2005 Annual Meeting - President's Remarks

October 9, 2005

National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 9, 2005

Wm. A. Wulf

It is an immense honor to welcome once again our new members and foreign members. The knowledge and experience you bring to the academy enables us to continue to play a unique role in service to our democracy. The academy is renewed and enriched by each new class. I also want to acknowledge the families and friends of the new members, whose support has been essential to every inductee.

My topic this year is what I believe the nation must do to prosper in the 21st century. By any objective measure, the United States is in great shape! We are the only superpower, our economy is the largest in the world and growing nicely, both unemployment and inflation are low, and we are dominant in most areas of science, technology, and high-tech industry.

Engineers have been responsible for much of that dominance and the resulting prosperity. There is no better way to convey the impact of engineers on our quality of life than by reading a list of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the twentieth century. You can find the full list in A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives. But consider this.

In 1900, almost no home had electricity; very few people had automobiles, and there were just a few tens of miles of paved road in the entire country; the first airplane had not been flown; the average life expectancy was 46 (it’s now 77, and 20 of the additional 31 years are attributable to clean water and sanitation); almost no one had a telephone; there was no refrigeration, radio, TV, or antibiotics; and, of course, there were no computers, Internet, or satellites. In 1900, 50 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms, and it took that many to feed the other 50 percent. Today; 2 percent live on farms and feed not only the other 98 percent, but also a good number of folks overseas. And the list goes on…

The phenomenal transformation of our quality of life has been fueled by innovations created by engineers, and the pace of innovation, if anything, is accelerating. Many of us have believed that the United States has been a particularly fertile place for innovation. Our great research universities have created streams of new knowledge and provided educated engineers to exploit that knowledge. We have had a ready supply of capital, and our culture encourages risk taking.

The Flat, Global Playing Field

The world is not static, however, and recent books and reports have begun to raise warning flags that the status quo in the United States will not suffice for us to continue to prosper. I expect you have either read or heard about Tom Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). Friedman’s premise is that the (economic) playing field has become more level—flatter in his parlance—and off-shoring, outsourcing, and Lou Dobbs’ “Exporting of America” are all manifestations of this. Flattening, Friedman argues, has happened because it is now technologically possible to locate call centers in the Philippines, coordinate the complex supply chains and work flows that enable manufacturing in China, and perform “back office” work in India, including having Indian radiologists read x-rays and CAT scans taken in U.S. hospitals.

Friedman is not the first one to say these things, nor is his analysis impeccable. But he has captured the attention of the country. He lists ten “flatteners” that have led to the leveling of the economic playing field—nine of which are technologies we (engineers) created. Engineers made possible, and now real, what many believe is a serious problem for the United States—competition on a rough-and-tumble, flat playing field.

Friedman argues that, despite the dangers, the trend toward a flat world is a good thing, both economically and geopolitically. Lower costs benefit consumers and shareholders in developed and developing countries alike, and a rising middle class in India and China will become consumers of their own products, and ours. That same rising middle class has a growing stake in frictionless international commerce—and hence in stability, peace, and the rule of law. But, he says, there will be problems during the transition, and whether global flatness will be good for any particular country will depend on whether that country is prepared to compete on the new global playing field.

A few lines at the very end of Chapter 6 inspired me to choose this topic. “But have we [the United States] really been investing in our future and preparing our children the way we need to for the race ahead?…The answer is no.” When I combine those lines with the fact that engineers are the ones who created the enablers of a flat world, I can’t help but think that we have a responsibility to prepare the United States to play on a flat field.

NAE recently released Engineering Research and America’s Future, a study chaired by Jim Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan. The report documents the decline of (1) federal support for research in the physical sciences and engineering; (2) the number of U.S. students in physical sciences and engineering (the United States actually produces only 7 percent of new engineers in the world); (3) the U.S. share of papers and patents; and (4) the U.S. capacity for innovation.

Another report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, issued by the National Research Council on October 12, also documents how the global innovation environment is changing. Chaired by NAE member Norm Augustine, the report was produced by a committee of CEOs, university presidents, and Nobel laureates. Backed by copious data, the report provides a reasoned discussion of why the strategies by which the United States achieved its current leadership position are no longer sufficient—and perhaps not even appropriate—in a globalized world.

Most Americans instinctively know that the way to prosper is to innovate. But innovation means change, and change can be difficult, especially when you are on top. As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.”

Clayton Christenson, the author of The Innovators Dilemma (Collins, 2003), noted that the best run companies are often the most resistant to new, “disruptive” technologies. It is no accident that only one of the 100 largest U.S. firms in 1900 was still on the list in 2000. Ironically, the most dangerous place to be seems to be at the top—for both companies and countries. It is hard for the leaders to change because what they have been doing is what got them to the top and because a large vocal cadre believes that deviating from the current course will lead to disaster. Therefore, the tendency is to circle the wagons—to protect the current advantage!

A recent experience will illustrate this kind of thinking. A few weeks ago, I testified before the House Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee responsible for immigration. The subject was foreign-born students, especially in the physical sciences and engineering. Here are a few undisputed facts: between 1980 and 2000, the percentage of Ph.D. scientists and engineers employed in the United States who were born abroad increased from 24 percent to 37 percent; the percentage of foreign-born Ph.D. engineering students today is close to 60 percent; one-fourth of the engineering faculty at U.S. universities was born abroad; and from 1990 to 2004, more than one-third of Nobel Prizes in the United States were awarded to foreign-born scientists. To me those facts suggest that we have been skimming the best and brightest from around the world and that much of our prosperity is the result of our access to that incredible talent pool.

At a congressional hearing, only the congressmen get to ask questions, of course, so I don’t know their opinions. But reading between the lines, it seemed to me that many of the subcommittee members had a different take on these facts—namely that every foreign student is a potential spy trying to steal our technology and that the United States would be better off if there were no foreign students at American universities. One congressman said explicitly that if there were no foreign students, there would be room for all of the U.S. students who want to be scientists and engineers but can’t get into college.

I was stunned. Like the corporate types who cling to the notion that they are doing the right thing, these representatives obviously believe that the United States is the sole possessor of leading technology and the sole source of talent that can produce the next important ideas. So, let’s circle the wagons and make visas to study in the United States even harder to get!

What would have happened if that had been the prevailing attitude in the past? Fifty years ago many of our scientific leaders came from Europe—Einstein, Fermi, and Teller (without whom we might not have been the first to build the atomic bomb), von Braun (without whom we might not be ascendant in rockets and space), and von Neumann (without whom we might not be leaders in computing and information technology). Today, Europeans aren’t the only ones contributing to our prosperity, and our security—think of Praveen Chaudhary (now director of Brookhaven National Laboratory), C.N. Yang (Nobel Laureate physicist, from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton); and Elias Zerhouni (who was born in Algeria and is now the director of the National Institutes of Health). There are also an enormous number of journeyman scientists and engineers whose individual contributions will never be as celebrated, but without whom the United States would be neither as prosperous nor as secure as it is today.

Some of you saw my article in the fall issue of The Bridge in which I characterized the issue of visas for foreign students as just one tile in a mosaic that depicts short-term thinking, attempts to preserve the status quo, and a lack of long-term investment—in short, exactly the kind of thinking that Christensen argues dooms industry-leading, good companies that fail to adopt disruptive technologies.

I don’t have time to discuss all of the tiles in this mosaic, but I’ll just mention a few: proposed new policies for handling “deemed exports”; the creation of an undefined class of sensitive, but unclassified, information; and continuing reductions in federal support for research in physical sciences and engineering in favor of support for more short-term research.

Strategies for the Future

There is a widespread consensus that innovation is critical to our future prosperity. In my view, there is no simple formula for innovation. A multicomponent “environment” collectively encourages, or discourages, innovation. A few of the components of this environment are a vibrant research base; an educated workforce; a culture that permits, even encourages, risk-taking; a social climate that attracts the best and brightest from anywhere in the world to practice engineering; “patient capital” available to the entrepreneur; tax laws that reward investment; appropriate protections for intellectual property; and laws and regulations that protect the public while encouraging experimentation. We must do better in every one of these areas.

Priority Areas for Improvement

First, the erosion of our physical sciences and engineering research base and the increasing focus on short-term results will lead to a long-term decline in the quality of U.S. research capability. It takes 15 years for ideas to make their way from research laboratories to products, so the consequences of this neglect will not be apparent for a long time. When they do become apparent, even assuming we can muster the political will to reverse the decline, it will take a long time to undo the damage. Alas, it is clear that physical sciences and engineering research is not a current public priority, and hence not a priority of our government. Only the federal government can reverse this decline—by increasing funding for university research and providing incentives for industry-funded research.

Second, we must ensure the high quality of the workforce. This is our problem, and we, the engineering community, have the ability to fix it! A little money would probably help, but even without money, we can change a great deal. I have been calling for reform in engineering education since I became NAE president, and I think we have moved the ball down the field a ways. But not nearly far enough. We will not be able to compete with Chinese and Indian engineers on price, so we must make sure our engineers are worth five times as much. We can only do that by reforming engineering education.

Third, we must provide a nurturing social climate for U.S.-born students to pursue careers in physical sciences and engineering. The proportion of U.S. undergraduate students studying engineering is the lowest in the developed world—4 to 5 percent, as opposed to 12 to 13 percent in most European countries and more than 40 percent in China. The U.S. currently produces only 7 percent of new engineers in the world each year. Although engineering has historically been considered a pathway to upward economic mobility and, for decades, classes were overwhelmingly populated with immigrants and their offspring, minorities are largely absent from our engineering classes today.

Clearly, young people do not consider engineering an inviting, interesting, and rewarding occupation. That is partly perception and partly reality. Yes, K–12 teachers, counselors, and many parents are not well informed about engineering as a career and do not urge their charges to consider engineering as a career. And yes, there is an incorrect stereotype of engineers as geeks and nerds. And yes again, we have been incorrectly blamed for causing some environmental problems. But, we have also contributed to the uninviting image with our boot-camp style of curriculum and our nineteenth century pedagogy!

Fourth, we must provide a welcoming social climate for international students and scholars. As most of you know, after 9/11, the United States imposed stringent requirements on students—even senior scholars—for getting visas to enter the United States. Thanks to the efforts of the National Academies and others, the average time for processing a student visa is now less than two weeks. However, that is not the whole story.

Even though the average time is less than two weeks, there is a long tail on the distribution—and many visas still take a year. Moreover, the process, both at the embassy and at the border, can be demeaning. International press reports tend to focus not on the average time to process a visa request, but rather on the extreme cases. More worrisome than the visa situation itself is that, in just a few years, the image of the United States abroad has changed from an inviting “land of opportunity” to a hostile, xenophobic country. The best and brightest have other options—and they are taking them! The U.S. government must change this. Fortunately, it will cost nothing, but we have to make the case.

Finally, I alluded earlier to a multicomponent environment that supports innovation. Some aspects of this environment were created in the context of technologies of the past, and today, they are being strained to the breaking point to cope with emerging technologies. Here are some examples. First, the double-blind clinical trial, considered the gold standard of the FDA approval process, is not well suited to ensuring the efficacy and safety of emerging “designer drugs,” that is, drugs created to treat a specific disease in a specific patient. Second, the intellectual property system, which was designed for macroscopic, physical machines, is being strained, to say the least, when applied to sequences of microscopic DNA. Third, antitrust laws that were designed to break up railroad and steel monopolies are being applied to software companies.

In my remaining two years as NAE president, I hope to find a way for the National Academies to review all aspects of the environment that will support innovation with a view to suggesting reforms and renewals in light of current technology.


My message today can be summed up simply. The United States is enormously prosperous, in no small measure because of the innovative contributions of engineers. In the process of developing the very technologies that have made us prosperous, however, we have also enabled others to compete with us on a more level playing field. This is generally a good thing, because a rising tide lifts all ships, and a more prosperous world will surely be a safer world. But the strategies that helped us get to the top are not the ones that will lead us to greater security, prosperity, and health in the future. As difficult and uncomfortable as it is, we must change—and we must do it before it is too late. Some of what needs to be done is under our control, or can be influenced by us. Therefore, it’s time we got started. Like NOW!