PERSPECTIVES ON STEM EDUCATION AND CAREERS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Michelle K. Lee
Monday, May 25, 2015
Columbia Global Centers | East Asia, Haidian District, Beijing, China
Thank you, Joan, for that kind introduction and for having me here today at Columbia University’s Columbia Global Centers/East Asia. This is a beautiful facility. And thank you, SIPO Deputy Director Zhang Peng, for your opening remarks. I’m also honored to be on stage with SIPO Deputy Director General Zhang Peng. I’m eager to hear what she has to say on this important topic of STEM education and careers. And thank you, everyone, for joining us here this morning! It’s great to be back in China. I’ve visited this country before, but this is my first trip as director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
When I was sworn in, many noted that I was—in the 225 years since the passage of the U.S. Patent Act in 1790—the first woman to serve as director. Less noted, but just as significant to me, is that I’m the first Chinese-American to do so. So it’s not surprising that I’m inclined to look for commonalities between China and the United States. The topic of this morning’s event is a perfect example of our common interest. Whether we’re Chinese or American, we all take for granted today that innovation is a good thing. And we take for granted that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the tools that make innovation possible.
Every day STEM students here in China, as well as in the United States, conduct experiments and calculations to answer questions most don’t think to ask. But such behavior was not always so common. Most certainly, we in America know of some of the great Chinese innovations of the past, in particular the Four Great Inventions: The compass, gunpowder, paper, and printing. All of those inventions likely were helpful to the Ming Dynasty’s great explorer Zheng He, an admiral overseeing a fleet of more than three hundred ships. He mapped much of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and some believe he mapped the Americas decades before Columbus reached the West Indies.
Now as a Chinese-American, I’m proud of the accomplishments of the Chinese. But I was raised as an American in the Silicon Valley of northern California, and my education was very much part of the Western tradition. While the Chinese were inventing the compass, gunpowder, and printing, innovation in the West was almost nonexistent. Why? There are many reasons. But one is that Westerners in the Dark Ages carried with them an Aristotelian way of thinking. Aristotle argued that we could identify what was True simply through observation. Science, he said, was when you used your imagination to explain what you observed to be True. The great minds of the Renaissance—including Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton—dared to depart from Aristotle. They asked, “Why should we accept anything we observe to be true?” They chose instead to seek to prove those so-called Truths through research and mathematics. So when a series of mathematical calculations told Copernicus that the Earth actually revolved around the sun, he accepted that Truth over what he observed. That approach—questioning what others assume to be True—is at the heart of the scientific method. It is reflective of humanity’s innate curiosity. And it is the secret ingredient that powers innovation.
Curiosity can be found at the core of the greatest innovations in the United States. One of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, held a belief we see as obvious today but was hardly so in the mid 1700’s. He suspected that lightening was composed of electricity. You may have heard the story about Franklin going out into a thunderstorm to test his hypothesis with a brass key attached to a kite. Believe it or not, that is a true story! His research led him to invent the lightning rod, which, when attached to the top of a building, spared the structure from devastation by fire. Decades later, when Franklin arrived in Paris as his young nation’s first ambassador to France, he was hailed as a hero, the man who saved countless homes and lives from destruction.
That curiosity was also evident in Edith Clarke, an early 20th century mathematician inducted two weeks ago by the USPTO into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. I have a personal fascination with Edith. You may know that I studied electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. I was one of only a few female engineering students; and that was especially true as when I was master’s student in the graduate program. Well, Edith was the first woman ever to study engineering at MIT. Her master’s degree landed her a job at General Electric, but not as an engineer. Instead, she and other women performed the rote mathematical calculations the men found tedious. Edith’s curiosity led her to devise a better solution. She created a graphical calculator—a machine—to perform the complex math. She patented that technology, and soon electrical engineers could better calculate the electrical characteristics of long electrical transmission lines. This made it far easier to deploy the technology across the vast geographic expanse of the United States.
I’ve also seen that curiosity up close with inventors I’ve known, including an entrepreneur I had the privilege of meeting last year. Elizabeth Holmes, like Benjamin Franklin and Edith Clarke, challenged a basic assumption. Why, she wondered, do doctors and researchers need to take so much blood from a person when running tests? She’s proven that they don’t. Her innovation—which she has patented—requires the patient to surrender a mere drop of blood, and that small sample is then used for numerous experiments. It’s no surprise that the company she founded on this technology is thriving. And, two weeks ago, President Obama and Commerce Secretary Pritzker named Holmes to an administration advisory board on entrepreneurship.
So curiosity leads to innovation. If we want to spark innovation, we need to encourage curiosity. I see curiosity in the flesh every day when I arrive home from work and am greeted by my five-year-old daughter. Any of us who are parents know that we don’t have to teach curiosity to children. It’s hard-wired into their very essence. And, let’s be honest, that curiosity is not always welcome. I certainly don’t want her demonstrating it when I’m cooking over a hot stove and she wants to reach up to see what I’m making for dinner. But curiosity is exactly what we need in our next generation of innovators.
I mentioned that the USPTO manages the National Inventors Hall of Fame. We do that with a nonprofit called Invent Now that also works with us on amazing educational outreach programs. One such program is Camp Invention, a weeklong summer program for grade school children as young as six. Each child is encouraged to ask big questions and seek unexpected answers. They work with household materials brought from home, including broken electrical devices such as old computers and telephones. They conduct experiments. They keep inventors logs. And they learn how intellectual property—in the form of patents and trademarks—can help them protect innovations that result from their curiosity. I had the pleasure of visiting a Camp Invention last summer. It was powerful to see these young girls and boys full of curiosity and full of questions. Too often as adults we don’t ask enough questions. That was true of the contemporaries of Franklin, Clarke, and Holmes. My hope is that these children continue asking questions as adults, as they become innovators themselves. It is the commitment of my agency—of my country—that all inventors, regardless of age, enjoy the protection of intellectual property as they create and invent. One of them could be the next Elizabeth Holmes.
So one Truth we all accept is that curiosity fuels innovation. We at the USPTO also know it has been empirically proven that IP fuels innovation. So that combination—curiosity and intellectual property—is a potent one. One other proven Truth is that, no matter where innovation occurs across the globe, it fuels economic growth. That’s a powerful formula. Curiosity plus IP equals innovation and economic growth. It’s a formula we can understand clearly, without the use of Edith Clarke’s graphical calculator.
Let’s return for a moment to Admiral Zheng--he and his fleet of ships, manned by brave sailors exploring the unknown. His ships sailed with all hands on deck. There’s a question I repeatedly ask myself as I lead the USPTO. Is the United States navigating the global innovation economy with all hands on deck? Or do we still have too much in common with the world of Edith Clarke, in which too many women are left on shore? We certainly have all hands on deck at the USPTO. Or you could say that we at the USPTO agree with Mao Zedong’s belief that “women hold up half the sky.”
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Commerce, women hold less than 25 of all STEM jobs in the United States. A separate study found it’s even lower in my native Silicon Valley. A mere 15 percent of tech jobs there are held by women. Contrast that to the USPTO, where one-third of our examining corps are women, 50 percent more than employers across the U.S. and more than twice that of Silicon Valley. It’s especially pronounced in my chosen field of study, engineering. Only eight percent of U.S. electrical engineers in the U.S. are women, but we have three times that percentage working as patent examiners. In mechanical engineering, we have among our examiners four times the industry average. You also see gender diversity in the USPTO’s senior leadership. In corporate executive offices across the United States, fewer than fifteen percent are women. Women hold nearly 40 percent of senior executive positions at the USPTO, including our Commissioner for Patents Peggy Focarino. She is retiring soon after nearly 38 years with the agency. Peggy’s tenure is another success story at the USPTO. We not only recruit and hire women in STEM, we retain them.
All too often in U.S. private industry, women become frustrated by lack of advancement opportunities, and take their curiosity elsewhere. So we’re doing our part at the USPTO. And a lot of progress is being made in the U.S. private sector. But it’s clear we could be doing more. We still need more women enrolled in STEM degree programs in our nation’s colleges and universities, including MIT. We still need more women working in STEM careers in our nation’s corporations, including in my home, the Silicon Valley. And we still need more women staying in STEM careers, across the United States. We need all hands on deck.
So that phrase—all hands on deck—is considered in America to be a cliché. But please indulge me in one more American cliché. This one also involves hands. Sometimes in America we say we’re limiting ourselves by doing a task with one hand tied behind our back. Now that is an imperfect analogy. I say that, because I can do a lot of things with one hand. For example, thanks to the Chinese invention of chopsticks, I can eat an entire meal with one hand. And when I do that, I am consuming that food. Consumption is also an important part of any thriving economy. That Truth was demonstrated clearly by Adam Smith, who wrote in “The Wealth of Nations” that consumption of manufactured goods drives economic growth. But what if I want to be more than a consumer of goods? Let’s think about that meal that I can eat with one hand. Did the farmer only use one hand to grow and harvest those crops? No. And let’s think about the preparation of that meal. Did the chef only use one hand to cook and serve that meal? No. So if we want to not just consume, but to create, we need both hands. And we need both hands to hold up the sky.
As I lead the USPTO—what I like to call America’s Agency of Innovation—I seek to empower the curious, and I seek to empower them to innovate. To fully innovate, we need more Benjamin Franklins. And we need more Edith Clarkes. I seek to ensure that our next generation of creators can obtain IP protection that will help incentivize them to create and ship their products around the world, including here to China. And I seek to ensure that the next generation of Chinese creators can have their IP protected when they ship their products to the United States. Of course, when we consume these products, we don’t care who the inventor was. I suspect any of us here, if we were at the hospital for blood work and were told we only needed to surrender a drop, we would not say, “Now, wait a minute. That sounds great, but who invented that technology? Was it a man or a woman?” We’d just be thrilled to give a drop of blood rather than a vial or two! And that’s how it should be. Curiosity, not gender, drives innovation. Now I can only speak for the United States, but I don’t feel we are yet tapping into our entire population’s curiosity. We are not fully using both hands. We do not yet have all hands on deck. But we’re making progress. And I am pressing for further progress. Because the result of that progress is that everybody wins. That is a goal worth pursuing.
Thank you again for your attention and for having me here today.
# # #