2021 National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting

President's Address

President's Address
57th National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 2, 2021

[SLIDE 1: Title] Good afternoon and welcome to the National Academy of Engineering's 2021 annual meeting. I’m John Anderson, president of the NAE, and it is my honor to address this very distinguished gathering and celebrate the introduction of our new members—the class of 2021.

This is our second year holding a virtual annual meeting. We are doing so out of an abundance of caution and concern for your health and safety. Thank you for pivoting to this online platform with us. And thanks to our wonderful staff for their hard work to make this a memorable meeting.

Thank you, Don Winter, for your service as chair and for your salient comments on the importance of recognizing the contributions of engineering.

Let me share some details about the historical significance of the NAE, the National Research Council, and our sister academies.

[Slide 2: Lincoln with 1863 members of NAS] In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional charter that created the National Academy of Sciences. The country was mired in the Civil War, and part of Lincoln’s focus was to elevate the sciences and engineering and utilize their technical expertise for advancing the military capabilities of the Union.

The 50 initial members of the academy were scientists, engineers, and physicians from academia, industry, and government. Many of the engineers were classified as inventors and manufacturers. Today, the NAE carries the mantle of engineering—and a strong connection to industry as well as academia and government.

One of the first instances when the newly formed NAS was called upon to advise our young nation was to correct the accuracy of compasses on-board ironclad ships. These were powerful armored vessels that were developed by a Swedish engineer to deflect cannon balls and other fire. But the iron armor caused the compasses to deviate and could have led to dangerous situations at sea. The NAS was tasked with assembling a committee to study the problem and made recommendations that corrected the compasses on nearly 30 wartime ships.

I share this bit of history because I was reminded that engineering has a strong history of serving our country in times of war; however, we must continue to address critical matters in times of peace as well—as the current pandemic demonstrates.

In 1916 the National Research Council was formed by President Woodrow Wilson. The NRC works collaboratively with the National Academies “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. Today, the NRC serves as the operating arm of the overall organization, called the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).

In 1964 the National Academy of Engineering was established under the same charter as the National Academy of Sciences to provide independent and objective advice to the government and public on matters of engineering and technology, and to advance the profession of engineering. In 1970 the National Academy of Medicine was established (originally called the Institute of Medicine).

Our mission dictates that service is an important aspect of NAE membership. Last year 55% of our members participated in at least one activity of the NRC or the NAE. One of my priorities is to increase this number. I view member participation as a direct measure of the health and vitality of the National Academy of Engineering. So we will attempt to put you all to work!

I emphasize that the Academies are not part of the government, and this is by design. Our work is independent and nonpartisan and there is no federal line item for us, nor any congressional appropriation, as many might think. This ensures that the important work we do remains objective, nonpartisan, and credible. However, a burden of this independence is our dependence on philanthropy. More than 50% of the NAE’s operating budget derives from past and current donations by our members, foundations, corporations, and other friends.

When I ask you to donate to the NAE, you can be assured of two things: First, your donation is supporting very important work; and second, your donation is critical to the operations of the NAE. Our members are generous with their time and financial support, and I thank you for this.

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[Slide 3] The first class of NAE members in 1964 had 25 members—52% from the business sector, 36% from universities, and 12% from national laboratories. Note in the picture the uniform dress code—and the uniform gender and race.

[Slide 4: Sample of new class of members] This year we elected 104 new members. This slide shows a sample of the class of 2021—note the comparison with the class of 1964!

[Slide 5: Photos of new international members] We also elected 24 new international members from 17 countries. With our newfound skills in dealing with virtual meetings, honed over almost two years of the COVID pandemic, we are in a better position to engage our international members in both NRC and NAE activities.

[Slide 6: Demographics of the new members and international members] This slide shows some demographics of the members being introduced today. I congratulate the NAE members who served on our election committees and brought about this result. With intention and effort we have made some progress since 1992.

This slide also demonstrates the importance of immigration to the technical workforce of this country—33% of the US members elected this year were born outside the United States. Immigrants have contributed substantially to the success of this country, and we must ensure that we continue to welcome them.

We now have 2300 US members and 290 international members, representing multiple fields of engineering and bringing unmatched expertise and life experiences to advance the mission of the NAE.


Science and engineering: What’s the difference? To quote Theodore von Kármán, the father of aeronautics and the first recipient of the US Medal of Science, “Scientists discover what is, engineers create what never was.” As Chairman Don Winter noted in his address, engineering is about creating products, processes, and systems that address human needs—and sometimes anticipate human needs. The key word here is “create.”

The symbiotic relationship between science and engineering has produced great improvements in the quality of human life. Whether one is acting as a scientist or an engineer is not determined solely by one’s educational degrees, rather it is determined by what the person is doing. Note that 20% of the new members being introduced today have no formal degree in “engineering.”

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[Slide 7: Engr & Covid] An example of the power of engineering to improve the human condition is found in the fight against COVID-19, which unfortunately remains ongoing. In several public addresses, NAE member David Walt has laid out the contributions of engineers in this fight, which he summarizes in four areas: testing, protective equipment, vaccines and therapeutics, and data analysis.

David notes that within just a few weeks of the outbreak of COVID-19, the full genetic code of the virus was determined with the help of DNA sequencers developed by engineers—much faster than was possible in previous pandemics. This advance led to the development of vaccines at near-record speed by scientists and engineers, and the scale-up of vaccine production to billions of doses that tilted the battle in favor of humans instead of microbes. This is a great example of the value of collaboration between science and engineering aimed at solving a global problem threatening all of us.

[Slide 8: Protective Gear] Engineering enabled the manufacturing and scaling of personal protective devices. Masks, gowns, and face shields are the first line of defense against COVID-19. Scaling up the production of functional personal protective devices resulted from additive manufacturing—a technology based on 3D printing that enabled thousands of masks to be printed in a matter of hours.

From protective gear to diagnostics to vaccines to data analysis, engineering has played a major role in combatting COVID-19 in the US and on a global scale.


 [Slide 9: Four I’s] 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 and
  • Improve capabilities and competencies for complex systems engineering

The second “I” recognizes the need to continue to open up the profession to new minds and new ideas. To do so will require a variety of learning paths to attract a diverse array of students to engineering who are able to compete on any playing field. We work to communicate and partner across traditional and nontraditional lines to foster a better understanding and appreciation of engineering. Two NAE programs focus on this goal.

[Slide 10 EngineerGirl] The first is our effort to spark excitement about engineering in girls in grades K-12 and connect them to opportunities and role models. EngineerGirl programs build engineering leadership and confidence in girls around the country.

EngineerGirl is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and it represents one very exciting way that the NAE is speaking to different audiences. What began as a resource website is now a dynamic outreach platform that connects with girls, their parents and caregivers, and the educational community.

[Slide 11: Contest Winner Quotes] Since its inception, over 10,000 students, both boys and girls, have participated in the EngineerGirl annual writing contest. This year we asked some of the past winners to tell us what participating in it meant to them. You can see on this slide some of their responses.

[Slide 12: Ambassadors] The EngineerGirl Ambassadors Program, now in its fourth year, has introduced over 1500 middle and elementary school students to engineering.

Some of the high school mentors lead online clubs where girls get to talk to women engineers from all over the US, and others have been meeting (outdoors during COVID-19) to work on design projects in teams, similar to what we do in universities to educate engineers.

[Slide 13: Sponsors] I want to take this moment to thank the committed sponsors who have made these programs possible. The Chevron Corporation, Clark Foundation, Kenan Foundation, Lockheed Martin, Oracle, and others have made EngineerGirl a sustaining activity of the NAE. And the foresight and philanthropy of Mr. John McDonnell, former CEO of McDonnell Douglas, pushed us to develop the Ambassadors program and provided funding to launch it.

Many NAE members and friends over the years have also generously contributed to EngineerGirl as role models, as volunteers, and as donors. This is an example of how your contributions of time and financial resources can make a difference.


[Slide 14: FOE] Another way we promote excellence in engineering through outreach is the Frontiers of Engineering program. The FOE program selects high-achieving engineers who are early in their careers to learn about leading-edge developments in fields beyond their own. It brings together engineers from the US and other countries to promote the transfer of new techniques and approaches across fields.

[Slide 15: FOE International] In addition to the annual US symposium, we have bilateral programs with the European Union, Japan, Germany, and China. This year we had greater interest from other countries hoping to partner with us on the FOE program.

These meetings are a forum for sharing ideas to generate new knowledge and technologies, innovative capacity, and economic vitality. There’s also a grant program, for US participants, to encourage collaboration.

In its 25-year history, the FOE program has been so effective in recognizing and promoting career development that 140 of its alums have been elected to the NAE—including 13 in the class being introduced today.

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[Slide 16: NRC] The work of the National Research Council is the lever that enables collaboration and research to produce valuable consensus study reports that provide objective and nonpartisan advice with high standards of technical quality.

The NRC is organized into seven divisions that support standing boards and conduct important studies for the government and the public.

The convening power of the NAE and the other two academies is critical to providing the volunteer talent to address some of the country’s and world’s most crucial problems.

As NAE members, many of you will be called upon to serve on these committees and panels. Such member engagement is a critical aspect of your NAE service to the nation, and when you are asked to volunteer, I hope you will accept. It is an exceptional and very rewarding role that can have significant impact.

A few recent examples illustrate the range of opportunities and impacts of the NRC’s work.

[Slide 17: NRC] NAE members served on a consensus study by the Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences that produced a report this year on Accelerating Decarbonization of the US Energy System. The report lays out a policy roadmap and technology goals necessary to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Several committee members testified before Congress, where the findings are informing legislation related to future energy policy.

NAE members made up half the committee that produced a 2020 report on Innovation in Information Technology. Its conclusions were cited by National Science Foundation in its FY22 budget request to Congress.

[Slide 18: NRC] NAE members also served on the study that produced the Transportation Research Board’s 2020 consensus report Leveraging Unmanned Systems for Coast Guard Authorities, which recommended that the US Coast Guard proceed more aggressively and deliberatively in taking advantage of unmanned systems technology. The report prompted the chair and ranking member of a House committee to write to the commandant of the Coast Guard—and now there is a new Coast Guard Unmanned Systems office as specified in the report’s recommendations.


Broadening participation in engineering is a goal that ranks at the top of the NAE’s responsibilities. When we find areas that do not foster diversity or present obstacles to participating, we work to guide a better future.

[Slide 19: NRC] The 2018 National Academies report on Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine makes it clear that systemwide changes that go beyond compliance are necessary to tackle systems, cultures, and a climate that enables sexual harassment to exist and therefore negatively affect the well-being of those participating in these fields.

A seminal step toward remedying the problem is the Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education, where more than 60 colleges, universities, and other research institutions work to identify, research, develop, and implement efforts to address and prevent all forms of sexual harassment.

The action collaborative is in its third year and recently counted more than 60 new initiatives from among its members that focus on areas such as improving hiring practices and creating bystander intervention training.


I again emphasize the expectation of service and volunteerism for NAE members. Keep in mind that “engineer” is both a noun and a verb—implying action. I turn to the words of Albert Einstein who said “only a life lived in the service to others is worth living.”

It is a great honor to be elected to the NAE, but like a university commencement, it is just the beginning. I look forward to working with you as we strive toward the betterment of this country, the world, and this organization. For that, I thank you in advance.


[Slide 20: Staff] 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. We owe them a lot.

[Slide 21: Officers/Councillors] I also acknowledge the remarkable officers and councillors who govern the NAE. These individuals are elected by the members to serve the organization, and they do so with skill, selfless effort, and integrity.

I now turn to the most important part of this program: recognition of the NAE class of 2021.

Note that we will repeat this ceremony in person at the annual meeting in 2022, so that every member of the class of 2021 will have the opportunity to be properly introduced and walk across the stage of this auditorium to sign the membership rolls.

Dr. Al Romig, NAE member and executive officer, will now introduce the class of 2021.

Congratulations to all of you!