In This Issue
Summer Bridge Issue on Aeronautics
June 26, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 2
The articles in this issue present the scope of progress and possibility in modern aviation. Challenges are being addressed through innovative developments that will support and enhance air travel in the decades to come.

President's Perspective: Microscopic Assault on Humanity

Friday, June 26, 2020

Author: John L. Anderson

In H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, the narrator dis­covers that the invading Martians have been “slain by the…disease bacteria against which their systems were ­unprepared;…slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”[1]

In a matter of weeks earlier this year humanity was brought to its knees by 0.1 micrometer colloidal particles with no intelligence as we know it. The covid-19 pandemic should bring some humility to homo sapiens, and a recognition of the need for public health on a global rather than national scale.

Because pandemics represent complex systems, engineers play an important role in all phases of reducing the threat, and especially in restoring the physical, social, and economic health of our nation and the world. This point was eloquently made in a Wall Street Journal ­op-ed by the NAE’s Director of Programs and ­Norman R. ­Augustine Senior Scholar Guru Madhavan.[2]

Engineers are making contributions in diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, protective equipment, medical devices, and supply chain robustness—on a global scale. Much of the work is being done in the private sector as small companies and large corporations research and develop products and scaled-up processes to address specific challenges associated with the pandemic.

A unique feature of this mobilization is the international cooperation among businesses, universities, govern­ment agencies, and philanthropists. An excellent takeaway from this experience would be to preserve such coalitions in preparation for the next pandemic or other crisis, so we can be proactive instead of reactive.

The NAE itself prompted the formation of dynamic coalitions through its Call for Engineering Action,[3] engaging cross-disciplinary and cross-generational members of the engineering community in sharing knowledge, skills, systems approaches, and an innovative mindset to combat the contagion and its impact. The project provides a mechanism to bring together people with great ideas and has attracted hundreds of teams.

The National Academies are playing significant roles in combating covid-19 through a newly created Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases (SCID[4]) as well as focused studies through the normal processes of the National Research Council (NRC). The SCID was formed to provide expert responses, based on information readily available, to queries about the virus and its spread from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The committee has access to expertise not only among its members but also in subcommittees involving members of all three Academies. In addition, the NRC is accelerating its work to provide consensus studies on a 6-month or faster time scale.

Through these processes, the National Academies are learning how to respond to national needs several times faster than in the past with the same rigorous standards of evidence-based findings and recommendations. This is one example of a lesson learned from the pandemic.

The constraints on movement and gatherings to halt the spread of covid-19 are teaching us something about communications. We are finding that virtual meetings are a partial substitute for in-person meetings when travel is restricted, and they will continue to yield some savings of time and money in the future. However, we must remember that in-person meetings create human bonding and provide an atmosphere for honest verbal exchange that probably cannot be completely duplicated in virtual settings.

The lockdowns of our communities were painful, and the process of reopening them will be more challenging. We will need to address not only physical health but also social, mental, and economic health. To do this right will take collaboration among engineers, physical and medical scientists, social scientists, and politicians. The engineering profession will respond to the call. We are in this together.

John L. Anderson,
President, NAE.

[1]  Wells HG. 1898. The War of the Worlds. London: Heinemann Publishing.

[2]  “The Covid Recovery Comes Down to Engineering,” May 5.

[3] on-the-COVID19-Crisis

4] ­committee-on-emerging-infectious-diseases-and-21st- century-health-threats