Thought Leader -- Ambitious Plans for Innovation and Manufacturing

Sept. 11, 2009
Manufacturing and research expert Aris Melissaratos outlines a vision for America that combines an old-fashioned reverence for science and technology with a 21st century path to prosperity.

There is nothing modest about Aris Melissaratos' prescription for rebuilding American society and its manufacturing base. In "Innovation: The Key to Prosperity," his new book co-authored with N.J. Slabbert, the former Westinghouse executive calls for a massive, 50- to 100-year government-financed commitment to innovation and technology to fuel our economy. Among the ideas presented are: rebuilding the nation's infrastructure; creating a transcontinental magnetically levitating rail system; initiating major oil shale processing, alternative-energy and nuclear power programs simultaneously; and drastically improving the U.S. educational system.

Melissaratos argues that such initiatives are not fanciful but desperately needed. "The world in the 21st century faces a technological crisis that is arguably greater than any crisis humanity has known in its history," he states. While some may argue that technology got us into our climate troubles and should be shunned, Melissaratos says it is we who have let science and technology down. "We have become a civilization that likes to fantasize about state-of-the-art technology but that in fact shies away from imaginative scientific initiatives and from the will, commitment, sense of purpose, hard work and high educational accomplishments that these demand," he writes.

Melissaratos wants investment in technological innovation, infrastructure and new energy sources to serve as the engine that rebuilds the U.S. manufacturing base. For example, he argues that while the national highway system has served the country well, it is outdated and subject to increasing gridlock. Similar issues exist with air traffic. He proposes that the nation invest in magnetic levitation trains that run across the north, middle and south of the U.S., as well as north and south runs from, for example, Halifax to Miami. "Maglev, once perfected, can take you from Boston to Miami in about two hours," he says.

Regarding energy, Melissaratos says the U.S. "cannot discount the hydrocarbon economy" and will be burning oil for 30 to 100 years. But he calls for the U.S. to rid itself of its dependence on imported oil by drilling on the continental shelves and in Alaska, using the best technology available to avoid environmental damage. He recommends breaking ground on "the most modern oil shale processing facility possible." He also wants to see "full-scale" wind, solar, geothermal and biofuel development.

Aris Melissaratos

Senior advisor to the president of Johns Hopkins University. Retired as chief technology officer and vice president for science and technology for Westinghouse Electric Corp., and as chief operations officer for Westinghouse's Defense Electronics Group. Founder of Armel Scientifics LLC, an investor in more than 30 startup technology firms. Founder of The Aris Institute, a private foundation to promote technology innovation.
"My gut feel, though, is they will not be sufficiently scalable to take care of the energy needs of the planet," he tells IndustryWeek. "The only real long-term solution that is environmentally acceptable and economically acceptable is nuclear. I would recommend that the nation issue 20 permits for nuclear power plants, realizing that it will take 10 to 20 years to rebuild our nuclear manufacturing base."

Making these technology initiatives work, Melissaratos says, requires national leadership that will support them as national objectives for a long period of time. A rebirth of American technology and innovation, he posits, will provide economic power and a powerful role model for other nations. "The U.S. is the only military superpower, but there is a paradox of power," he says. "A couple of terrorists can hijack an airplane and knock down our biggest buildings, but if you put forth a value system that becomes the model for the world, I think the world is going to follow."

Melissaratos scoffs at the notion that our economic system will work best if government and private industry chart separate paths. He says Wall Street simply precludes companies from making the massive investments in basic research that companies such as Westinghouse and AT&T once funded. Melissaratos thinks the federal government should triple its investment in basic research and also create a strong national science advisor similar to the national security advisor to help federal departments coordinate their research efforts and work with industry to commercialize new technologies.

"If you emphasize innovation, that will take care of commercialization because people are going to be looking deep to find ways to take science and put it to work to solve problems," says Melissaratos. "That is what commercialization is."

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