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2015th Stated Meeting: Replenishing The Innovation Pipeline—The Role of University Research

Watch video of this event.

On February 3, 2015, Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel discussion about America’s innovation pipeline, with references to Restoring the Foundation, the Academy report on science and engineering research that encourages a greater emphasis on long-range planning in the area of science and engineering, and Advancing Research in Science and Engineering (ARISE), which recommends increased support for early-career scientists and high-risk, high-reward research.

The event served as the 2015th Stated Meeting of the American Academy, and the 17th Stated Meeting to be held on the campus of Stanford University.

Since I took office in July, I have been struck by the level of interest of the Academy’s members in its programs. Our Fellows contribute in numerous ways, including serving as members of advisory committees, participating in policy studies, and writing for our quarterly journal, Dædalus. Indeed, forty-eight of our Stanford members have published articles in Dædalus, and I hope that we will include still more members of the Stanford faculty in the coming years.

Last October, the Academy welcomed its 234th class at our annual induction ceremony in Cambridge, including eleven distinguished scholars from Stanford. With their election, there are now 287 current members of the Academy at Stanford, and 396 over the history of the Academy, including one of Stanford’s first faculty members, botanist Douglas Houghton Campbell.

But the Academy’s function is not simply to honor excellence in a broad range of disciplines and professions. Its members also conduct studies of critical policy questions and debate the most pressing issues of the day.

Many of you know the story about how the 1906 earthquake toppled a statue of Louis Agassiz that stood above the entrance to Jordan Hall, causing it to become embedded in the pavement. Stanford’s President, David Starr Jordan, wrote that “Somebody—Dr. Angell, perhaps [referring to Frank Angell, the founding head of the psychology department]—remarked that ‘Agassiz was great in the abstract but not in the concrete.’” The joke was alluding, perhaps, to Agassiz’s well-known resistance to Darwin’s theories of evolution.

Louis Agassiz was a Fellow of the American Academy, and participated in 1860 in a famous series of debates at the Academy’s headquarters (and elsewhere) about Darwin’s Origin of Species. Agassiz’s opponents in these debates included William Barton Rogers, John A. Lowell, Francis Bowen, and especially the noted botanist Asa Gray, a close correspondent of Darwin’s. The debates lasted from January to May, and several other Academy members contributed to the discussion in the ensuing months.

In the spirit of this lively intellectual exchange, we seek to increase the engagement of our members in the life of the Academy. I invite you to come forward with ideas for studies, projects, and publications the Academy might undertake. The topics can be speculative, questions on which you would like to consult with other members of the Academy. We have created a modest fund to support meetings of members who want to explore topics of common interest. We are also working to create an online database of the current interests of Academy members to make it easier for you to connect with your colleagues.

And we very much want the Academy to be a presence around the country, not just in Cambridge. I hope we can form a program committee for the Palo Alto region and have even more events here.

Earlier, I mentioned that the founding head of the botany department was an Academy Fellow. Another great Stanford botanist, Cornelius van Niel, was awarded the Academy’s Rumford Prize in 1967 for his contributions to the understanding of photosynthesis. In accepting the award, he remarked that “man is more than just a biochemical machine. His mind has endowed him with the capacity for knowledge and understanding of the consequences of his actions for which he must therefore accept responsibility.”

Academy Fellows accept this responsibility, and I think Professor van Niel would be pleased with the current work of the Academy as it contributes to the education of all Americans. We convene studies in four broad areas: the Humanities, Arts, and Education; Science, Engineering, and Technology; Global Security and International Affairs; and American Institutions and the Public Good. Our ability to draw on experts from around the world and from every discipline and profession is the Academy’s biggest asset in providing thoughtful, independent advice to the nation and beyond.

Of particular relevance to today’s program is a recent Academy report on science and engineering research, entitled Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream. Released in September, Restoring the Foundation encourages a greater emphasis on long-range planning in the area of science and engineering. It encourages funders and policy-makers to support basic research that may not yield immediate results, but that may ultimately prove transformative.

The study builds on the Academy’s previous reports, including Advancing Research in Science and Engineering (ARISE), which recommended increased support for early-career scientists and high-risk, high-reward research and suggested steps to strengthen transdisciplinary research collaborations among universities, corporations, and government agencies.

We were honored to include both John Hennessy and Peter Kim on the committee that produced the Restoring the Foundation report, as well as Nobel laureate and former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, now a member of the Stanford faculty. Each was an active member of the committee and all of us at the Academy greatly appreciate their contributions.

It is because of their efforts, and those of their fellow committee members, that these important recommendations have found early and strong backing in both the public and private sectors, including endorsements from the Association of American Universities, the Business Roundtable, and several members of Congress.

We are continuing to build support, most notably through the creation of a coalition of NGOs that is working to advance the report’s recommendations. And we are convening our members at universities around the country to discuss how to engage the general public in support for science and engineering research. We look forward to hearing your ideas.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Stanford University President and Academy Fellow John Hennessy.

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