In a visit to MIT on Feb. 4, U.S. Sen. Scott Brown toured some of the Institute’s laboratories and discussed his recently introduced bill, the Innovate America Act, which is designed to spur basic research and create jobs.
MIT President Susan Hockfield led Brown (R-Mass.) on the lab tour, and the two were joined by alumnus Ray Stata ’57 SM ’58, chairman of Analog Devices; and Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Tech Council. After the tour they met with reporters to discuss the legislation that Brown is co-sponsoring with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
In his MIT tour, Brown visited the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, an interdepartmental research center that focuses on developing systems for the protection of troops in the field. He was shown devices under development there that could provide better detection of explosives and chemical weapons than even the best bomb-sniffing dogs, innovative protective helmets, and systems for recharging electronic devices in the field wirelessly. Brown, who has served for 30 years in the Massachusetts Army National Guard and is a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, nodded appreciatively and said he understood well the importance of such protective systems.
Brown’s new bill is intended to help revitalize the nation’s innovative edge and its ability to compete in the global economy. Spurring innovation is “highly important for the future of the Commonwealth and the future of the world,” Hockfield said. “Virtually half of American economic growth comes from innovation,” she said, citing research conducted by Nobel Prize winning MIT economist Robert Solow that found that American economic growth in the decades after World War II was driven largely by technological innovation.
Brown said his grandfather often spoke proudly of having graduated from MIT, and after being shown a variety of work currently being done at the Institute the senator said that “what you do here is second to none. It drives the economic engine in my state.” The researchers here, he said, “tackle real problems in a different way.”
On his tour, he heard explanations of innovative battery research from MIT professors Yet-Ming Chiang, a co-founder of battery company A123; Robert Langer, whose work on biomedical devices has spawned many spinoff companies; Paula Hammond, who designs engineered biosystems for batteries and fuel cells; and Angela Belcher, who harnesses the power of microbes to produce advanced materials.
Brown said that after getting a brief introduction to some of MIT’s cutting-edge research, he is eager to come back for a longer visit soon, perhaps in the spring. President Hockfield encouraged him to do so and issued an open invitation.
Stata expressed his support for Brown’s initiative and added that in building the nation’s technology businesses, “there’s more to it than just the funding of universities. What we need is an innovation ecosystem.” He cited MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service as a highly successful example of a way to foster such an ecosystem. More than 100 startup companies are currently being helped by the service, he said, and they collectively have raised $800 million.
Anderson said that the New England states have been at the forefront of U.S. innovation, thanks in large part to the region’s universities, and that the new bill could help spur further growth through cost-effective credits and incentives.
Brown’s bill includes measures aimed at turning research and new technologies created at universities into products, and at promoting schools that focus on science, technology, engineering and math, and his appearance at MIT was intended to spotlight these goals. “I want to make a difference, to pull our country forward,” he said.
The kind of innovative research being done at MIT, he said, is “the one thing that can get our economy going and get us out of the mess we’re in.”