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Vest: sustain innovation, environment

In his annual report, President Charles M. Vest discusses the changing roles of industry, government and academia in generating and sharing knowledge, particularly as they bear on two areas essential to society's future: the innovation system and the global environment.

"More than ever," he said, "we in the universities will be called on to create -- and share -- scientific and technical knowledge for the common good, and to work in new ways with industry and government in so doing."

Two simultaneous trends -- the changes in corporate research and development methods, and waning federal support for university research -- have "deep implications" for MIT and other universities, Dr. Vest said in his annual report to the MIT Corporation. "The new modes of conceiving and producing products and services must be reflected in the education of our students, especially in engineering and management. At the same time, responsibility for fundamental scientific inquiry and basic technological innovation will rest in even larger measure with our research universities."

For many years, most large US corporations maintained a central laboratory, with a wide-ranging research atmosphere not unlike that found at universities like MIT, Dr. Vest said. However, "most of this changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s as corporations adjusted to the new realities of global competition." Corporate research became more integrated with the specific, more immediate goals of the organization, such as manufacturing efficiency, cost reduction, customer service, addressing new environmental concerns, and global marketing. This "interweaving of technical and commercial activities changed the nature of R&D. The corporate laboratory often disappeared or was altered so as to be almost unrecognizable.

"These changes in the corporate world leave universities with dual increases in responsibility," he said. "First, we must alter our education in engineering, management and, to a lesser extent, in science as well -- in order to prepare our graduates to work and lead in the new industrial world. Second, universities will have an even greater responsibility for conducting broad, basic research."

The responses MIT should consider, according to Dr. Vest:

  • "Anchor ourselves somewhat more firmly with industry" while retaining "the rigor and the scientific basis that underlies engineering education and practice."
  • "De-emphasize narrow disciplinary approaches, particularly in the structure of our curricula and in the way we help students learn to think. We need to pay more attention to the context in which engineering is practiced������������������ [and] give students more hands-on engineering experience, or grounding in how to 'design-build-operate.'"
  • Teach students to work better in teams.
  • Better prepare students for living and working in an international environment.
  • Continue developing and utilizing information technologies in education, "no matter how rapidly they advance." Though academic use of the Web is already widespread, "I continue to believe that we have just scratched the surface of what the new technologies make available to us in education and learning," Dr. Vest said.

These changes require work by faculty members, "but they also may require conscious involvement and support on the part of industry," especially since political sentiment in favor of federal research support is not translating into actual funding increases, he said.


Dr. Vest emphasized the importance of sustaining America's innovation system, consisting of "academic, industrial, and governmental institutions working together to support and generate new ideas, to educate the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, and to transfer the practical benefits of new scientific and technological knowledge to society." University faculty members conduct research and educate students who eventually take their places as innovators in business, industry, government and other fields.

New public-private partnerships are needed to maintain this system of innovation, Dr. Vest said. "The private sector will need to take increased responsibility for contributing more to the base of shared knowledge and to better define its role in the long-term sustaining of technological leadership. The public sector must more effectively recognize both the underlying support it must provide for research and education, and its responsibility to provide a business-friendly and research-friendly tax and regulatory environment."

A new partnership already in existence, he said, is MIT's Center for Innovation in Product Development, established to identify the basic principles of product development "and the need to better educate engineers and managers to undertake the development of new products in today's fast-paced, competitive, and complex and globalized industrial world." The National Science Foundation and several companies joined with MIT to create the Center, Dr. Vest noted. The Institute has also developed major research partnerships with companies including Amgen and Merck -- partnerships that involve no federal component, he observed.


Managing the environment is another crucial area "that will require industry, universities and government to assume new responsibilities and to join forces in new ways," Dr. Vest said. The difficult problem of balancing environmental protection, economic development and government regulation "requires a complicated interaction of basic science, engineering, economics, politics, social theory and education."

Despite these complexities, he said he was optimistic about progress in this area because "this is extraordinarily rich and fertile territory for academic investigation and industry problem-solving." Improving efficiency in areas such as energy conversion and use of materials "while working to reduce waste and environmental damage has an innate appeal to many of the key disciplines.

"Industry and academia must play increasingly important and synergistic roles in establishing environmental responsibility and developing effective solutions," Dr. Vest said. "This does not mean only that we need to educate more environmental experts; it means that sound thinking about, and commitment to, sustainable development and environmental stewardship must be an integral part of the education and practice of engineers and managers.

"The growing commitment to a healthy environment on the part of both industry and academia is setting the stage for new partnerships between the public and private sectors," he said, citing as an example the Montreal Protocols on the reduction of atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere -- an initiative that stemmed from the basic research of MIT Nobel laureate and Institute Professor Mario Molina and his colleagues. "The genealogy of the Protocols begins with atmospheric chemistry research funded by the federal government, which led to a solid understanding among knowledgeable industry leaders, which in turn led to a political will to execute a thoughtful international agreement."

MIT has also created the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, an interdisciplinary effort "sponsored in a consortial manner by several US and international companies aided by governmental research support, and governmental and public group participation," Dr. Vest said. A centerpiece of the program is the Global Change Forum, "which has become a very well-attended ongoing seminar among high-level scientists, executives and decision makers from industry and government."

When considering solutions to environmental problems, "we cannot progress by ignoring economic and social realities any more than we can ignore scientific and engineering principles and realities," Dr. Vest said. "Unfortunately, markets and businesses, as conceived within the dominant value and social systems, tend to be too dominated by short-term thought and goals to create capital flows from poor to rich and south to north."

However, he added, "this situation can be improved. Indeed, in my view, many leaders of industry are beginning to work toward long-term solutions to environmental and economic problems, and many scholars are working on new constructions that will support this, and that will work with, rather than against, markets."


Emerging from these efforts is the relatively new concept of sustainable development, which sets as a goal "providing for the needs of the present generation, including the right to advance economically, while minimizing the risk to future generations' abilities to enjoy the same provision and right," Dr. Vest said. "It requires of us a more cooperative, interactive approach, a much longer time horizon in our thinking, a responsibility to educate ourselves about risk and efficiency, and an obligation to develop technologies that are more efficient in their overall use of resources."

Sustainable development in turn has led to the idea of eco-efficiency. "It requires an awareness of how our systems for generating energy, producing food and goods, or transporting people and materials is intimately linked to environmental quality and sound economies," Dr. Vest said.

"As environmental awareness and concern become more prevalent, increased efficiency and improvements in 'cradle to grave' utilization of natural materials is becoming good business. If the importance of sustainable development becomes increasingly influential in setting our societal goals, sound environmental stewardship will become even better business."

Research universities will be vital for gathering and sharing knowledge about eco-efficiency and other environmental issues, Dr. Vest said. "MIT, the University of Tokyo and the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich have joined together for just that purpose by forming an Alliance for Global Sustainability. We do so in the conviction that universities around the world can make a profound difference in how their societies think and act on the question of global sustainability. The result will be better business and a better environment."

A vital economy and a healthy environment are fundamental goals that are not incompatible, Dr. Vest said. "Working together, universities, industry and governments can find ways to sustain a sound environment and economy."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 1997.

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