April 15, 2015

Larry Summers

Larry Summers on the lack of female professors. Credit: Intel Free Press / Flickr Creative Commons

Can government actually make us less innovative?

That may be what’s happening, according to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. “The most important scientific discoveries tend to get made by people who are young and at their most creative stage. And the average age when people get their first grant from the National Institutes of Health is now above 40.”

Summers, who also directed President Obama’s National Economic Council, says anemic funding from federal sources may be restricting promising scientists – and depriving America of once-in-a-generation breakthroughs.

“If you look back, the Internet came out of federal government efforts to connect physicists. The semiconductor was a product of federal government research. Going back a long time, Abe Lincoln provided the necessary support that made a transcontinental railroad possible.” 

But with companies like Apple and Google sitting on mountains of cash, why not let private industry bankroll great ideas?  Summers balks at the prospect. “No private company would have ever supported Watson and Crick when they discovered the structure of DNA. And yet the fact that life expectancies continue to rise is a reflection of biomedical research.”

“A Long Way to Go” on Women’s Progress

Summers also looked back with us on the media maelstrom that surrounded him a decade ago, when he asked why there aren’t more female professors in elite science departments.

He had considered possible answers during an off-the-record session at the National Bureau of Economic Research. But soon The Harvard Crimson, The New York Times, and others began reporting that some female professors walked out of the room when he said that aptitude or unwillingness to work long hours might factor in. 

The next year, Summers stepped down as President of Harvard. But the question he was trying to answer still nags.

Now, he says that hidden biases - “unconscious patterns that many of us engage in” - may be at the root of the problem.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us," Summers insists, to send "signals of maximum encouragement to every person of talent and drive to do everything that their talent and drive permits." He notes that "there’s been a great deal of effort in that regard, and there have been some results," though "the results are not as favorable as many would like them to be.”

But the former Treasury Secretary and Director of President Obama’s National Economic Council believes that mandating behavior wouldn’t provide an adequate solution. “I’m not a person who believes you make progress on issues like this with quotas or with absolute requirements. I’m a person who believes you address this by changing attitudes and by creating opportunities.”

To that end, he points to a woman who might be his most famous former student: Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg took Summers’ class on public economics as a Harvard junior, and made a lasting connection. “I was lucky enough to have Sheryl work with me at the World Bank and then at the Treasury. When I was Treasury Secretary, she served as my chief of staff… Perhaps most remarkable of the things she has done is the kind of leadership she has provided to so many other women with the set of concepts in her book, Lean In.” 

This fall, a book by the writer Eileen Pollack will mark will mark the tenth anniversary of Summers’ divisive comments by delving into the sorts of subtle slights and assumptions that Sandberg often says cripple women on their rise to the top. 

Summers has already read Pollack’s book, from which he “learned a great deal.”

“I think things are moving and they have a long way to go,” he says. “I don’t think any of us have any ground for complacency. I don’t think any of us should believe that all that can be accomplished has been accomplished.”

Hear our full interview with Larry Summers, including his concerns about inadequate federal funding for innovators and his look at higher ed's moment of great transformation.

Larry Summers, Business, economy, WGBH, government, Kara Miller

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