At this conference, new and aspiring small businesses and agencies that assist them are learning about the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research)/STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) program, which provides information and opportunities on applying for and winning some of the $2 billion in U.S. government research and development investments.
Milliken is president of the University of Nebraska, which includes the University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Nebraska at Kearney and University of Nebraska Medical Center.
"There has never been a time when innovation, entrepreneurship and collaboration are in greater demand in America and the world," Milliken said. "We are, indeed, operating in a new economy today -- one that has its roots in the industrial and information ages, but that is dramatically and fundamentally different.
"It is a challenging time, but it is also an exciting time," Milliken said. "The wake-up call has gone out, and I think we know what we must do. We must increase our talent pool, and we must increase our investment in research and development, and we must provide an environment when innovation thrives. Increasing the talent pool is a long-term strategy that starts with our children."
Milliken talked about the recent report by ACT, "Crisis at the Core," which found that only 26 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates were academically prepared for an entry level college course in biology. The numbers for African American and Hispanic students were much lower. And in 2002, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that only 21 percent of high school sophomores were proficient at mathematics beyond simple problem-solving -- and fewer than 50 percent were even proficient at that level.
"Somewhere between 4th grade -- where U.S. students score in the top percentile in math and science compared to their international counterparts -- and 12th grade, where they score at the bottom, we are losing our future scientists and engineers," he said. In addition to increasing the proficiency of high school students, Milliken said more students need to be encouraged to go on to college -- with special emphasis on our underrepresented minorities. Nationally, the college-going rate is just 56 percent; but among the rapidly growing Latino population it is just 35 percent. Students also need to be encouraged to take rigorous courses in math and science, and to pursue careers in these fields.
Increasing the talent pool requires much more than just convincing students to go on to college. He outlined a number of steps to be taken by higher education as well:
- stronger efforts to create a culture of entrepreneurship, invention and innovation at the student level;
- recognizing and rewarding innovative research conducted by faculty, especially multidisciplinary efforts;
- encouraging faculty-student collaboration;
- increasing access to college for low-income students;
- welcoming foreign students into our institutions;
- bringing the business community more actively into the picture.
Milliken cited successful partnerships between business and higher education that have already proven successful, like the Peter Kiewit Institute, a joint program of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where business leaders in computer technology and engineering helped design a curriculum to prepare students for careers in their industry.
Milliken said the federal funding picture is not as bright as it needs to be to continue generating these kinds of success stories. Enhanced federal research funding overall, which in turn would allow the expansion of SBIR/STTP programs, would be an excellent place to start. "The majority of all innovations come from small businesses," he noted.
Milliken added, "The federal government, as well as state governments, must make strategic investments to leverage America’s technology and science assets. Tax incentives, targeted investment in emerging technologies, innovative partnerships between government, business and higher education, increases in early stage risk capital, support of entrepreneurship and above all investment in human capital will provide the fuel for innovation research.
"Economic competitiveness has been compared to an ecosystem that can only flourish when the essential ingredients of opportunity, innovation, R&D investment, and capital are in abundance and in balance," Milliken said. "For America to remain competitive, this is essential."