2002 Annual Meeting - President's Remarks

President's Welcome to new members and foreign members
National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 6, 2002

It is an immense honor to welcome our new members and foreign members. You must feel honored as well; my own induction is one of my fondest memories. The academy is renewed and enriched by each new class. Your knowledge and experience enable us to continue to play a unique and invaluable role in service to our country. I also want to acknowledge the families and friends of the members of the new class. I know that none of those being inducted would be here if it weren't for their support.

I am going to raise a somewhat weighty issue with you today, so I hope you'll forgive me for diving right in. By way of context, I should explain that in 1999, after two years of preparation, NAE proposed a new strategic plan. Every year at its August meeting the NAE Council reviews the plan and sets operational objectives for the coming year. This year the council affirmed the new plan. But rather than talk about the plan itself, I want to talk about a question that arose in our discussion of it.

As many of you know, the National Academies operate under an 1863 charter from the U.S. Congress that calls on us to provide advice to the government on issues of science and technology, and to do so without compensation whenever we are asked. Our role is unique among academies around the world, and in that role, we have been of immense value to the United States. But it's a passive role. That is, if and when we are asked, we provide advice to the government. By contrast, the new strategic plan starts with the words: "to promote the technological health of the nation..." That may sound innocent enough-but notice that the words do not say wait to be asked or only provide advice or limit our target audience to the federal government. The new strategy is a much broader and much more proactive mandate.

In the course of our discussions, a question arose about the need for technical leadership in terms of the new policy. As president of NAE, I am at the nexus of science, engineering, and public policy. Every day I see that technologically astute leadership is essential to wise governance in our increasingly technology-dominated world. Questions of technology are integral to many of the most important issues facing the country-energy, the environment, defense, both at home and abroad, and on and on. These issues require more than a superficial knowledge of engineering and technology. They require the sort of deep, visceral understanding that only comes with the practice of engineering.

In the context of an extended discussion of the profound need for technically savvy leadership, the following question was raised: Although there is no doubt that we need technologically astute leadership, will engineers "stand up" to fill that need? Are engineers, both individually and collectively, willing to provide that kind of leadership? When the question was first asked, I thought it was a "no brainer." Of course we would! On reflection, however, I am not so sure--for several reasons:

1. The culture of engineering is for engineers to be unassuming, to be inconspicuous.

2. The culture of engineering rewards technical achievement, not leadership. How often have you heard someone say, "She isn't an engineer any longer; she's become a manager."

3. The culture of engineering proscribes our giving advice, except on technical matters. How often have you heard someone say, "That's a political question; we have nothing to contribute."

4. The culture and practice of the NAE reflect the culture of engineering. We regularly decline to undertake studies if the answer isn't technical.

Perhaps one of the most telling reflections of our reluctance to stand up is that only eight members of Congress have engineering degrees (two of whom also have law degrees). That's eight out of 535! That's 1.5 percent, much lower than our representation in the population that might be qualified for office. Engineers just don't seek elective office in this country. That's quite a contrast with countries like China where the prime minister and about a third of the ministers are engineers. There's nothing in the genetic makeup of people who choose to be engineers that makes them shy away from public office; it's something in the culture of this country. Don't misunderstand me. I believe we should stand up. But we're going to have to ask ourselves some tough questions about what we value and how we preserve those values when we stand up-or, indeed, perhaps decide that we won't. Either way, it should be a conscious decision.

My summer reading this year included Tuxedo Park, the story of the people who provided technical leadership just before and during WW II. One of them, Vannevar Bush, was an engineer, but most of them were physicists. I found it interesting that they faced some of the same cultural issues we face now. They resolved them fairly quickly, under the pressure of the war-but there is no doubt that radar, the Norton bombsight, the proximity fuse, and the atomic bomb, which were crucial to winning the war and saved millions of lives, were possible only because the physics community stood up.

I know of no organization other than the NAE that can begin the conversation about standing up. I am going to use the events of 9/11 as a concrete framework for my remarks, but I believe the general issues apply to a much broader range of topics. This discussion can be divided into two broad sets of issues. The first set, which relates to the use of technology in countering terrorism, will be fairly comfortable territory. The second set may be less comfortable because, although it is technologically grounded (that is, one needs a technical background for an in-depth understanding of the issues), the required response isn't necessarily technical. When talking about these kinds of issues, we must ask ourselves whether we're prepared to stand up.

Let's begin with the familiar ground. When Bill Perry was secretary of defense, he liked to point out that one of the reasons we won the Cold War was that we never actually had to fight a conventional, non-nuclear war because NATO would be a credible adversary in a conventional war. We were credible in spite of the significant numerical advantage-in both troops and armament-of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. NATO was a credible adversary as the result of the "offset strategy. We offset their numerical advantage with superior technology. Our troops could locate, identify, target, and destroy potential attackers with far greater accuracy, speed, and lethality than Warsaw Pact troops. MAD (mutually assured destruction) may have prevented a nuclear war, but the offset strategy was a major component of the larger strategy for preventing a conventional war.

We are now faced with a very different adversary with a different advantage, and we need different technologies to offset those advantages. But the principal is the same. With technology, specific threats can be detected and countered; for example, sensors can detect explosives and chemical and biological agents. Technology can also reduce the costs of security. Some of the technologies of most interest can reduce the costs to our lifestyle and our civil liberties, rather like a metal detector, which is both faster and less intrusive than a pat-down search.

As a trusted advisor to the federal government, the National Academies will undoubtedly play an important role in identifying and validating technologies; in fact, we are already up to our eyebrows in doing exactly that. More than 50 studies and activities are going on. Some are long term, such as a study requested by the President's science advisor, Jack Marburger, for an R&D agenda. That report, Making the Nation Safer, was published in June. Other activities are shorter term, such as advising the FBI on its next-generation computer system.

These activities are very, very important, and the Academies are uniquely capable of doing them. In fact, we've been doing them since shortly after the founding of the NAS in 1863. This is a familiar, comfortable role, and we have no trouble standing up in this way. But now let me shift to the second class of issues-technologically based issues that require advice that is not necessarily technical-and may not even be intended for the government. I am going to use four examples: (1) the balance between openness and national security; (2) student visas; (3) the root causes of terrorism; and (4) need-driven basic research.

In each case, engineers understand the issues far better than either the general public or most policy makers. We understand the issues because of our experience and our technical expertise. But the answers aren't technical, and may in fact be political. With these examples, I invite you to think about whether, and if so how, engineers should stand up.

Openness vs Security

During the Cold War, the government and the technical community developed a consensus on the balance between openness and security, especially with respect to nuclear weapons technology. In fact, we came to understand that a certain degree of openness enhanced our security. For example, MAD, the policy of mutually assured destruction, depended on each side knowing enough about the other's capability to ensure that neither made a miscalculation.

More generally, openness in research allowed researchers to make rapid progress toward a deeper understanding of nature and allowed engineers to translate that understanding into a better life for everyone. Of course, some things had to be classified to ensure our national security. But the people involved in setting policy understood the wisdom of building high fences around small areas. That is, we opted in favor of openness, except in the areas where secrecy was essential-and those secrets we protected vigorously.

Since 9/11 and the anthrax incidents of last fall, there has been a knee-jerk response to reduce openness. For example, we have restricted access of foreign nationals to national laboratories, barred some foreign nationals from attending certain college courses (such as classes in cybersecurity), and required a government review of research papers before they are published. I believe we must find a new balance point between openness and security; the situation today is quite different (in terms of the adversary and the relevant technologies) from the situation during the Cold War. In many cases, the people advocating these restrictions have little experience with the openness/security balance of the past. Specifically, they are not aware that openness actually contributed to our real security. That lack of experience is leading to overly cautious, and potentially counterproductive, behavior. Unless the engineering community, which by and large has much more experience with national defense than the scientific community, becomes engaged, it is unlikely that we will find the optimal new balance point.

The issue of openness and security arises from a combination of technical concerns and security concerns, both of which we know a lot about. But the actions indicated are definitely not technical. Should we stand up? If so, how?

Student Visas

Student visas may be a special case of the previous example. As many of you in academia know, it is now much more difficult for students to get visas to enter the United States-especially for young men from Asia and the Middle East. You also know that foreign students and immigrants have contributed enormously to the welfare of this country. As a first-generation immigrant, I have a visceral sense of the contributions that my father, and all of the immigrants entering today, have made to the United States. Even students who return to their native countries can be of immense value to the United States. Because they understand us and our values, they are often our best spokespersons.

Two years ago my wife and I, with Bruce Alberts and his wife, visited our counterpart academy in Iran, a country that President Bush has labeled part of the "axis of evil." That may or may not be true-I'm not an expert, and I haven't been briefed on the information that prompted that remark. However, I quickly learned that Iranian universities and the Iranian academy are filled with people who are influential in their country, have been educated in the West (the United States in particular), are sympathetic to our goals and values, and are anxious to have better relations with us.

No one outside the research community can possibly have the kind of in-depth, gut-level understanding of the technical contributions and the ambassadorial role of our foreign students. At the same time, however, we must take into account that some of the terrorists who hijacked the four planes last September were here on student visas. Therefore, benign neglect in granting and tracking students is no longer acceptable. Sensible precautions are certainly in order. Just as with openness, we must find a new balance point.

Again I ask the same basic question. We have experience that is highly relevant to resetting the balance point. Should we stand up? If so, how?

Root Causes of Terrorism

The NAE is conducting a study to help channel resources to ameliorate our most serious vulnerabilities. Rather than just fortifying airports, we need to take a broad look at the kinds of vulnerabilities that exist and the risks they pose-that is, the probability of an incident and the consequences of that incident-associated with each vulnerability. The resulting assessment should be the basis for our investments in protection.

As a result of my involvement in this study, I now know that we have a huge number of vulnerabilities-vulnerabilities that can have cataclysmic consequences. I now know what engineers in this area have known for a long time-that we cannot defend against all threats. We can move the target a bit, but if we have a perfect defense against the N most serious threats, terrorists will simply select the N+1 threat. So we can move the target, but we cannot create a perfect shield.

Much the same is true of mounting an offense against networked terrorist organizations. Al-Qaeda is not likely to conveniently (for us) amass again in an area where we can use our Cold War era armaments to advantage. Oddly, the same technical properties that make the Internet robust to failure make the human network of terrorists robust to failure. I think only engineers can appreciate that statement in depth. The popular press and our political leaders, by contrast, seem to be operating on the assumption that a combination of defensive actions at home and offensive actions abroad can keep us safe. As we know, they won't.

In the long run, we will have to deal with the reasons terrorists hate us-what some have called the root causes of terrorism. I am not an expert, although I have been getting a crash course for the last 13 months. But I've learned that terrorism arises from a complex interplay of geopolitics, religion, regional/ethnic pride, economics, and other factors. The eventual solution will have to address a broad spectrum of issues, including bringing democracy, freedom, justice, and especially hope, to potential terrorists. I do not want to delve into all that now, except to note that poverty and hopelessness breed desperation and create a climate for terrorism.

If we are really going to eliminate terrorists, if we are really going to make ourselves safe, we will have to address the issues that affect the quality of life in developing countries, and engineers will play a central role in this. That's not a fuzzy, humanitarian, do-good statement. It's a national security statement. It's also not a complete statement, because the issues of democracy, freedom, justice, and hope must also be addressed. But a decent quality of life is a necessary precursor.

Engineers have the expertise and experience. Relatively straightforward risk analysis shows that we cannot defend against all threats. Should we stand up and explore the consequences for national policy? If so, how?

Need-Driven Basic Research

My fourth and last example is directed at us rather than at the government. At the end of WWII, Vannevar Bush submitted a report to the president, Science, the Endless Frontier, which set the tone for federal support of research for the next 50 years. In his report, Vannevar Bush defined the difference between basic and applied research. He argued that mission agencies, such as the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Energy (DOE) could not be expected to support basic research. The demands of their mission, he said, would drive out basic research in favor of applied research. Ultimately, that argument led to the creation of a new agency-the National Science Foundation-to support basic research. In the intervening 50 years, the academic community has reinforced this argument many times. But is it true? And is it appropriate?

Unfortunately, it's not true. First, mission agencies like DOD, DOE, NASA, and others do support basic research. In fact, they are the principal funders of certain areas of basic research! Second, as pointed out by Donald Stokes in his book, Pasteur's Quadrant, the basic/applied dichotomy is too simplistic. Not all basic research is motivated by intellectual curiosity alone. Sometimes it is motivated by both curiosity and practical concerns. As a prime example, Stokes cites Pasteur's germ theory of disease, which Pasteur discovered while he was in pursuit of very practical concerns related to the brewing of beer.

I believe some basic research questions are also motivated by practical concerns about counterterrorism. I know this is true in my field of computer security, and I believe it is true in virtually all fields. The question remains. Are we, especially we academic engineers, prepared to stand up and let our intellectual pursuits be at least partly directed by the nation's needs? Are we willing, for example, to devote a fraction of our capacity to addressing the needs of the developing world in order to reduce the risks here at home? The physicists at Tuxedo Park, in the Rad Laboratory, the Manhattan Project, and thousands of others did that during WW II. Are we prepared to do it now?


I chose these four examples because each of them highlights a different aspect of the basic question of whether engineers, individually and collectively as an Academy, are prepared to step beyond our traditional role, although in that role we have been invaluable to the nation. This is hardly an idle question. Much of the authority of the Academies rests on our reputation for providing authoritative, fact-based reports. There is some danger that we could tarnish that reputation. If the Academy stands up now, we must carefully consider how to do it in a way that enhances rather than detracts from our reputation-and hence our effectiveness.

In conclusion, let me note that the increasing relevance and influence of the Academies is stressful in many ways, but it reflects the importance of engineering and science in the modern world. Our relevance demands that we rethink our traditional role as passive responders to questions posed by the government. Our relevance may also be pushing us toward the role of commentators on issues with technological roots that require nontechnical action. Think about it. Are we prepared to stand up and take on that role? If so, how? Your officers and council members will be grappling with these questions, and we welcome your input! The urgency of these questions underscores why you, our new members, are so important to the Academy and to the country. Your knowledge and expertise make it possible for us to provide our policy makers with the best engineering and scientific advice available anywhere.