October 27, 2013

Skorton: Cornell Still Needs ‘Innovation’

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Sharing his thoughts on the importance of “thought leadership” and “innovation” in his 2013 State of the University address, President David Skorton emphasized the need for fresh thinking and new alliances in an evolving educational landscape.

“Doing more of what we have always done at Cornell is not going to work anymore,” Skorton said to a crowd of 700 Cornell Board of Trustees and Cornell University Council members Friday.

He said the University must be careful in planning its next steps to ensure that Cornell’s projects further society’s best interests. “If we are true to our claim of thought leadership, we at Cornell do need to think more strategically and boldly and devise and be advocates for partnerships that will ensure that Universities continue to serve society through science and technology, through the humanities, social sciences and through the arts — and, most importantly, through the development of the next generation of thought leaders,” he said.

To support his claims for evolution, Skorton cited recent data from the Global Innovation Index, which measures the pace of innovation in 142 countries.According to a University press release, this report is published by the World Intellectual Property Organization — a specialized agency of the United Nations, French business school INSEAD and Cornell. U.S. is in fifth place on the index, trailing behind Switzerland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, while low and middle income nations such as China, India, Senegal and Costa Rica are growing at a rate that outpaces its peers.

The growth of dynamic innovation hubs in these developing countries demonstrate the rate of global innovation and competition, Skorton said. Skorton said Cornell must continue to nurture talent and recruit a diverse student body to contribute toward the United States’ larger goal of “sustainable competitiveness” and to fulfill its responsibility towards the public good.

Beyond human capital, he said, willingness to invest in research is just as critical for innovation. In order to foster innovation, Skorton said Cornell has directly forged partnerships with other large research institutions.

He said professors are making advancements in early-stage drug development with the help of Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Rockefeller University and Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. It is also making strides in connective media through the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, he said.

After lauding recent efforts in the research realm, Skorton outlined a few areas of concern, such as the breadth of liberal education and federal funding for agricultural research.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s spending on research and development has declined by 26 percent by constant dollars in just the past decade, while investments by China, India and Brazil have increased dramatically,” Skorton said.

Blaming the 2013 sequester on the depression of funding levels for agricultural research, Skorton called upon Congress to reverse this trend so the United States can continue to be competitive in agricultural productivity on a global scale.

Skorton also noted the need for greater global understanding before nations are able to achieve more specific and concentrated goals. “Investments in science are critical to our future, but even the best science and profound knowledge will not solve world problems if cultural differences are not respected, understood and engaged,” he said.

He cited examples of Cornell faculty and students in the arts, such as Prof. Caroline O’Donnell, architecture, who won the competition for the Museum of Modern Arts Young Architect’s Program, and Eric Nathan ’12, who earned the Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize in the 117th annual Rome Prize Competition.

Public funding for the arts has not kept pace with inflation, so the Board of Trustees and University Council should keep a watchful eye on this area to ensure it receives adequate support, Skorton said.

Skorton concluded his State of the University by urging audience members to consider Cornell’s future and how to best prepare for another successful 150 years.

“The need for fresh thinking and new alliances has never been greater. But if ever there was a university ready and eager for the challenge, it is our Cornell. Together, on the eve of our sesquicentennial, let’s seize the unique opportunities before us — as we have done throughout our history — to position Cornell for its second 150 years so that we can continue to engage the world, improve the human future and enrich human life,” he said.