2006 Annual Meeting - Chairman's Remarks

October 15, 2006

National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 15, 2006

Craig Barrett
NAE Chairman

Let me start by welcoming you all here … especially the Class of 2006. My heartiest congratulations to you on your accomplishments and my compliments to your significant others and family members, because I know they sacrificed to get you here. This morning, I want to make some brief comments, which I can outline in just a few words. I will talk about two presidents, one book, and a fortune cookie, in that order.

The first president, Bill Wulf, was on stage just before me. Bill has been the president of the National Academy of Engineering for the last 11 years, and this is the last Annual Meeting over which he will preside. I want to express the appreciation of the NAE Council and membership to Bill for his tenure. He entered the academy at a tumultuous time, and he has brought stability to the organization, worked with the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine to create the National Academies, and brought the National Academy of Engineering into the forefront of national debates on a number of very serious topics. I want to extend my personal thanks to Bill for his service to the organization over the last 11 years.

Because we are in Washington, D.C., I thought it proper to invoke the words and thoughts of another president, one of our previous leaders, Thomas Jefferson. Many of you may know the history of Thomas Jefferson and that he was very interested in education. In his writings, you will find that he talked about three aspects of education that he thought were important. First was the need for an educated populace; the basis of any democracy, he said, is a citizenry that can make intelligent decisions. The key to making intelligent decisions is for voters to have a good, strong education. Jefferson was a very strong proponent of education as the foundation, or cornerstone, of an effective democracy.

The second aspect of education he emphasized was the recognition that knowledge is power. Perhaps he meant something slightly different from what we mean today when we talk about a knowledge-based society or a knowledge-based economy. Jefferson was referencing people who had knowledge and power because they could interpret world and domestic events, make intelligent decisions, and move forward. If you fast-forward 200 years to today, we are talking about a knowledge-based economy in which knowledge provides economic growth and economic stimulus. Economic growth and competitiveness are really the basis for world power today and are very important for the United States.

The third aspect of education was the importance of science, not only for economic growth and development, but also for national defense. If you take those three thoughts expressed by Jefferson in the early 1800s and apply them to the early twenty-first century, I think you will find that they have continuity and meaning today, just as they did 200 years ago.

My next topic is a book. This particular book, which represents the work of all three academies in the National Academies, was published approximately one year ago. It is called Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Its subject is U.S. competitiveness, and it incorporates the thoughts of Jefferson. Bill Wulf was on the committee that wrote that document, and it incorporates Bill’s thoughts as well. Rising Above the Gathering Storm is about what the United States must do to maintain its competitiveness around the world as we go forward into the twenty-first century. The recommendations of that study can be summarized in three main points.

First, we must improve the understanding of the American populace of math and science, which will mean improving K–12 education in math and science. Everyone in this audience of engineers and people associated with engineers knows the relatively sorry state of our K–12 educational system. You all know that, on average, when our youngsters graduate from high school, they rank relatively low compared to their international counterparts on those topics. Rising Above the Gathering Storm includes a detailed discussion about improving K–12 math and science education.

Second, it talks about the importance of research and development, again bringing Jefferson’s ideas forward. Science and research are important not only to national defense, but also to economic competitiveness in general. Rising Above the Gathering Storm recommends that the federal budget for research and development of the National Science Foundation be doubled, that the Department of Energy’s research budget be increased, and that we invest in the future—the ideas that will become the next-generation products, services, and companies.

The last main point in the report is that the United States should not only be more competitive, but should also be the center for investments in innovation. You can think about investments in innovation in two areas. One kind of investment is to continue to attract the best and brightest minds from around the world, not only to study in our universities, but also to stay and work in the United States. We must continue to make the United States the most attractive place for the best and the brightest by providing an environment that promotes the second kind of investments in innovation. I mean investments in research and development, in new companies and start ups, and in growing economic wealth in the United States.

If you have not seen the report, I invite you to look it up on the National Academies website.

The reason I bring it up and the reason I invoke Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy is that everyone here today has a certain responsibility—to speak out about what is in the best interest of our democratic society and what is in the best interest of this country going forward. I hope we can enlist all of you as spokespersons in the campaign to bring the suggestions of Rising Above the Gathering Storm through the legislative process to implementation in our economy.

The suggestions in that report have been incorporated into pending legislation in Congress. But, as you know, when we’re talking about the legislative process, pending can be a very, very long word. Because of your stature as members and others associated with the National Academy of Engineering, your opinions carry great weight. I encourage you to exercise your democratic prerogative and speak out in support of those suggestions to your congressmen and your senators and urge them to pass this legislation.

This brings me to my final topic, a fortune cookie … a good way to end any speech. I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in Mountain View, California, about six years ago—the restaurant is called Chef Chu’s, my favorite Chinese restaurant. I always look forward to the fortune cookie at the end of the meal, and when I popped open this fortune cookie, I found it included a pertinent bit of wisdom. The fortune said, “The world is always ready to receive talent with open arms.” Today, your talent is being received with open arms by the National Academy of Engineering. But even more important, if you look around the world today, wherever great talent exists, the world is ready to receive it with open arms. That is a measure of the competitive nature of the world today and the competitive challenges facing the United States. So, as the fortune cookie said, “Welcome to the National Academy of Engineering. We are very pleased to have you here today.”