Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Shirley Ann Jackson is the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A theoretical physicist, she has been described by Time magazine as "perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science."[…]

The RPI president thinks four elements need to be in place to foster scientific innovation: strategic focus, transformative ideas, translational pathways, and capital.

Question: What conditions are necessary for scientific innovation torn occur?

Shirley Ann Jackson: Well, you know, I often speak about rnan innovation ecosystem and I say that there are four key things that rnsuch an ecosystem has to possess:

The first is strategic focus rnand that strategic focus can be a national strategic focus, which is onern I like to talk about a lot.  It can be within the context of a given rnenterprise.  The strategic focus—thinking about, you know, what the big rnissues are; what the big challenges are; where the big trends are; wherern is the world going?; what are the great things we need to think rnabout—is always important because it helps to sort of size the problem rnas it were, or spur the dream.  But then we get nowhere if we don’t havern discovery, if we don’t have transformative ideas and that is where rnbasic research and freeing people to think about things in a very rncreative way leads to, you know, "aha" moments that we don’t rnanticipate.  That’s what makes them aha moments.  So we have to have andrn appreciate the power of transformative ideas and set the conditions forrn that to happen.  But ideas are not enough.  Everybody has an idea.  Thern real issue is if one has something that is really important, it is rnpotentially transformative, how does one get it into the marketplace?  rnHow does one get it into practice? And that is difficult. It requires rntranslational pathways that, ironically in some of the newer arenas, arern not so easy. It’s not just as simple as pure venture capital. And a lotrn of the venture capital and early investors want to have more proof of rnconcept and then proof of scale and so there is a kind of a patient rncapital that needs to exist that perhaps in the right circumstances, if rnit really involves some breakthrough technology that may be broadly rntransformative as opposed to the province of one enterprise, maybe the rngovernment has to support some of that.  And then the final key element rnis capital; but when people think of capital, they tend to think of rnfinancial capital and it is one key element of capital, financial rncapital, patient capital.  But then there’s also what I refer to as rninfrastructural capital and then, of course, there’s human capital.

Infrastructuralrn capital relates to the fact that if one is in some new area, like rnnanotechnology again, some areas of biotechnology really break through rnarenas.  They may need to be shared infrastructure for test beds for rnscale up demonstrations for prototyping.  It may need computational rncapabilities for modeling and simulation that a start up firm cannot rnafford and so they have to be mechanisms to provide that kind of rncapital, that kind of infrastructure for those enterprises.  And then rnhuman capital, we’ve already been discussing in discussing the quiet rncrisis, because if we don’t have the people, there are no transformativern ideas.  If we don’t have the people, there’s no one to either create orrn move along translational pathways and if we don’t have the people, thenrn the other capital doesn’t matter, because there won’t be anything to rninvest it in anyway.

Recorded on May 12, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman