirohito required us to ramp up our military technology immediately in order to outsmart and outflank the enemy.

    Initially, we weren't ready.

    But America's research universities answered the call, in partnership with government and industry. Advances in physics, medicine, rocket science, materials and computer science all stemmed from the war effort. 

    Before the war was over, President Roosevelt asked the best, most innovative thinkers in America to consider how to keep science and technology on the front burner.

    He appointed the great visionary, Vannever Bush, to head the group and to report back to him what could be done to educate the world about the contributions that the war effort had made to scientific knowledge.

    Roosevelt asked Bush to lead the discussion on both the war's contributions to technology and on what could be done to continue the advancements made in medicine and related sciences.

    He wanted to know what the government could do then, and in the future, to aid research activities by public and private organizations.

    And he wanted to know if it was possible to develop scientific talent among American children so that the continuing future of scientific research in our country could be assured at the same level as during the war.

    Bush's report - which he called "Science: The Endless Frontier" - became a blueprint for America's investment in scientific research and education after the war.

    It led to creation of the National Science Foundation and formed the basis for many of the partnerships that continue today with our nation's research universities.

    Most important, it ushered in an era of scientific growth and national prosperity unmatched in the history of the world.

    I believe that now is the time to consider another such initiative, led by our most innovative thinkers and grounded in common national goals. It should be a plan based on a realistic assessment of:

    • § Our strengths . . .
    • § Our weaknesses . . .
    • § Our challenges . . .
    • § And our competition.

    This plan must give us clear, achievable objectives, based on our nation's long-term interests.

    It should provide a roadmap that anticipates a new way of thinking and working in a more individualized, technology-driven economy.

    And it should be dynamic, revised periodically in response to emerging capabilities and challenges.

    Discovery and innovation built America and the world.

    Extending our leadership into the future requires us to reaffirm the value of ordinary people doing ordinary things, as well as the value of research institutions and businesses working together.

    It requires us to create and nurture a national culture of discovery that reaches into every home, every school and every workplace. And, it requires a deliberate plan for the future. 

    Most important, the time to do these things is not when we are in crisis, but when we are not.

    The challenges are immense, the competition fierce, and we will need good leadership to be successful.

    It might take another insightful president to enlist the best minds America has to offer.

    It might take another visionary like Vannever Bush to step forward and again demonstrate that scientific discovery remains our endless frontier - and to provide us with a new blueprint for the future.

    It most certainly will take inventiveness. Creativity. Commitment to teaching and mentoring. And pure, raw ingenuity.

    Which fortunately, in Toledo . . . in Ohio . . . and in America . . . have never been in short supply.


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