In This Issue
Spring Bridge on Postpandemic Engineering
March 14, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 1

A Word from the Chair: Linking Engineering and Society

Friday, April 2, 2021

Author: Donald C. Winter

“Linking engineering and society” is both the tag line of The Bridge and, I believe, an appropriate title for this column as I reflect on the role of the NAE at this time of rapid societal change.

Societal changes precipitated by technology are -nothing new, dating back at least to the original Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What is arguably new today is the pace of transformation.

While the first Industrial Revolution took decades to develop, today we are seeing exceedingly rapid changes in the ways we live, work, and care for the young and old as we adapt to the covid-19 pandemic. Many of these societal changes have been enabled by recently developed technologies, particularly the internet. The responses to the pandemic have accelerated the evolution and adoption of many of the technologies that leverage the capabilities of the internet to communicate. What had been a slow exploration of the use of virtual gatherings to conduct business, educate, and socialize has, in less than a year, become a commonly accepted and defining element of society.

Furthermore, the impact of the wholesale adoption of virtual meetings is already expanding well beyond the domain of the cyber community. Whether virtual meetings ever totally obviate the need for brick-and-mortar offices, it is becoming evident that significant, permanent changes are coming to the role of such facilities, the composition of the cities they are located in, and the nature of the supporting infrastructures. The same is true of the academic community, from elementary school to university. These changes are likely to be further expanded and accelerated by developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, extending the domains impacted to the agricultural and manufacturing communities as well.

As these impacts unfold, responses by private industry and various levels of government will need to keep pace. While private industry may be able to fund its responses through existing mechanisms, government-funded efforts will need to accommodate the budgetary implications and recognize the opportunity costs associated with new initiatives. Furthermore, the initiatives of both private industry and government will need the development of supportive public policy.

Public policy development is a complex process that is inherently political, not necessarily in the sense of political parties but simply in reflecting multiple constituencies that have diverse, and often conflicting, priorities and agendas. As I noted in my remarks at the NAE annual meeting last October,[1] the challenge of decision making constitutes a significant dilemma for federal, state, and local governments as few politicians have the formal training to fully comprehend the technical considerations that underlie these issues.

While individual aspects of societal change may be analytically addressable, such changes are inherently parts of very complex systems. Norm Augustine addressed the challenges of dealing with such problems in his epilogue to the winter issue of The Bridge,[2] noting the ambiguities inherent in the identification of figures of merit for such complex systems and citing examples: “What is the exchange rate between tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere and its social cost? Is it appropriate to put millions of people out of work, many of them into poverty, in order to save thousands of lives in a pandemic?”

While the National Academies have a well-earned reputation for providing independent, objective, and nonpartisan advice to government decision makers, the policy issues stemming from the great societal changes we are just starting to see will put added emphasis on the need to abide by the NRC’s exacting processes to ensure that our advice continues to be recognized as independent, objective, and nonpartisan. At a time of great partisan division in our nation, it is incumbent upon us to rise above such matters and provide advice that is above reproach.

As I have been ruminating about this challenge, I am reminded of a lesson I learned a number of years ago about the delivery of assessments and advice to government officials. ADM (ret.) Bill Studeman taught me that the best way to get the confidence of politicians was to first tell them both what you know and what you don’t know and only then, tell them what you think. They were good words then, and they are good words now.

 


[1]  Remarks by NAE Chair. The Bridge 50(4):92–93.

[2]  Augustine NR. 2020. Toward an engineering 3.0. The Bridge 50(4):79–82.

About the Author:Donald C. Winter, Chair, NAE