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News Release 07-032

Shirley Ann Jackson, Leader in Higher Education and Government, to Receive the Vannevar Bush Award

First African-American woman to receive prize is noted for leadership by example

Vannevar Bush Award recipient Shirley Ann Jackson heads Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Vannevar Bush Award recipient Shirley Ann Jackson heads Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

March 22, 2007

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Shirley Ann Jackson, who has led a national movement to respond to what she calls a "quiet crisis" in the science and engineering work force, will receive the Vannevar Bush Award for a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy.

Currently, Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the first African-American woman to receive the Bush award in its 27-year history.

Jackson also is being recognized for her advocacy on global energy security, and for innovations she implemented as chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (1995-1999), and for her role in leading an institutional transformation at the nation's oldest technology university.

The National Science Board (NSB) established the Vannevar Bush Award in 1980 to honor Bush's unique contributions to public service. The annual award recognizes an individual who, through public service activities in science and technology, has made an outstanding "contribution toward the welfare of mankind and the Nation."

"Shirley Ann Jackson has been a leader on many fronts, and she has incorporated scientific approaches into all of her work, especially on policy issues of international importance and in reforming one of the nation's important educational institutions," said NSB Chairman Steven C. Beering. "She's a national treasure deserving of the Vannevar Bush Award for her widely valued public service and contributions to the nation and the international community."

NSB will honor Jackson May 14 in a ceremony at the State Department in Washington, D.C., where she was born and raised.

Waking the Nation To A "Quiet Crisis"

Jackson has been stating her concern about impending retirements in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in both academe and industry for almost a decade, saying there are not enough students in the pipeline to replace the record number of retirements on the horizon in these fields. She notes the country's economic and national security depends upon its capacity for innovation--scientists, engineers and mathematicians whose numbers will dwindle over the next decade unless the trend is reversed.

She believes that waking up to the "quiet crisis" requires engaging everyone, including women and minorities who have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM fields. The crisis is "quiet," Jackson says, because it takes decades to educate future scientists and engineers, so "the impact unfolds gradually."

She says science is in crisis because "without innovation we fail--as a nation and as a world." And, she reasons that the ebbs and flows in science funding across disciplines have a "deleterious impact on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers"--and, therefore, our innovative capacity against a backdrop of increasing capabilities abroad.

Jackson has lectured on this topic extensively around the world. In 2002, she authored the major report, The Quiet Crisis, then took her campaign to Washington, D.C., in 2004 when she became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She was actively involved in the Council on Competitiveness' National Innovation Initiative, was among the authors of the National Academies' Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, and is on the National Governors Association Innovation America Task Force.

Jackson says it is now "time to turn rhetoric into reality," and says the solution must come from government, business and academe.

Jackson believes global energy security is the greatest challenge of our time, and has suggested energy research as a national focal point to address it much like President Kennedy's post-Sputnik call to action brought an influx of resources into science and engineering at that time. "Energy security is the space race of this millennium," she says.

Leading a Renaissance at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Jackson's impact at Rensselaer has grown swiftly and assuredly. In 7 years, she has revitalized and transformed the 183-year-old university into a financially solid, broad-based academic institution with a much greater diversity in the sciences and technology and a much-enhanced concentration of multidisciplinary academic programs--a true renaissance for the oldest technology university in the nation.

The transformation of Rensselaer under Jackson's Rensselaer Plan has been spectacular. Her $1.4 billion campaign has already received more than $1.2 billion in gifts and gift commitments, including one anonymous, unrestricted gift of $360 million. The work has helped Jackson deepen research activities through a tripling of awards, attracting a much broader array of faculty and intellectual leaders, and stimulating entrepreneurial educational activities. Jackson's managerial plan linking programs, plans, and resource budgeting and allocation has helped Rensselaer become a national model for the transformation of higher education. Meanwhile, the 2007 Kaplan-Newsweek How to Get into College Guide cites the institution as one of 25 schools on an elite "new Ivies" list. As of the end of February, Rensselaer received more than 10,100 enrollment applications for the 2007-2008 school year, 46 percent more than the previous year, and 81 percent greater than the pool for 2005-2006. Over the past 2 years, applications from women increased 96 percent, and 147 percent from historically underrepresented students.

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In addition to honoring her work at Rensselaer, the award recognizes Jackson for a lifetime of achievements in science and technology (S&T), such as success in pioneering exploration; leadership and creativity that inspires others into S&T careers; notable public service; and contributions to the nation and mankind.

A theoretical physicist at Fermilab for two years, then at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey from 1976-91, Jackson distinguished herself in studies and papers published in the fields of solid state and quantum physics and optical physics. Her particular contributions on optical and electronic properties of layered materials.

In 1985, she was tapped by the first of three New Jersey governors who sought her service on various commissions and task forces in the state, beginning with her appointment to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, on which she served for a decade.

In 1991, Jackson turned to education, joining Rutgers University as a physics professor. There, her reputation became known as a researcher, teacher, manager and policy advocate.

Leading Change at the NRC

Jackson's work at Rutgers got the attention of the White House, and in 1995, President Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Coming into an agency often criticized for being too closely linked to industry, Jackson toughened standards of safety and instituted an entirely new framework for managing the safety and security of U.S. nuclear power plants. The concept Jackson introduced, called "risk-informed, performance-based regulation," was a science-based policy that was implemented across NRC regulatory programs.

Jackson tenaciously and effectively managed the new system, which is credited with improving the safety and economy of nuclear power production nationwide and laying the groundwork for the recent re-emergence of nuclear power in the United States. As elements of this system were adopted by other nations, Jackson expanded the commission's international influence. She spearheaded formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association, for which she served as its first chairman from 1997 until 1999.

Opening Doors for Others: A Lifetime of Firsts

Described by Time Magazine in 2005 as "perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science," Jackson achieved many firsts in her career. In 1973, she completed the doctoral degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), historically becoming the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate of any kind from MIT. Jackson was the first African American to sit on, and then chair, the NRC. She also was the first African-American woman to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering and to preside over a major national research university.

Although proud of her groundbreaking achievements, Jackson prefers to focus on her track record in public policy and as an advocate for science and education. She speaks publicly of the nation's need to invest more heavily in basic scientific research and for other scientists to become more actively engaged in public policy. She recently told a gathering at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government "the exponential rise in the volume and availability of information" influences the perception of science and scientists' roles, and the "acceptance of both." Her concerns focus on how this glut of information affects the public in "choos[ing] its truth and settl[ing] upon what it will accept as fact." Jackson says it is imperative that scientists exert consistent leadership to counter confusion over science and mistrust of their work.


In 1945, at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's urging, Vannevar Bush reported a series of recommendations for a post-war system of federal research and education to broaden the nation's scientific and technological expertise in many fields. His book, Science: The Endless Frontier, is often cited as the document spurring the eventual formation of the National Science Foundation in 1950.

The National Science Board is an independent 24-member body of policy advisors to the president and Congress on matters of science and engineering research, and is the policy making and oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency that supports almost all areas of fundamental research nationwide.

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The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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