In This Issue
Fall Issue of The Bridge on Space Exploration
September 1, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 3
Close collaboration between engineering and science has enabled marvels of space exploration over decades. Eight exemplary missions are described in this issue, conveying the excitement, challenges, and breakthroughs involved in efforts to better understand the wonders and mysteries of this solar system.

A Word from the NAE Chair: Science and Engineering

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Author: Donald C. Winter

The phrase “words matter” often refers to the impact of the words people use (or don’t use). In that context, I find it interesting to note the way the words science and engineering are being used by many in positions of influence.

The term science has taken on new meanings as the basis for numerous policy decisions. Of course, we all want such decisions to follow the science, but it is easy to forget that science requires expert interpretation and evaluation and must be put in context to provide value. Furthermore, it is the application of science, in the engineering of systems and solutions that serve society, that properly informs many crucial public policy decisions.

Perhaps most concerning is the all too typical omission of the term engineering. Anthony Fauci’s article in Science[1] describing the development of the covid-19 vaccines is a good case in point. The article does an excellent job of putting the development of this vaccine into the context of the evolving history of vaccines. He notes the many contributions of the teams that provided the biological tools for vaccine development and the work of those who adapted the tools to address covid-19. Unfortunately, the article fails to mention the significant efforts expended to formulate, produce, and distribute billions of doses in a remarkably short period of time—incredible engineering efforts enabling the vaccines to treat the world’s population.

That story reminded me of an experience I had decades ago when I took my first job after defending my dissertation. I was offered a position at TRW’s Applied Technology Division (ATD) in Southern ­California. The scope of ATD’s efforts was impressive, from advanced lasers to scientific instruments for satellites and deep space missions. It motivated me to ask about the division’s name: Why applied technology rather than advanced technology? I was told, very simply, that it was in the application of technology that value was created. That application was the result of engineering.

Unfortunately, a somewhat different perspective was suggested by President Biden’s choice of words on the occasion of the February 18 Mars landing. He tweeted “Congratulations to NASA and everyone whose hard work made Perseverance’s historic landing possible. Today proved once again that with the power of science and American ingenuity, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.”[2] Unfortunately, while “science” is referenced, the word engineering is missing. Of course, the landing was made possible by previous scientific investigations of the Martian atmosphere and the mission was enabled by the many scientific principles underlying space flight; but the incredibly complex spacecraft and its audacious landing sequence were the result of exceptional engineering efforts.

Why is all of this concerning? Because it goes to the heart of engineering’s role and recognition in society. Engineering is how we create solutions to society’s needs and wants. It is the creative venture that enables the successful application of science. I suspect I am not alone among NAE members in choosing engineering as a profession because of the great joy I found in creating things, from products to systems. While I enjoyed studying physics and mathematics, I enjoyed doing engineering!

Without a public understanding of the unique role and value of engineering, our ability to attract the best and brightest will be put at risk as will the ability to properly educate them in the discipline and culture of engineering.

I believe that both the NAE and its members have a special responsibility to explain the unique nature of engineering, the value it provides society, and the great satisfaction that it can provide to its practitioners. That is an essential mission for the academy and is a role that many of us can and should take on as part of our core activities.

 


[1]  April 9; Science 372(6538):109 (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6538/109)

[2]  https://www.space.com/biden-hails-perseverance-mars-rover- landing

About the Author:Donald C. Winter is Chair of the NAE.