Exxon CEO Speaks Up for Research in Higher Ed

Rex W. Tillerson, BS ’75, Life Member, is the CEO of ExxonMobil Corp. This column first appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

Few public policy issues are more fundamental to our success as a nation than assuring quality public education and supporting basic scientific research. To compete in the global economy, the U.S. must be a nation of innovation.

University graduates with expertise in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), along with university research in cutting-edge technology, are crucial factors in the success equation.

As a leader of a U.S.-based international energy company and an employer of thousands of scientists and engineers, I am particularly aware of the importance of education and scientific research to our future success. The U.S. energy industry is built on American ingenuity and technology – much of which is fostered in our universities.

Public institutions of higher learning across the country help advance scientific knowledge in the energy field and others through the world-class graduates they produce and the breakthrough technologies they help pioneer.

It is for these reasons that I believe our nation’s top-tier universities – like my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin – are uniquely positioned to stimulate technological innovation by focusing on education and research.

By teaching and exploring the scientific foundations for practical problem-solving, students and professors help advance transformative ideas and develop breakthrough technologies.  Such innovation can have widespread application in the energy industry and in many others—with direct benefits for the U.S. economy and for the lives of Americans.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the U.S. has seen the number of math and science graduates stagnate, and our leadership in technology development erode. My strong belief is that we need to find ways to promote the study of STEM disciplines so we can reverse this trend and graduate more science and engineering students.

Most advanced research leading to technology innovations should continue to be a product of the private sector. ExxonMobil, for example, has invested more than $6 billion in technology over the past six years alone, resulting in concrete, practical gains in improving safety, energy efficiency, environmental performance, energy production and transportation.

Technological progress such as this, however, is often not possible without a foundation of university-driven, pre-commercial basic research. Such basic research often takes years to yield measurable gains, and therefore entails more investment risk than any one company can take. But it is nonetheless essential to broader technological innovation.

Universities have, for example, been the launching grounds for electromagnetic research that led to lasers and fiber-optic communication. Academic and graduate studies research has enabled advances in health and medicine with CAT scans and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It has also contributed to the global agricultural revolution through genetic-, chemical-, and bio-engineering research.

And in my own industry, university research has contributed to new developments of 3-D seismic technologies to more accurately locate energy resources, and has facilitated evaluation of improved methods for capturing and storing carbon.

Important advances such as these are often first incubated in a culture of scientific inquiry and frontier experimentation in our nation’s universities. They begin with inspired, creative individuals able to consider ideas, pursue research, and learn from colleagues across several separate scientific disciplines.

Our nation’s top universities—including the University of Texas at Austin, one of only three Tier-1 research universities in the state and one of only 59 in the country—provide these unique cultures of scientific inquiry.  They represent incubators for unleashing ingenuity to tackle the fundamental research that helps us to achieve revolutionary breakthroughs.  They also offer students exposure to people who do the research, and more importantly, the opportunity to work with researchers in the lab, often on the cutting edge of technology.   This exposure can attract young minds to new ventures.

It is no accident that the world’s greatest system of higher education and the world’s leading economy are co-located.  Public institutions of higher learning—comprised of world-class professors, researchers and students—are integral to the continued success of America’s private sector and our economy. Preserving the relationship between our university research and industry applications is crucial to maintaining our nation’s competitive edge.


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