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World Affairs Council

February 3, 2015

Good afternoon, and welcome to Drexel University.

It’s a privilege to present this conference along with our colleagues at the Franklin Institute and to help further the great work of the World Affairs Council. We have an impressive roster of speakers and panelists, and it should be a fascinating day.

Philadelphia has a great opportunity, right now, to become the next great national hub of innovation and entrepreneurship one of our country’s great Innovation Districts. That is, unless we decide today that technology is the road to destruction. After all, the conference is called “21st Century Technology: New Beginning or Terrible End?”

Like any good rhetorical question in this age of clickability, the phrasing is extreme. But I’ll go ahead and answer it on behalf of Drexel University, where our tagline at one point was “Philadelphia’s Technological University.”

Twenty-first century technology is great. Without significant new technological breakthroughs, it’s going to be impossible to meet the biggest challenges facing our society, like understanding the changes in our climate; meeting the world’s energy needs in a sustainable way; and tackling health issues like the increase in autism.

We’re interested in all of these challenges at Drexel, because technological innovation is in our DNA. We were founded in 1891 to apply science to the challenges of society, and we’ve stayed true to that mission.

The role of a research university is to push the limits of scientific discovery, while making sure our students and faculty have the ethical IQ to apply new knowledge responsibly. To be sure, ill-considered or mismanaged technological innovation can have negative consequences.

Today we worry about unauthorized access to data, such as the consequences of engineered food or the impact of social media. How do we acknowledge and deal with those consequences, without slowing the pace of advancement?

I believe that identifying and mitigating potential adverse outcomes is the province of strong scientific leadership. And universities like Drexel are perfectly positioned to provide that leadership.

To give one example, that’s the impetus behind Drexel’s new Institute for Energy and the Environment. In partnership with the public and private sectors, our faculty and students are providing thought leadership for the science and policy surrounding new sources of energy production and distribution. The environmental consequences of those sources are robust and secure power generation and distribution and energy-efficient materials and infrastructure.

We received an important signal that we’re doing work that’s important to the people of Pennsylvania when we received a $5 million state grant in the fall to make the Institute a centerpiece of our Innovation Neighborhood development next to 30th Street Station.

I also want to stress that it takes a long-term view to ensure that technology’s impact is positive.

The effects of innovation aren’t always instant. More than 60 years ago, in the mid-20th century, a grocery owner came to Drexel looking for a new product tracking and inventory system. Two graduate students, Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver, took up the challenge. Their invention was the bar code.

However, although there was a clear need for the technology, we didn’t have systems advanced enough to implement it. The scanning device was cumbersome and needed 500-watt light bulbs. The back end processing wasn’t there either. Penn’s ENIAC computer, for comparison, was less than a decade old. As it turned out, the lack of complementary technologies delayed commercial adoption for 25 years. It took the tireless advocacy of people like Alan Haberman, the grocery executive who championed the bar code to keep the project from disappearing into the history of failed inventions.

Looking at another example, Drexel’s John Reid and other Philadelphia colleagues pioneered the use of medical ultrasound in the late 20th century. In that case, it was safety and ethical questions that had to be overcome. But thanks to the perseverance of scientists, ultrasound technology today allows us to safely monitor the development of a fetus, among other breakthroughs.

The big point is that as technology evolves, there are market and societal risks that shape its adoption and use, over an extended period. The academic research enterprise can be an effective counterbalance to the short-term focus of commercial R&D. As a university president, I try to make sure that’s one of our goals.

Ultimately, even if we’re champions of technology, it’s important to participate in exactly the discussions that will happen today. We want to ensure that technology remains a product of society, and not the other way around.