In This Issue
Fall Issue of The Bridge on Nuclear Energy Revisited
September 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 3
The desire to reduce the carbon intensity of human activities and strengthen the resilience of infrastructure key to economic prosperity and geopolitical stability shines a new spotlight on the value and challenges of nuclear energy.

A Word from the NAE Chair Independent, Objective, and Nonpartisan Advice in the 21st Century

Monday, September 21, 2020

Author: Donald C. Winter

This is my first opportunity to address the readership of The Bridge, one that comes as I start my term as chair of the NAE. I have been blessed with a full and diverse career as an engineer. Now in my failed retirement, I find that I have one more opportunity to follow Gordon England (we were the 73rd and 74th secretaries of the Navy) and give back to the engineering community and the nation.

NAE president John Anderson and I will alternate authorship of this column. His previous two columns addressed challenges to the engineering profession posed by climate change[1] and by the covid-19 pandemic.[2] While both of these phenomena are widely recognized as two of the most significant challenges confronting society and the world today, their profound implications for the engineering profession are not generally understood. Yet engineering has a critical role to play in addressing them, from how to mitigate the effects of climate change to how to evolve engineering education during and hopefully after the pandemic lockdowns.

This is a challenging time and the NAE’s role as an advisor to the federal government on matters of engineering and technology is of increasing import. The Academies have a distinguished history of providing advice to the government since the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863 and the National Research Council in 1916. In carrying out their responsibility to address questions of national significance, the Academies call on the nation’s preeminent experts in science, engineering, and medicine. “Our reports are viewed as being valuable and credible because of the institution’s reputation for providing independent, objective, and nonpartisan advice with high standards of scientific and technical quality.”[3]

There is, however, a major limitation in this process: in most cases, the Academies must first be asked for that advice and provided with the needed funding. While study committee members serve pro bono, they are reimbursed for their expenses, which can be considerable, particularly when travel is required. Furthermore, staff support is necessary to guide the study process according to the exacting NRC processes that ensure independence, objectivity, and substantiation of all study results. And “clients” need to recognize the need for advice. While many government leaders understand and value the advice from the Academies’ expert committees, it is increasingly evident that there are a number of issues for which that “independent, objective, and nonpartisan advice” would materially promote national security and welfare,[4] but that are not tasked or funded.

Arguably the simplest way to address this dilemma is for the NAE to take the initiative and self-fund programs and consensus studies to address critical national issues. To do so requires discretionary funding, and this funding must come from donations. We are fortunate that a few significant donations in the past few months will enable us to proceed in this direction in a limited manner. More are needed.

The need is clear, as is the opportunity for the NAE to help the nation and society at large. The NAE’s ability to do that depends on the willingness of the NAE membership and supporters to contribute and participate actively in ongoing and future efforts. I look forward to working with you throughout my tenure on this and other challenges and opportunities for the NAE.


[1]  https://www.nae.edu/228958/Presidents-Perspective-Climate- Change-A-Call-to-Arms-for-the-NAE

[2]  https://www.nae.edu/234456/Presidents-Perspective- Microscopi c-Assault-on-Humanity

[3]  https://www.nationalacademies.org/about/our-study-process

[4]  http://nasonline.org/about-nas/history/archives/milestones- in-NAS-history/organization-of-the-nrc.html

About the Author:Chair, National Academy of Engineering