2020 National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting

Chair's Remarks

Chair's Remarks
56th National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 4, 2020


Good afternoon! It is my great honor and privilege as the NAE Chair to welcome all of you to the 2020 National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting. It is most unfortunate that we must conduct the meeting in a virtual form, but the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic must be accommodated. We will miss the informal dialogues with colleagues and a most meaningful induction ceremony for new members, but we will be able to benefit from an agenda well suited to our current situation. I trust that you will find that the leadership and staff of the NAE have developed a program that addresses many of the challenges posed by the pandemic to the engineering community. I for one am looking forward to hearing what our distinguished speakers have to say.

This is truly a challenging time in our nation’s history. Even before the emergence of the pandemic, we were participating in what is arguably the most significant societal transformation since the industrial revolution two centuries ago. The digital transformation has not only changed the ways that we communicate, but has challenged the nature of work, of leisure, health care, politics and the relationships between nations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that transformation and added elements that challenge previously accepted beliefs. Supply chains are being re-evaluated as the pandemic’s impact compromises the integrity and assurance of critical sources of supply. We are finding both our electronic and physical infrastructure wanting as the role of cities adapts to changing forms and locations of both work and residences. And we are finding our educational systems from elementary schools to research universities challenged in concept and processes. Perhaps most significantly, these changes have created a new schism in society, between those who are able to conduct their business from the comfort and safety of their homes, wherever they may be, and those who must take on many risks and challenges; the risk of losing one’s job or business, the challenge posed by limited options for child care, and, of course, the risk of contracting the virus.

This transformation poses a great challenge to our Federal, State and local governments. Few politicians have any formal training in science, engineering or medicine but are being asked to make profound decisions based on what are often, highly technical considerations. We often hear the protestations that they will “follow the science” but that is not easily done. The science is rarely clear and evolving rapidly. It often requires expert interpretation and evaluation; and must be put into context. Furthermore, it is often the application of science, the engineering of systems and solutions, that represents the crucial public policy considerations.

The National Academies have played a critical role as advisors to the Nation ever since the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. The Academies have been relied upon to provide independent, objective and nonpartisan advice with the highest standards of scientific and technical quality and integrity. To do so, the Academies call on the nation’s preeminent experts in science, engineering and medicine. In this process, the often critically needed engineering perspective has been, and will continue to be, a major demand function for the NAE.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who have served on NRC Committees, Boards or Programs, and ask that you continue to do so, perhaps at even greater levels of involvement. For those of you who have not yet done so, I will encourage you to participate. I believe that you will find this form of service to be both intellectually challenging and most satisfying.

There is one other aspect of this advisory function that the NAE performs that must be addressed. 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. Unfortunately, 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 aid the development of public policy, but that are not requested 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. Again, if you have donated previously, I will encourage you to continue to do so and to consider increasing your level of support. If you have not done so in the past, I will ask you to reconsider your charitable donations and put the NAE Foundation at the top of your list.

Now, it is my pleasure to introduce John Anderson, the distinguished President of the NAE to deliver his address.