In This Issue
Spring Bridge on the US Metals Industry: Looking Forward
March 29, 2024 Volume 54 Issue 1
In this issue of The Bridge, guest editors Greg Olson and Aziz Asphahani have assembled feature articles that demonstrate how computational materials science and engineering is leading the way in the deployment of metallic materials that meet increasingly advanced design specifications.

A Word from The NAE Chair: A Moment for Introspection

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Author: Donald C. Winter

As I write this, the week after New Year’s Day, this time of year seems to be a moment for introspection, particularly this year as I approach the end of my tenure as NAE chair. I have joked that the last few years as chair are but another one of my failed retirements. My time as NAE chair, like my engagement as secretary of the navy, has afforded me the opportunity to give back to our nation and our engineering community in thanks for the many blessings that my family and I have received over the years. It has been what some have characterized as the “third act” in life.[1]

While I was educated as a physicist, I always worked as an engineer. I discovered late in my education that, while I enjoyed studying physics, I enjoyed doing engineering ― creating something new. At the University of Michigan, I had the opportunity to do my dissertation research at the Willow Run Laboratories, a research organization that supported NASA and DoD efforts in remote sensing. That was at a time when the campus was consumed by protests against the war in Vietnam, and I was one of the last students to graduate before the university severed all ties with the laboratory. I view my time at Willow Run as a propitious start to my career, as it provided me insight into the impact that engineering could have on national security during a period when the existential challenge of the Cold War was very much with us.

After graduation, I took a position at TRW in ­Redondo Beach, California, where I met and was mentored by Si Ramo.[2] Si had a strong belief in the work that we did and the value of systems engineering. I spent a little over three decades at TRW and Northrop,[3] working as a systems engineer, program manager, and corporate executive. Looking back at this period, I take great satisfaction in the organization’s accomplishments; we took on some formidable challenges and had a significant impact on our nation’s security. One major lesson learned during this period: without the systems engineering approach that Si Ramo promoted, it is doubtful that our efforts would have been successful.

My tenure as secretary of the navy gave me additional insight into the essential value of systems engineering. Unfortunately, the US Navy and Marine Corps had a number of major development programs that were in trouble; they were failing to meet performance expectations, invariably overrun, and well behind schedule. ­Particularly troublesome was the observation that many of the developmental challenges could have been avoided if a disciplined systems engineering process had been implemented from the start. The causes for the failure to implement an effective systems engineering effort were multifold, often with both navy and contractors complicit.

Perhaps that background helps explain my angst at our nation’s response to the challenge of climate change, the latest existential challenge of our age. We, as a nation, will have to do our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop mechanisms to improve our and others’ resilience to the inevitable changes in climate. Unfortunately, I believe that the magnitude of the costs (both financial and political) has not yet been recognized, leading to a failure to focus on and prioritize those societal changes and enabling technologies that will provide the greatest return on investment. Furthermore, no solution set to accomplish the Paris Agreement[4] goal of no greater than a 1.5 degree C global rise in temperature has yet been identified. This situation leaves us without a basis for an informed investment strategy that ensures that the limited funds available are focused on those efforts that provide the highest likelihood of impact on global temperature rise while limiting the undesirable collateral effects that often accompany such changes. Furthermore, much of our nation’s response can best be described as multiple uncoordinated initiatives with limited aggregate impact. For example, shifting transportation to all electric vehicles while we are still highly dependent on coal-fueled generating plants risks near-term increases in CO2 emissions. Such changes and investments need to be properly coordinated and managed using a disciplined systems engineering process.

Unfortunately, government’s interest in initiating and following a systems engineering approach is limited. The politics are simply too great to let go of the decision-making processes. We can still influence decision-making through National Academies studies,[5] but a sustained engagement, providing systems engineering and analyses directly in support of proposed and ongoing initiatives, could have a far greater impact.

It is unclear what role the National Academies should have in such an initiative. Not unlike the Systems Engineering and Technical Advisory (SETA) organizations employed by the DoD, this would require a full-time staff of exceptionally competent and experienced engineers, not an effort based on volunteer participation. We can, however, make a significant contribution through our many means of influence, as both an organization and as individual notable engineers. As I transition out of my role as NAE chair, I will continue to look for opportunities to advocate for a systems engineering perspective on our response to climate change. I ask each of you to consider doing the same. Without a more reasoned approach to our nation’s response, we may well run out of the financial resources, social acceptance, and political support needed to address this crucial issue.


[1]  Bronfman EM. 2002. The Third Act. New York: Putnam

[2] Si Ramo is one of the NAE founders and the “R” in TRW.

[3]  Northrop Grumman acquired TRW in 2002.

[4]  https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement

[5]  For example: https://nap.nationalacademies.org/catalog/25931/ accelerating -decarbonization-in-the-united-states- technology -policy-and-societal

About the Author:Donald C. Winter is chair of the National Academy of Engineering