2005 Annual Meeting - Chairman's Remarks

October 9, 2005

National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 9, 2005

Craig R. Barrett

Some of you may have heard about the DARPA grand challenge—autonomous, computing vehicles attempting to navigate a 130-mile course through the desert near Las Vegas. These specially equipped vehicles are totally computer driven, with no onboard human intervention. Last year, the Carnegie Mellon vehicle, which led the race, went a total of 7.5 miles but eventually ran off the road. No vehicles finished the course last year, but even 7.5 miles was a great accomplishment. This year, five vehicles finished the entire 130-mile course, which is quite an engineering achievement. It also shows the tremendous improvement and accomplishment in just one year. Of course, I am pleased to report that the vehicle from Stanford (my alma mater) finished first.

I noted with interest that, coincident with the induction of the NAE class of 2005, the National Academies has released a new report (Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future) on competitive challenges the United States faces going forward. Although the report focuses on this country, I think it has equal application to just about every other established economy in the world today. The report talks about competition—economic competition—going forward. And if you translate that, very simply, economic progress and economic strength translate to standard of living, which is something we are all interested in. The report lists three general areas of significance for the strength of any country or any economy: (1) education, (2) the creation of ideas, and (3) an environment where educated people can take ideas and create new products, new services, and new businesses that drive economic growth and a better standard of living.

The report discusses in detail each of those areas and focuses on actions we must take for the United States to remain competitive. I will talk very briefly about some of those actions. I hope this will encourage new members of the Academy to join with existing members to make some of these things happen.

The first issue is education. In recent rankings of universities, the United States has 18 of the top 20 and 35 of the top 50 universities in the world in a semi-quantitative ranking system. The free competition of our university system continues to serve us well, even though there is increased competition from some prestigious foreign universities.

The real issue in the United States, by any objective measure, is K–12 education. Consider the dropout rate of young children, roughly 30 percent, who do not even graduate from high school. This percentage has remained steady for the last two decades. But go a step further and consider the achievement of the average 12th grade student in math and science, which is of special interest to us here. Twelfth graders in the United States rank in the bottom 10 percent among their international peers.

I urge you to support the recommendations in the report on K–12 education, which, I think, is first, second, and third on the list of priorities. The ability of any country to educate its young people, especially in math and science, is absolutely key to its success. All of us must raise our voices, collectively, to local officials, state officials, and national officials. I don't see how our economy can continue to thrive with a 30-percent dropout rate and an inability to educate young people to be competent in math and science.

The second issue is the generation of ideas. Ideas are typically generated through research and development (R&D) efforts and expenditures. The good news is that the United States still has the premier basic research operation in the world—our research universities, which are funded primarily by the federal government, but also by local governments, and private industry. But funding in physical sciences comes primarily from the National Science Foundation, and some from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy. For about the last two decades, funding for basic research in the physical sciences in the United States has been flat in absolute dollars, roughly $5 billion spent in our major universities.

To put that into perspective, Intel Corporation alone spends $5.5 billion, not only on basic research, but on total research. And Intel is not alone. Companies like Microsoft and IBM spend equal amounts. The fact that one company can spend as much on R&D as the entire federal government of the United States is troubling. The new Academies report recommends a substantial increase in funding for basic research to keep our universities at the top. I encourage you all to support that recommendation.

Ironically, the United States spends roughly $25 billion a year on agricultural subsidies, five times the amount we spend on basic R&D in physical sciences. Is it better to fund the industries of the nineteenth century rather than the industries of the twenty-first century? If you talk to a Congressman, ask him why we spend $25 billion to support traditional industries like agriculture at the expense of basic R&D.

The third area is creating and fostering an environment for innovation. A number of topics are included in this area, from patent systems to communication laws, rules, and regulations that have inhibited the proliferation of broadband conductivity in the United States. The United States now ranks about 15th per capita in terms of broadband penetration. If you assume that the Internet is the vehicle for information access, communication, and decision making going forward, then you realize we are at a disadvantage. It is unfortunate that every small business, every home, and every large business in the United States is not yet connected with broadband capability. I encourage you to support the recommendations in the report related to increasing our broadband capability.

I want to leave you with this thought: The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, talked about education in a simple, yet profound, way. He said education is not like filling a pail but like lighting a fire. The challenge for our society is to light that fire in every young child in the United States and give every child an opportunity to grow to his or her full potential.

As an engineer, I’ve never before quoted two poets in the same speech, but this poem is appropriate here. The poet is Will Allen Dromgoole. Actually, Will was a she—a Tennessean who lived in the late 1800s and was writing poetry about the time the National Academies were created. The title of the poem, appropriately for the National Academy of Engineering, is “The Bridge Builder.”
      An old man, going a lone highway,
      Came, at the evening, cold and gray,
      To a chasm, vast, and deep, and wide,
      Through which was flowing a sullen tide.

      The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
      The sullen stream had no fears for him;
      But he turned, when safe on the other side,
      And built a bridge to span the tide.

      “Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,
      “You are wasting strength with building here;
      Your journey will end with the ending day;
      You never again must pass this way;
      You have crossed the chasm, deep and wide—
      Why build you a bridge at the eventide?”

      The builder lifted his old gray head:
      “Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
      “There followeth after me today,
      A youth, whose feet must pass this way.

      This chasm, that has been naught to me,
      To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
      He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
      Good friend, I am building the bridge for him.”
I think our task at the National Academies is to follow the advice in that poem, to build a bridge for the next generation.