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Photo of Cora Marrett

Dr. Cora Marrett
Deputy Director
National Science Foundation

Graduate Education – Incubator for Innovation

Graduate College Distinguished Lecture
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

October 17, 2012

It is a great pleasure to be with you today. I have come here to share my views, but also to hear from you. The conversation I'd like to have with you is on the critical issue of how graduate education -- already a profoundly important force in spurring innovation--can play an even more forceful role in our nation's advancement.

Graduate education -- in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) -- is especially fertile territory for furthering original and break though ideas. The atmosphere of intellectual curiosity, the devotion to exploration, the commitment to trying new approaches to solving problems -- all these conditions contribute to making graduate education a natural incubator for innovation.

This is precisely what President Obama had in mind when he challenged all of us to help the United States "out-educate, out-innovate, and out-compete" the rest of the world.

I'm proud to say that the National Science Foundation has enthusiastically accepted that challenge. Our resolve: To invest the resources entrusted to us in ideas and people likely to move our country forward through science and engineering.

But we cannot fulfill that vision alone. After all, NSF does not itself undertake the research that fuels innovation or educate the people on whom such innovation depends. The higher education community is indispensable for the journey on which we are embarked.

And we are proud to count this great institution as a strong partner on that journey. We did some research on NSF awards to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and found that for 2011:

  • Your institution's multiple grants from the NSF range across the majority of fields that NSF supports. Undoubtedly, the experiences of the graduate students associated with these awards will spur future creativity in the nation.
  • NSF currently has more than 100 Graduate Research Fellowships, or GRFs, at UIUC. Let us note that GRFs have excellent long-term prospects. There have been 40 Nobel laureates who accepted GRF fellowships, including the recently announced 2012 Laureate in Physics (David Wineland at NIST) and the 2012 Laureate in Chemistry (Brian Kobilka at Stanford).
  • NSF also has three Integrated Gradate Education and Research Traineeships (IGERTs) here. IGERT is the NSF's flagship program to encourage graduate scientists and engineers to build on the foundation of their expertise with interdisciplinary training.
  • Graduate education is central to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which operates in a nationally recognized and outstanding research environment. This university is at the forefront of advancing our nation's technological competiveness in the global economy.
  • Let me also note Dean Dutta's outstanding service at NSF, which included two years at the foundation which included a year as a program director of IGERT, and a second year as acting division director for graduate education.

For more than six decades, NSF has been working with educational institutions like yours to "empower the nation through discovery and innovation." In our high-technology, knowledge-based economy, research and education are investments in our collective future as a nation, and they directly affect the global competitiveness of our society.

As you know, the NSF mission is to support research at the frontiers of knowledge, across all fields of science and engineering. We are committed to the pursuit of basic or fundamental research. I am reminded of the words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project, who said: "The deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them."

That is the point of basic research -- to try a lot of out-of-the-box ideas and make surprising discoveries. NSF funds tens of thousands of research and education projects every year, selected through rigorous, competitive and merit-based reviews. NSF promotes innovative partnerships between educational institutions and industry, business and government. In that sense, all of us involved in this endeavor are pushing the frontiers of knowledge and discovery forward.

Over the past few years, NSF has launched some new programs that are intended to help nurture a culture of innovation. In citing these programs, I am speaking not only to the faculty, but, just as importantly, to the students in the audience. As you will see, these programs are designed to provide innovative environments for students and their institutions.

  • Last year, IGERT initiated the emphasis on innovation -- in particular, the education of graduate students in an ecosystem of innovation in which basic research leads to social impact, whether through new products, insights into improving social well-being, and so on.
  • There are three IGERT projects currently active on this campus.
  • We are exploring the possibilities for enlarging traineeship programs beyond IGERT.
  • And the Graduate Fellowship for K-12 Program, though discontinued, is to be incorporated with other programs for graduate students.

As a side note, Dean Dutta told me about the INTERSECT initiative that you have here, which places graduate students trained in the arts and humanities at the forefront of interdisciplinary research. He told me it was based on the IGERT model and is proving to be very well received on campus.

That demonstrates another aspect of NSF funding that we are proud to promote -- that we learn from you and others around the country and world about unleashing innovation.

  • We've learned that collaboration is a key ingredient for innovation, including interdisciplinary teams that use the different skills and expertise of people with different life experiences.
  • We've learned that a culture which embraces innovation as a valued output of research is a critical component in the education of our students.
  • We've learned that flexibility of structure promotes the natural development of teams around a problem, and encourages thinking that transcends traditional institutional boundaries.
  • We've learned that open innovation leads to acceptance of varying perspectives, a circumstance that can drive innovation.
  • We've learned the importance of diversity for innovation.

In 1979, I was asked by the administration of President Jimmy Carter to serve on the Commission he planned to establish to investigate the accident that had occurred at the nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. I declined initially, unsure if I could crowd one more activity onto my agenda. The White House persisted and, ultimately, I agreed.

The experience proved to be unforgettable, with long-term consequences. Among them, I served subsequently for seven years on the Board of Governors for the Argonne National Laboratory, a facility owned by the Department of Energy. Indirectly, my service on the Three Mile Island Commission led to my selection as the inaugural assistant director for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate at the National Science Foundation.

But of what relevance is this account to a discussion on graduate education? Graduate education should prepare participants for the unknown and the unseen.

My assistant reminded me recently of an observation I've found insightful and which merits consideration in the context of graduate education. Dr. Seuss admonishes us: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who'll decide where to go." Graduate education is an incubator for confidence--an attribute with significant implications for innovation.

Let me come to my final point -- a prescription for the future -- putting all the pieces together to ensure that we do an even better job of "incubating innovation" in our institutions of higher education.

Graduate education is the key to incubating innovation. The essential pieces for successful innovation include:

  • Lessons to be learned and exchanged about how graduate education can foster creativity.
  • UIUC is an important source for such lessons.
  • The fact that NSF would benefit significantly from that knowledge.
  • "Incubating talent" is not difficult when one considers the curiosity and motivation found among graduate students and programs.
  • Thorough understanding of -- and commitment to -- best practices in conducting research that matters.
  • Well-established and robust connections between educational institutions, industry and government can broaden knowledge and opportunities.

That, I believe, is how we build "incubators of innovation" at our graduate schools -- and thus meet President Obama's challenge to continue to "out-innovate" the world.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has proven itself a leader in building the ecosystem in which research and education in science and engineering can flourish.

NSF would like to encourage other graduate schools to make significant contributions. The words of encouragement, for those institutions and illuminated by the UIUC experience, come again from Dr. Seuss: "Out there things can happen, and frequently do, to people as brainy and footsy as you, and when things start to happen, don't worry, don't stew. Just go right along, you'll start happening, too!"

Thank you for your time today.