2020 National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting

President's Address

President's Address
56th National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 4, 2020


[SLIDES 1/2] Welcome to the National Academy of Engineering 2020 annual meeting. As president of the NAE, it is my honor to address this very distinguished gathering and celebrate the induction of our new members, the class of 2020.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, our annual meeting this year is being held in virtual mode. So this is an experiment for us. I want to thank our staff for their hard work in adjusting to the current conditions to make this a memorable meeting.

I’ll begin with some background about the NAE and its sister academies.

President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional charter that created the National Academy of Sciences in 1863 because he saw an urgent need for the government to have a source of independent scientific advice. The National Academy of Engineering expanded that role in 1964 with its creation as a sister organization to the NAS, and in 1970 the Institute of Medicine—which recently became the National Academy of Medicine—was established.

Two primary reasons for establishing the NAE were (1) to recognize the profession of engineering and its importance to society, and (2) to identify world-class experts in engineering to advise the government and public on technical matters.

The first class of NAE members in 1964 had 25 members—56% from the business sector, 36% from universities, and 8% from national laboratories.

The National Research Council (NRC) was formed in 1916 “to bring into cooperation government, educational, industrial, and other research organizations” to advance science, aid the development of American industries, strengthen the national defense, and promote national security and welfare. The NRC is the operating arm of the overall organization, called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).

Along with that background, I should point out that the Academies are not part of the government, and this is by design. Our work is independent—there is no federal line item for us, nor any congressional appropriation, as many may think. The vital work of the NAE and the institution as a whole depends on sponsors, donors, and volunteers. And I will be calling on all our members and friends to help with financial support of the National Academy of Engineering—we need your support to advance the mission of the NAE.

The mission of the National Academy of Engineering is to “advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government [and society] on matters involving engineering and technology.”

This mission is accomplished through the work of NAE members in studies and activities of both the NRC and the NAE Program Office.

[SLIDE 3] To support our mission, we have reorganized the NAE Program Office consistent with what I call “the four I’s”:

  • Identify and inform the frontiers of engineering theory, practice, and policy
  • Increase engineering talent through a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • Instill a culture of ethical and environmental responsibility in engineering
  • Improve capabilities and competencies for complex systems engineering

As examples, I offer a few NAE initiatives that support these objectives:

  1. The publicized instances of police injustice inflicted on Black men and women over the past several months remind us of the continuous injustices suffered over centuries by minority populations in our country. In parallel with racial injustice is a stagnation or even decline in the percentage of minority students receiving degrees in engineering, thereby resulting in lost talent to the engineering profession.

[SLIDE 4] Several of our members wrote me and asked “What can we do about this situation?” In response, we created a committee on Racial Justice and Equity, which is tasked to recommend actions that the engineering community and the NAE should take to further racial justice and equity for all our citizens.

[SLIDE 5] This committee aligns with our mission—to serve society, we must be aware of problems in society and potential consequences of our work. I believe engineering has much to offer in improving justice and equity for all our citizens, and the dedicated members of this committee will produce recommendations for action by the NAE.

  1. The Covid-19 pandemic has presented the world with its greatest challenge this century, and engineers, along with scientists and medical professionals, have worked together in the public and private sectors to address it. The contributions from engineering are apparent and numerous. To name a few:
  • the internet, Wifi, platforms like Zoom, computers, and microelectronics, which allow people to telework and communicate;
  • production of medical devices, diagnostics, and safety clothing;
  • development of robust supply chains of materials and chemical precursors; and
  • the need to scale up the production and distribution of vaccines and therapeutics.

[SLIDE 6] One very timely and dynamic initiative of the National Academy of Engineering in partnership with universities and others is the “Call to Action” against Covid-19. Launched in April, it combines the imagination and talents of university engineering students in our Grand Challenges Scholars Program, midcareer professionals who have participated in our Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) program, and seasoned engineering veterans who are NAE members. It is truly intergenerational!

[SLIDE 7] It works like this. Students and faculty members form teams and submit ideas to a technical review committee, which is composed of alumni from our FOE program. The ideas judged to be most promising are forwarded to an NSF program called “I-Corps” that works with the inventors to develop “pitches” to attract investments toward commercialization. The top teams then make their pitches to the expert review committee, which is composed of NAE members.

The “pitch sessions” are fun to watch and inspiring. A few good ideas are being pursued as potential startup companies. These ideas may become tangible actions to address the Covid-19 pandemic, but I think the greatest product of this initiative might be the intergenerational learning occurring in both directions between young and experienced engineers. The enthusiasm among all participants is contagious. I encourage you to watch the recordings of the pitch sessions; they’re posted on the NAE website (see the link on the slide).

  1. [SLIDE 8] Another new initiative is NAE Perspectives, a series of short-form commentaries accessible to a wide range of audiences and published on the NAE website. The goal is to foster member and public engagement in technical topics of current relevance and interest to society. These commentaries may be supplemented with video, social media, and webinar dissemination.

[SLIDE 9] The first two Perspectives were authored by NAE members of the class of 2020: Charlie Bolden, former NASA administrator and astronaut; and Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX.

We are excited about this new series, which will highlight how engineers are contributing to progress in a variety of fields.

[SLIDE 10] In order to strengthen the NAE Program Office, we have hired Dr. David Butler. David has been with the National Academies for 24 years and his expertise will help advance programs such as the NAE’s Cultural, Ethical, Social, and Environmental Responsibility (CESER) initiative, as well as various National Academies studies related to engineering and environmental health topics.

David is the J. Herbert Hollomon Scholar. Dr. Hollomon was one of the founding members of the NAE. This position is made possible by the Hollomon Memorial Committee, chaired by David Roos, on the occasion of the NAE’s 25th anniversary.

I now turn to the truly important part of the program: recognition of the NAE class of 2020.

Consider this a brief introduction of our new members—we will repeat this ceremony in person at the annual meeting in 2021, so that every member of the class of 2020 will have the opportunity to be properly introduced and walk across the stage of this auditorium to sign the Membership Rolls.

[SLIDE 11] The first class of NAE members in 1964 numbered 25. They were ALL WHITE MALES!

[SLIDE 12] The class of 2020 looks a bit different! Among this year’s 86 newly elected members, 31% are women and 9% are from underrepresented minority groups. I congratulate the NAE members who served on our election committees and brought about this result.

This year’s election brings the total to 2,271 members.

[SLIDE 13] The class of 2020 also includes 18 international members in. They are from 13 countries, and one of them is the first member elected from his country. There are 5 women elected this year as international members—significantly more than the average of 2 women elected per year over the previous 4 years.

This year’s election brings the total to 279 international members.

[SLIDE 14] A major goal of the NAE strategic plan adopted in 2015 was to increase the diversity of our membership in terms of gender, racial, and ethnic representation. Another goal was to increase the number of nominations and elected members from the business sector.

The driving force behind these goals was to improve the talent of the NAE membership, and the strategy was to cast a wider net for nominations and search hard for outstanding candidates to nominate for membership.

Thanks to the hard work and commitment by our home secretaries, our section search committees, and our election committees, we have made good strides over the past 5 years, as shown on the slide. Over this time period, 52% of our new members are from the business sector, 26% are women, and 8% are from underrepresented minorities. 

While progress in diversification of our membership has not been fast, the data indicate we are moving in the right direction. Of course, it is imperative that we maintain our commitment to the diversity of the NAE, but our programs must also promote recruitment of women and underrepresented minorities into engineering education and careers. We need the talent if the engineering profession is to continue to flourish.

One thing has not changed over the years: election of NAE members is based on demonstrated achievement and impact of work. The selectivity is very high; only one of every 6 nominees was elected, and ALL nominees are highly accomplished.

Having said this, I want to make one point to the families of today’s inductees. As accomplished as they are, the new members are still expected to take out the trash, clear the dinner table, and perform other chores they had before election to the NAE.  Election does not relieve them of their domestic engineering responsibilities!

On a more serious note, I want to emphasize the expectation of service and volunteerism for NAE members. Keep in mind that “engineer” is a verb—implying action. It is a great honor to be elected to the NAE, but like a university commencement, it is just the beginning.

We will be calling on you to help fulfill our mission of service to the nation. I look forward to working with you as we work together toward the betterment of this country, the world, and this organization. For that, I thank you in advance.

[SLIDE15] I would like to thank all the NAE staff who make our organization work so well. It is a wonderful group of individuals, and they make good things happen.

[SLIDE 16] I would also like to acknowledge the great group of officers and councillors who govern the NAE. These individuals are elected by the members to serve the organization, and they do it very effectively.

I congratulate the class of 2020, and now introduce Dr. Al Romig, NAE member and executive officer, who will introduce the members and international members of the NAE class of 2020.