In a lecture at the Academy this week, Dr Shirley Ann Jackson FREng, President of New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, called for leadership and collaboration across science, engineering and technology disciplines and sectors to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Giving the ERA Foundation International lecture on 22 January, Dr Jackson said that today’s global grand challenges involve a multiplicity of societal sectors, industries, geopolitics and economics and therefore require collaboration of “unprecedented intensity and fluency”.

Dr Jackson championed the idea of the ‘new polytechnic’ as a “fresh collaborative endeavour” across multiple disciplines, advanced by the use of technology and big data and applied in new ways guided by societal concerns. By using this polytechnic approach, she believes that “we can facilitate effective approaches to global challenges.”

She said: “Global challenges in the 21st century are more complex and more susceptible to vulnerabilities so we must use all our ingenuity, resourcefulness and good judgment to find solutions as they are critical to our survival.”

To find solutions to global challenges surrounding food, water, health, the environment and national security, Dr Jackson called for a new way to harness the power of science, engineering and technology, especially in the areas of big data, high performance computing and web science.

She said: “Big data is more accessible today and shared more than ever before. The ability to process data in efficient ways is bringing it to more participants, allowing people to find solutions to problems, which is unprecedented.”

However, Dr Jackson warned that the level of public access and availability of good quality data sets is not developed enough and we need access to uniform data. Enthusiastic about the semantic web in promoting searchable, common data formats, she said: “One can only imagine the impact it will have once this work is completed”.

Dr Jackson also talked about the potential for social networks to predict human behaviour, which could be used by experts to detect potential national security threats, as well as research into creating an immune response similar to that of a living organism to protect computer systems against malware.

She cited the use of a new gel-based therapy - extra-cellular matrix – which was used to stimulate growth of muscle and tendons in an injured soldier’s leg, as an example of effective collaboration of biomedical, nanotechnology, medical, drug discovery and health informatics experts.

“We need to collaborate in new ways and break out of disciplinary silos, apply data analysis and embrace the concept of ‘the knowledge whole,’” she said.

Notes for editors

  1. Dr Shirley Ann Jackson FREng holds a PhD from MIT in high energy physics. She is an expert in theoretical condensed matter physics, energy policy, and the role of research and research universities in an innovation ecosystem. Dr Jackson was the first female and first African American Chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where she pioneered new methods of risk assessment in nuclear engineering. She is currently President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where she has spearheaded new approaches to engineering and science education. She also serves on President Obama's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. She is a Fellow of the US National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and a former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
  2. Founded in 1976, the Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Sarah Griffiths at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. 020 7766 0655