2015 NAE Annual Meeting

NAE Strategic Plan Goals and Grand Challenges for Engineering

51st National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 4, 2015

I am honored to welcome all our members, foreign members, special friends, and guests to this 51st annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering. I offer my warmest welcome to our newly elected members and foreign members and assure you that this induction day will be one that you will remember. And a special welcome is extended to all our spouses who have put up with us so graciously and make our work at the Academy possible.


This past year has been one to remember for the NAE and for the entire academy complex. Our 50th anniversary was highlighted at our 2014 annual meeting, and in July of this year the academy complex experienced its greatest transformation since the NAE was founded in 1964 when it welcomed the new National Academy of Medicine, created from the Institute of Medicine. The three academies also adopted a new brand: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Each academy retains its identity, but an identity for the complex prepares us to participate more effectively in today’s global environment.

In February the NAE, along with the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering and the MacGyver Foundation, launched The Next MacGyver initiative, with the backing of the White House. In the TV series of 1992, secret agent MacGyver solved complex problems using keen knowledge of engineering and sciences, his Swiss Army knife, and extraordinary cleverness. Of course, he was dashing—very engineering like. The Next MacGyver initiative seeks to place a female engineer as the lead superhero in a prime time TV series. A crowd-sourcing initiative that solicited ideas for a series story line befitting a female engineer led to 5 winners. NAE member Wanda Austin, a superhero herself, served as one of the judges. Each winner has been assigned a top Hollywood producer of TV programs[1] to lead in developing a new TV series. Over the next year when you see a TV series with a female engineer as the lead superhero, she is likely to be an NAE Next MacGyver.

In addition to celebrating our 50th anniversary, at the 2014 annual meeting we together began the process of creating our first new strategic plan since the one that was approved on October 2, 1999.[2] Our goal was to draft a five-year plan focusing on the priority use of our resources. We received invaluable inputs from the membership, held a Council retreat that was supported generously by IBM’s planning services, discussed the plan at every Council meeting, and the Council adopted it on August 3.[3] Thank you all for your participation.


At this annual meeting I have two charges. First, I wish to speak briefly about what underpins the goals of the plan and why they are critical to the NAE. Then I will speak about the theme for this annual meeting, the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, an ever-expanding movement.

Strategic Plan Goals

The strategic plan sets forth the mission, vision, and six 5-year goals for Academy organization and engagement; recommends actions to support each goal; and establishes metrics and milestones for measuring progress on them. Because time is fleeting, we are already moving forward with their implementation. While we may not complete all of them within five years, good progress will be made because they have our attention.

Goal 1. Membership Representation: Increase the representation of business, female, younger, foreign, and underrepresented minority members.

There are serious demographic issues facing the NAE. One is the need to ensure that the “practice of engineering” voice remains primary in the NAE’s advice to government. The Academy was created principally to ensure this voice. However, the decreasing representation of business members in the Academy is challenging our connection to the business and industry sectors. Historically, our business members have been our primary contacts to their companies.

At the founding of the NAE in 1964 about 70% of its members were in the business of engineering, but that number has decreased to 37% today. And without immediate steps it will continue to decline, because business members are more concentrated among our older members. In short, more members are leaving the NAE than are entering. Our recognition of this problem is long-standing, but so too has been our ineffectiveness in dealing with it. Now we must address business representation in the election of new members with determination before it drops below a tipping point making recruitment of nominations from business too difficult. The peer committees and the Committee on Membership have taken on this charge beginning with the 2016 election cycle, and I applaud their appreciation of the problem and their determination to address it. This is a solvable problem.

The fractions of women and underrepresented minorities among our new members also remain too small despite our efforts to incentivize their nominations. The Membership Policy Committee and the Committee on Membership will continue their efforts to propose policies and implementations that will rebalance their highly qualified representation. The time has come to show demonstrable change here too.

Our effectiveness in serving the nation calls for us to improve our identification of highly qualified foreign member candidates, inspire their nomination, and elect those that meet our qualifications, especially candidates from countries and regions where the NAE has few foreign members. I am pleased to report that this year over 10% of the foreign member nominees would, if elected, be the first in the NAE from their country.

Goal 2. Industry Collaboration: Increase the value of the NAE to industry.

Leaders from industry have long been major contributors to the NAE’s advice to government. Yet, despite this legacy, there is general agreement that the value of the NAE to industry is not high enough.

Historically, the Academy’s link to industry came through NAE business members who were highly placed and prominent in their companies and industry sectors. They inspired, and in many cases recruited, colleagues and companies to participate with the NAE. Today, those links, like the number of business members, are not what they were earlier and must be regenerated. Goals 1 and 2 are related.

In addition to the all-important human interface of NAE members with industry, we must present and communicate the value of NAE to large and small firms alike. Meetings and communications with industry leaders will help us reorient our efforts to fulfill this goal. Through these engagements and others with your help, we will reconnect to industry.

Goal 3. Public Understanding: Demonstrate to the public how engineering creates a better quality of life.

In the Lincoln-Douglas debate of 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” Because every public opinion poll verifies that the public has no correct “sentiment” about engineering, today we might ask, “How can engineering succeed?” Good question!

Communication, communication, communication is the problem and the answer. The problem is, what is communicated to the public about engineering is often wrong by omission or misrepresentation. For instance, take three of the greatest engineering feats of this century: the Mars and Pluto missions and the Large Hadron Collider. All publicity about them is essentially silent on engineering. But how many people do we all know who were inspired to engineering because of the Moon mission and space exploration?

It is also time to hit the replace button when the word “technology” is used to represent “engineering.” Technology is an outcome, it is not engineering.

The collective silence of the engineering community about the correct public understanding of engineering begets its invisibility. If the public hears nothing about engineering, how can it ever develop a positive sentiment? Those who understand engineering can correct this problem if enough of us decide to do so. I believe that one of my responsibilities to you, and to the public and the nation, is to advocate for the correct use of the word “engineering.”

Introducing engineering to K–12 students through in-school and after-school programs, like four-year engineering curricula in high school and FIRST Robotics competitions for 6 to 18 year olds, and inspiring students through an Advanced Placement examination—measures like these bring engineering forward to young people, to their parents, and to schools too. The Grand Challenges for Engineering also inspire young people and the public generally about what engineering does for people and society.

Goal 4. Ensuring Engineering Talent: Promote and inspire highly competitive engineering talent in the US workforce.

Talent is the coin of the global realm. Every country, every company, every organization is seeking talent in engineering. Nine of the top ten highest-paid midcareer salary positions in the United States are in engineering,[4] and all of the top ten highest-paid early-career salaries are in engineering.

Ensuring a globally competitive engineering workforce is mandatory for the security, health, and prosperity and future of our nation, if not most nations. The future cries out for a competitive engineering workforce.

The NAE serves as a resource for educators, employers, professional societies, and the government as they carry out their critical roles to educate, train, employ, and develop the engineering workforce. We support K–12 and out-of-school efforts to expose students early on to engineering concepts, practices, and “habits of mind.” We promote advances in engineering education, like experiential learning through programs such as Engineers Without Borders, interdisciplinary study through programs like the rapidly expanding Grand Challenge Scholars Program, multidisciplinary studies (in the sciences, arts, mathematics, languages, humanities, public policy, and so on), and many others.

Goal 5. Global Engagement: Engage globally in support of national interests.

Globalization is the defining construct of the 21st century innovation environment. This environment requires partnerships to assemble expert talents and facilities in order to accelerate desired outcomes—be they products, research, discoveries, or others—while adapting to a constantly changing global environment. Change is accelerating, and we are reminded virtually daily that any advantages of innovation and information we possess cannot be protected. We live in a “use it or lose it” world, where the need is to “use it” quickly to derive benefit from it before others do so ahead of us.

Support of US national interests in the global environment requires the NAE to take a leadership role and engage with international academies and organizations on appropriate issues. Here are examples of global engagement that are already under way:

  • The Global Grand Challenges Summits, which are a partnership between the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the US National Academy of Engineering to accelerate global engagement on the Grand Challenges.
  • Promotion and expansion of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program and related programs that bring global attention, preparation, and talent to Grand Challenge–level problems.
  • Increased foreign membership, especially in countries with few foreign members, to support the global engagement of the NAE.
  • Greater foreign member involvement in services to the NAE through their nomination, service on committees, and international programs like the bilateral Frontiers of Engineering symposia.
  • And NAE member services to other academies and countries on their prize selection committees, research review committees, and government advisory committees.

Goal 6. Effective Advising: Together with our sister Academies of Sciences and Medicine, enhance effective advice to the nation on technological and societal challenges.

Though nothing in the charter of the three academies stipulates how advice will be rendered to the government, it is provided through studies, roundtables, workshops, and other mechanisms of our creation. The current methods are criticized sufficiently to suggest that other means of providing advice should be explored.

Increasing the effectiveness of our advice is the goal. For instance, a stronger connection between the academies and policymakers, a more assertive commitment to engaging sponsors and stakeholders following completion of studies, and engagement of the NAE membership in the dissemination of advice may lead to more effective advising. All will be explored.

We must ensure that members who participate in studies, or nominate others, hear back from us on the outcomes of their efforts on our behalf. Such efforts are fundamental to our raison d’être.

Identifying timely issues of critical engineering importance by enlisting member input and developing proposals to fund studies of them are also essential to this goal.

Grand Challenges for Engineering

The theme for this annual meeting is the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, a highlight of our global engagement goal. This topic has been picking up speed since the challenges were introduced in 2008.

For a quick history, the Grand Challenges for Engineering were proposed by a committee of 18 distinguished engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and visionaries who set out to identify the most critical, yet tractable engineering system challenges that must be tackled successfully in this century for continuation of life on the planet as we know it. The committee received thousands of inputs from around the world, and more than 50 subject matter experts reviewed its report, making it among the most reviewed of all Academy studies. A list of 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering[5] was published in 2008. They were not ranked in importance or on the likelihood of their solution. No implementation plan or direction toward resolution was offered. NSF funded the study and publication of the report, but there was no follow-up support. In short, the grand challenges for the engineering needed to save the planet for people and society in this century kicked off from a “standing start.” So the challenges were “grand” in more ways than fourteen.

Engineering has long gravitated to great human needs: navigation of the oceans, travel to the moon and back, Earth exploration, national security, industrial and agricultural revolutions, communications, and transportation, to name a few. But to my knowledge this is the first time a committee has voluntarily set out challenges for the survival of the planet, had them picked up at the grass-roots level, and found interest in them accelerating seven years later. It is a phenomenon.

In 2010 a plan to prepare students to think about careers devoted to the challenges (and problems like them) was put forward by Thomas Katsouleas, then dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke; Richard Miller, president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering; and Yannis Yortsos, dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC. Former NAE President Charles Vest, who was enthusiastic about the Grand Challenges, was supportive of their initiative from the start. The Grand Challenge Scholars Program was the first organizational effort to prepare talent for, and present a vision directed to, achieving solutions to the challenges on a global scale. You will hear about the founding and expansion of this program both nationally and globally from Tom Katsouleas during his plenary remarks later today.

The 2nd organizational effort was the Global Grand Challenges Summit, first held in London in March 2013, cosponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering, Chinese Academy of Engineering, and NAE in their first joint effort. The 2nd Global Grand Challenge Summit was just held in Beijing, September 13–16, with over 800 attendees invited by our three academies, including large numbers of students, and a competition for university students to develop a business plan for a start-up based on the Grand Challenges. The summit topics were sustainability, urban infrastructure, health, joy of living, energy, education, security, and resilience.

At the Beijing summit, the three academies and FIRST Robotics, founded by Dean Kamen (FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”), announced a collaboration to begin in 2017 at the 3rd Global Grand Challenges Summit, which will be hosted by the NAE in the United States. FIRST Robotics reaches hundreds of thousands of 6- to 18-year-old students through its nearly 50,000 competitions in 83 countries. In this new collaboration, FIRST, with the participation of the academies, will select Grand Challenge competition goals for its championship robotics competition, which will take place immediately after the summit. The university student competition that has preceded both summits to date will continue. In this way the Grand Challenges for Engineering will be exposed to millions of new people—students, parents, sponsors, governments, corporations, and mentors—including the young people we need to inspire to conquer them. This is another effort that moves the Grand Challenges for Engineering to an even more grand scale.

The accelerating momentum of the Grand Challenges for Engineering, now seven years after their introduction, is more akin to that of an international movement than a project. And that’s in large part because these challenges are relevant to everyone, and are not targeted to a country or company.

Now is a good time for introspection and reflection on the Grand Challenges for Engineering. How are they doing? What else should we be doing? Have changing global circumstances called for rethinking the challenges or how we are going about them? Hence the theme of this meeting.


Plenary Presentations

Today we will be treated to extraordinary plenary lectures devoted to the Grand Challenges. Dr. Robert Langer of MIT will speak about his renowned, lifelong work on the challenge to “Engineer Better Medicines.” Later this month, Queen Elizabeth will personally present him with the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering at Buckingham Palace for his work. Then Ms. Dawn C. Meyerriecks, CIA deputy director for science and technology and a specialist on cybersecurity, will speak on the grand challenge to “Secure Cyberspace,” a topic on everyone’s mind. Is it possible?

And because solutions to the Grand Challenges depend on inspiring the next generations of bright, young talent to engage in them, Dr. Thomas Katsouleas will describe the Grand Challenge Scholars Program. From his remarks you will understand the educational experience of the participating students and the attraction of programs around the world to prepare them for problems like the challenges.

Monday Morning Panel

Tomorrow morning from 9:30 to 12:30 in this auditorium, we are fortunate to have seven members of the original 2008 Grand Challenges for Engineering committee here for a panel moderated by Dan Vergano of Buzzfeed News. I thank them in advance for coming from around the world to participate in this panel. Their remarks on the challenges will be wide-ranging, retrospective, and prospective, and will put ideas on the table for discussion, including your questions. What should be the next steps?

This may be the first time in history that a panel of experts has put forward a set of recommendations for the planet and, just seven years later, actually seen its recommendations propelling growing global, grass-roots movements that are impacting not only engineering education but also, most importantly, the way people are thinking about the future and the role of engineering in it. Everywhere you turn today “the grand challenges for this and that” are appearing. This is a rare circumstance.

Video Competition

Many of you will recall the Engineering for You video competition last year that highlighted engineering contributions to people and society. Because of its success, and with the generous sponsorship of the ExxonMobil Foundation and its president Suzanne McCarron, we extended the competition to 2015, with a call for videos highlighting engineering contributions to solutions of the Grand Challenges. The 1- to 2-minute winning videos in the contestant categories will be shown today interspersed in the program, and the Grand Prize–winning video will be shown at the end of the day when the category winners receive their awards. You will enjoy them.


I do hope that you enjoy this annual meeting and that the program inspires takeaway thoughts about the NAE’s new strategic goals and the imperatives of the Grand Challenges. Thank you for the privilege of serving as your president. I always look forward to our work together to make our Academy services as broadly effective, fulfilling, and, yes, fun as possible.

In closing, I offer the counsel attributed to President Abraham Lincoln among many others: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

And so engineering will, as it always has.




[1] Such as Madam Secretary, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-O, and CSI: Cyber.

[2] The 1999 plan was amended twice, to add international affairs in October 2005 and engineering education in October 2006.

[3] Members can find the plan at https://www.nae.edu/14102.aspx?Redirect=142618.

[4] According to the 2014–2015 Payscale College Salary Report.

[5] The 14 NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering are to make solar energy economical, provide energy from fusion, develop carbon sequestration methods, manage the nitrogen cycle, provide access to clean water, restore and improve urban infrastructure, advance health informatics, engineer better medicines, reverse-engineer the brain, prevent nuclear terror, secure cyberspace, enhance virtual reality, advance personalized learning, and engineer the tools of scientific discovery.