U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Discusses America’s Innovation Agenda at MIT


Friday, September 18, 2015

Today, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker presented her vision of a path forward for American innovation in the 21st century at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the top research universities in the world.

Pointing to MIT as an example of an institution with a long record of promoting and cultivating innovation, Secretary Pritzker discussed the investments needed to secure America’s competitive edge in the digital age, including investments in a skilled workforce, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, President Reif, for your introduction and for welcoming me back to MIT. Provost Martin Schmidt, the MIT community, and local business leaders in attendance: it is an honor to join you this morning to discuss America’s competitiveness in the 21st century – and the vital importance of innovation to our long-term prosperity.

For the students and faculty of this university, innovation is not an abstract concept; innovation is the cornerstone of your research, your studies, and your daily lives.

You know that between one-third and one-half of economic growth in the United States can be attributed to technological and scientific innovation. You understand that new technologies, the internet, and the digital economy are sources of job creation, enablers of global trade and commerce, and key elements of our country’s competitiveness. You recognize the awesome potential of the inventions and products discovered, designed, and developed in your labs here at MIT.

And like you, I am an optimist and believe that the wonders of innovation will promote human progress, spur new industries, and fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and communicate. But I am also clear-eyed about the disruptions caused by technological advances in our economy, in the lives of our workers, and in the growth of our businesses.

As Secretary of Commerce, my job is to work to create the conditions for our entrepreneurs, our companies, and our communities to thrive. Yet, in recent years, the sheer pace of innovation; the emergence of new industries; the growing ease of communication and transportation have shifted the conditions for a business or an individual to enjoy sustained prosperity.

In this ever-changing context, the question is: what are the critical elements needed to keep America globally competitive? What can we do to ensure that innovation continues to be a source of broad-based opportunity and progress for all Americans? What is America’s path forward?

The answer depends on all of us, in business, government, and academia. The answer depends on the choices we make, together, to strengthen our economy, to support innovation, and to ensure that the 21st century is the next American century. The answer depends on whether we are willing to take the steps necessary: to invest in our people, so we utilize 100 percent of our talent; to invest in our infrastructure, so we can move our products and ideas at the speed required in the 21st century; and to invest in innovation and entrepreneurship, so we can lead in the digital economy.

To start, America’s path forward must ensure that our country remains a place where anyone can contribute their ideas and abilities to our prosperity. The United States has been built, strengthened, and sustained by generation after generation of immigrants. Throughout our history, immigrants have refreshed and renewed our tradition of innovation. This remains true today.

Advancing immigration reform is not just a moral obligation; it is a matter of economic necessity. If our nation is to out-compete and lead the rest of the world, we must win the global war for talent. If we do not retain the best and brightest from campuses like MIT, if we do not encourage the top thinkers and innovators to remain in our communities: put simply, we will be left behind.

Right now, there are over 1.1 million foreign students studying in our universities, including nearly 30 percent of MIT’s student body. Nationally, these potential immigrants make up over 40 percent of Master’s or PhD candidates in STEM fields – expertise we desperately need. Yet once we train many of these talented men and women, more often than not, we force them to leave.

This makes no sense! We should not be educating these young people then requiring them to return home. We should be stapling a green card to their diploma when they graduate.

Just think about how our lives, our economy, and our society would be different without American companies like Google, eBay, IBM, or Yahoo – all of them started by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Just think about the fact that more than a quarter of U.S.-based Nobel laureates were foreign born.

We cannot afford to lose international students who want to stay here and invent the next leading business or make the next great discovery in one of MIT’s labs or elsewhere in America. We must ensure that the men and women who move here, who study here, who bring their skills here, and who start businesses and families here, are welcome to stay here in the United States of America. Our values, our history, our competitiveness, and the demands of our economy dictate that we enact comprehensive immigration reform without further delay.

For our country to take full advantage of the promises of innovation, America’s path forward must ensure our people and ideas can move at the rapid pace of the 21st century. At a time when technological innovation and economic growth go hand-in-hand, our digital infrastructure is central to our competitiveness. Recognizing this fact, the Obama Administration has invested in more than 113,000 miles of broadband nationwide.

President Obama and his team rolled out ConnectEd, an initiative to connect 99 percent of students to the digital age through next-generation broadband and high-speed wireless in their schools and libraries. But despite this progress, we still have a digital divide in this nation. Over 20 percent of homes in the United States still do not have high-speed internet, placing our communities at a disadvantage.

On Monday, the White House will release a report from the Broadband Opportunity Council, a group established by the President that I co-chaired. The report will describe concrete steps that more than 20 federal agencies will take over the next 18 months to eliminate barriers and promote broadband investment and adoption. With these actions and more to come, we can ensure that America’s path forward is built on a foundation designed to accommodate the pace of change in today’s global economy.

Along with a smarter immigration policy and stronger investments in our infrastructure, America’s path forward requires us to nourish and support our innovators and entrepreneurs. Since the founding of our nation, Americans have applied their ingenuity to develop great ideas into great businesses right here in the United States. Nowhere is this more evident than here, in the classrooms and laboratories of MIT.

Earlier today, I toured your Research Laboratory of Electronics, where the seeds for some of America’s most innovative businesses were sown. I learned about a graduate research assistant named Robert Noyce, who worked in the lab’s Physical Electronics Group – and who used the knowledge gained here at MIT to co-found Intel. I heard about a young professor named Amar Bose, who studied physical acoustics at RLE – and who went on to revolutionize the way we listen to music.

I saw how MIT is partnering with industry on some of the latest innovations in advanced manufacturing. I held cutting-edge devices designed and produced by your fiber and photonics labs. I listened to young people and professors describe how their current work in these fields is already changing how we communicate; how our military operates; and how doctors conduct surgeries.  I wondered which of these inventors would create the next great American company – and how we, in government, can be a better partner to these students and researchers.

At the Department of Commerce, we work every day to enable these innovators and entrepreneurs to bring their ideas from lab to market, access needed capital, and sell their products in markets around the world. We are truly “America’s Innovation Agency.”

We issue patents to protect intellectual property. We offer start-ups the tools to think global from day one. We deploy entrepreneurship ambassadors to mentor, guide, and inspire young innovators both at home and abroad. We build creative ecosystems through our Regional Innovation Strategy grants, which advance invention and capacity-building activities in communities across the country. And we support advanced manufacturing with the creation of institutes focused on pre-competitive research in new technologies like 3D printing, photonics, digital design, and lightweight metals.

Our Department also plays a lead role in promoting the digital economy as a tool for increasing opportunity, expanding access to knowledge, and spurring broader economic growth. Consider that the United States is the world’s largest net exporter of internet-related services and products – and that the internet economy currently represents almost five percent of our gross domestic product.

Consider that, within ten years, products and services that rely on cross-border information flows will add over $1 trillion annually to the global economy. And consider that the “Internet of Things” will comprise a nearly $1.7 trillion worldwide market by 2020. Our country stands at the forefront of each of these trends. But we cannot take our continued success or leadership for granted.

At the Department of Commerce, our Digital Economy Leadership Team is working to tackle the challenges and embrace the opportunities that come with a growing digital economy. Our team is focused on protecting and preserving a free and open internet – because the internet functions best for our businesses and workers when data and services are exchanged freely across borders. Our team is focused on promoting trust online – because the digital economy will only succeed if people believe that their security and privacy will be protected.

Our team is focused on ensuring workers, families, and companies have instant access to the internet – because fast broadband networks are absolutely essential to economic success in the 21st century. And our team is focused on advancing the next generation of exciting new technologies, such as driverless cars and unmanned aircraft, and understanding their disruptive impacts – because America should always remain on the cutting edge of the latest revolutionary inventions.

At our Department and across the Administration, we know that the digital economy is an increasingly essential part of Americans’ daily life and America’s economic future. We understand the value of disruption and the importance of innovation. But we need your help. You appreciate where government can be a strong, valuable partner to innovators and inventors at MIT and nationwide.

We want to work hand-in-hand with you to develop smart policies that ensure the digital economy remains a source of growth for our businesses, a source of opportunity for our workers, and a source of leadership for our nation. We invite you to engage directly with our staff, join our working groups, talk to our technical teams, and send us your best ideas.

And for the younger people in this room, I encourage you to consider a career that includes time in public service.  Our government needs people like you – people who understand technology and who can help government better deliver services and make decisions about the future of our ever-evolving society.

As I said when I began: we, as leaders, have to make choices. Whether in business, government, or academia, our choices require us to be clear about our priorities. Right now, in Washington, Congress faces a choice about the federal budget – and you, here at MIT, will feel the consequences of their decisions. Federal funding for the Research Lab of Electronics – and similar labs and incubators at this school and across the country – is at risk if Congress continues sequester-level funding that scales back our national commitment to innovation.

It really comes down to a basic choice: Will Congress pass a responsible budget that invests in our entrepreneurs, our economy, our families, our military readiness, our schools, and our infrastructure – in the very foundation of our competitiveness? Will we pass a responsible budget that gives federal agencies the certainty they need to plan for the year?

Or will we leave the so-called “sequester” in place, which would automatically force short-sighted cuts to investments and services, regardless of their effect on our economic or national security? Or will Congress risk shutting down the government for the second time in two years?

Reducing investments is no way to run a business when you are trying to grow and compete, and playing politics with our budget is no way to run our government when our global competiveness is at stake. It will take all of us being clear to our leaders that we must choose to make smart, necessary investments in our core priorities as a nation – our people, our infrastructure, and our innovation and entrepreneurship.

We did not reach the moon or split the atom or find treatments and cures for countless diseases by under-investing in basic research. We have led because innovation is the lifeblood of our economy – and because we have prioritized investments in cutting-edge technology and scientific discovery.

From generation to generation, our nation has chosen to move forward by supporting the work of leaders at MIT and elsewhere to innovate, to develop new inventions, and to create the next generation of leading U.S. companies. Today and in the future, we must choose a path forward that charts this same course; that spurs lasting growth; and that keeps America open for innovation and open for business.

Thank you for inviting me here today.

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Last updated: 2015-09-18 16:59

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