In This Issue
December 1, 1997 Volume 27 Issue 4
Fall Issue of The Bridge on Bioengineering.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead (editorial)

Monday, December 1, 1997

Author: Morris Tanenbaum

It has been an honor to serve as the National Academy of Engineering's vice president for the past 8 years. The Academy is a very special organization. We are frequently viewed as an honorary organization whose function is to recognize individuals who have made outstanding engineering contributions to society and the profession. We do that, but the primary reason for our existence is as a service organization.

In partnership with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), we constitute the nation's principal source of unbiased technical advice to the Congress, the president, and the federal agencies. That is a high responsibility, one laid out in the congressional charter under which we operate. That responsibility has been executed over the years with integrity and quality.

Although much younger than the NAS, over the past several years, the NAE has grown to a comparable size in terms of its membership, while still maintaining a policy of electing individuals who represent the very best of engineering talent. The high level of prestige that our Academy enjoys is totally dependent on the excellence of our members and their participation in our activities.

But prestige is a fragile quality, easily lost and difficult to regain. We witnessed that fragility recently when we elected a president whom members later found it necessary to recall. That period did not go unnoticed among our clients and supporters.

We can be proud of our membership's response to that difficult period and of our staff that, under extremely difficult circumstances, maintained the Academy as a vital operation. Nevertheless, many of the Academy's functions were damaged, and the ability of the Academy to operate effectively was publicly questioned.

With new leadership, the damage is being repaired. We are in the process of a thorough review of our internal functions, including the election of members, officers, and councillors, as well as the role of sections and their structure. Our objective is to assure that we achieve the highest quality in these areas along with the communication flows that more completely inform and involve our membership.

We must learn from that difficult period and take action to reduce the possibility of its recurring. In particular, this experience emphasizes the importance of our nomination process, in which a committee representing a broad cross-section of our membership conducts an open search, thoroughly examines candidates' qualifications and, after Council approval, presents a slate to the members for a vote.

The membership is most important for the talents and experience it brings in fulfilling the Academy's responsibilities to advise policy makers on technical matters. Increasingly, most policy involves technology. We have broadened our role beyond that spelled out in our charter, that is, beyond simply giving advice when requested. The NAE program of independent studies is designed to help us identify and define issues of potential national importance, before they become readily visible to the policy-making community, and to recommend actions that should be taken.

While our clients pay the costs associated with conducting the studies they request, we must find the funding for those studies and activities we initiate ourselves. Therefore, we have joined with the NAS and IOM to raise the funds needed to support our initiatives.

This is another area where our members are essential to our success. Through their experience and contacts, they can help us identify those individuals and organizations (e.g., corporations and foundations) that may support our work and explain to them our objectives and capabilities.

In addition, we ask our members to personally contribute to our fundraising effort, to the degree that they can. The full participation of our members, at whatever level they can afford, sends an important message to external funders about members' belief in the importance of our work.

There is a continually expanding need for our citizens and for policymakers to understand the power and limitations of science and technology in advancing the well-being of humanity. Our Academy, in partnership with the NAS and IOM, has the capability to play a pivotal role in advancing science and technology and the public's ability to harness them appropriately. We are blessed with the talent and, thereby, charged with the responsibility to use it effectively.

About the Author:Morris Tanenbaum is retired vice chairman and chief financial officer of AT&T. His term as vice president ends in June, 1998.