The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 28.0°F | A Few Clouds

Talking at Innovation Summit, Gore Calls for an Earth-Viewing Satellite

Greg Kuhnen--The Tech
Vice President Al Gore speaks about America's technological future at the Summit on Innovation held last Thursday and Friday at the Tang Center.

By Douglas E. Heimburger
News Editor

Vice President Al Gore proposed a new $50 million satellite which will provide a continuous full-disk view of the Earth from space as part of a new effort to maintain the United States' lead in innovation in a speech at MIT.

Gore, who was a featured speaker at the Summit on Innovation held Thursday and Friday at the Tang Center, said that the U.S. is already moving towards a new society based upon innovation. "Our nation is building a new economy, one that takes innovation as a starting point."

Gore challenged the 200 government, industry, and academic leaders attending the invitation-only summit to conduct research into areas that may not have immediate gains. "When we started providing seed money for the Internet, there was no enthusiasm from the business community," but today theInternet is revolutionizing commerce, he said.

The new satellite, which Gore hopes to have launched by 2000 pending Congressional approval, would provide a "clearer view of our own world"that could bring "new levels of understanding"to weather forecasting by providing a view much broader than is available from current meteorological satellites.

Noting that the last full-view pictures of the Earth came from the Apollo moon missions, Gore said the pictures could have "tremendous science value."

The satellite, to be named Triana after Christopher Columbus' navigator who first spotted America, will also create 3,000 new jobs during its design. It would be launched into the Lagrangian point, where it would be balanced gravitationally between the Sun and the Earth. Three earth stations would compile the image every few minutes, and provide a continuously updated image via the Internet.

"In the spirit of this Institute, let us apply our minds and our hands to this project,"Gore said.

The government's commitment to basic research has not changed, Gore said. In addition, the new Twenty-First Century Research Fund, if approved by Congress, will provide the "largest increase in funding for research that we've ever had," Gore said.

Gore also promised future regulatory and tax reform and an overhaul of the patent and trademark office into a "performance-based organization"as projects that the Clinton administration will champion to make it easier to create innovative products.

Other high-profile speakers at the two-day seminar sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness included NASAAdministrator Daniel S. Goldin, Acting Governor Paul Cellucci, and former Secretary of Defense William Perry.

U.S. innovation sagging, declining

While the U.S. is today the undisputed leader in innovation, globalization and the growth of other technological countries is threatening the U.S.'s superiority, said Professor Michael E. Porter of the Harvard Business School.

Porter, who has compiled the "Innovation Index" to compare research among world nations, said that the U.S.'s lead in innovation is rapidly falling away. "What this summit meeting is all about is how can we get this not to happen?" Porter said.

Not only is government spending for research and development decreasing, but the number of graduate degrees awarded by universities is stagnant, leading to a growing demand for additional technical personnel for innovation. At the same time, "many nations are rapidly improving their innovative capacity,"Porter said.

In a panel discussion following Porter's speech, industry leaders agreed that the U.S. is in danger of falling from its leadership position. William R. Brody '65, president of Johns Hopkins University, called on universities to become more efficient.

"If [the costs of college] continue to increase we will no longer be competitive"in the world market, Brody said. More fundamentally, "we've got to focus on getting our children to read" at grade level to prepare them for higher education.

"Innovation is [currently] taking some small, evolutionary steps, not bold revolutionary steps" like those that occurred during the Apollo program of the 1960s, Goldin said.

He challenged the participants of the conference to have a "big vision, the stuff that brings inspiration and innovation," and to commit to "high-risk" research that may not have an immediate payoff but has a longer-term goal.

"We have not had revolutionary change in the auto industry in decades,"Goldin said. The Japanese were the first to introduce innovation into the car manufacturing cycle, driving the time from development to market from seven years to three.

"We want to launch self-learning, self-repairing probes" into the outer limits of the solar system and beyond, Goldin said. "We won't get there with modified off-the-shelf products."