2013 NAE Annual Meeting

"What I have been thinking about . . ."

What I have been thinking about . . .
Annual Meeting
October 5, 2013

Colleagues and friends, I wish to use this opportunity to speak to you about two related matters that have captured my attention for some time. The first are strategic issues for engineering that could have significant implications for our nation’s future. The second is our plan for celebrating the NAE’S fifty-year anniversary in 2014.  

The Academy’s 50th anniversary year kicks off today and culminates at the end of 2014, a 15-month year. (As I get older, longer years have an attraction.) Our celebration of the 50th anniversary is scheduled for the 2014 Annual Meeting. You will discover that there may be a role for you in this celebration, should you choose to seek it. I hope that this possibility inspires more curiosity than anxiety.

Strategic Issues for Engineering

Now to strategic issues for engineering. In China, there is a saying that when a person assumes a new position, he must light three fires. So for my fires, I have been thinking about three strategic issues for engineering. They are (1) the importance of talent in the engineering workforce, (2) globalization and the global role of the NAE, and (3) the visibility and understanding of engineering. How these familiar issues are resolved will affect the course of engineering. Consequently, I am striking these matches today in hopes of combustion.  

Talent in the Engineering Workforce

The first match is to talent in the engineering workforce, which is normally not mentioned when discussing our national preparedness in engineering. The numbers of engineers graduating from our universities and the numbers in the workforce, and even the numbers out of the workforce, are used as surrogates for our engineering workforce preparedness. However, the presence of engineers and engineering talent are not equivalent. In a recent NRC study on the future Department of Defense workforce needs[1], industry and government leaders providing input to the committee affirmed that the available talent in the workforce was problematic for both.

If the need for talent and the value placed on talent are high, talent in engineering deserves priority attention. If society depends on engineering talent for its future, ensuring a talented engineering workforce should be a national priority. However, I do not see that talent is given priority attention.

With respect to the number of engineering graduates, according to a 2012 National Science Board report[2], the percentage of undergraduate engineering degrees among all undergraduate degrees in the US was 4%, among the smallest national percentages in the world. For a sense of scale, the average percentage in key Asian countries (India, Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore) is 23%, and in European countries (United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, and France) it's 13%. In short, the percentage of US engineering graduates among all its graduates is 1/3 of the European average and 1/6 of the Asian competitor average. 

Recruitment of talented international students over the past half century, mostly at the graduate level, has contributed remarkably to US engineering, and has compensated for this deficiency in undergraduate degree numbers. The large number of first- and second- generation Americans that founded startup companies reflects this understanding. However, times have changed. For one thing, virtually every society globally, friend and adversary alike, is recruiting engineering talent aggressively, and particularly the “in-demand” talent with current skills. Talent is the coin of the global engineering realm. Increasingly, attractive opportunities for engineers that offer excellent salaries, facilities, and economic growth potential are in Asia and the Middle East, and soon in Africa. Countries in those regions are substantially increasing the competition for international talent. In 2007, the former President of China, Hu Jintao, stated, “The worldwide competition of overall national strength is actually a competition for talents, especially innovative talents”— I read this as primarily “engineering talents,” those who create value for humanity and society.

Compounding this competition are engineering expansions in emerging economies, particularly in Asia, where the demand for engineering talent is already quite significant. This past August McKinsey Global Institute projected that in 2020—six years from now—China will experience a 25-million-person shortfall of highly skilled employees creating, according to McKinsey, “a demand for global talent that the world has never seen before.” McKinsey further projects that this talent shortfall equates to a 2-4% GDP problem for China. 

So how will China respond? Will it simply say the equivalent of “c’est la vie” in Mandarin and collapse? Will it reduce the number of students it sends abroad, say some of the 190,000 Chinese students enrolling in the US? Will it take steps to recruit engineers from abroad or move its enterprises abroad to the employees as the US did to China earlier? Or will it be a combination of the above?

The disruptive scale of this talent drive will have profound implications for the US and US engineering. Because the US is dependent on forefront engineering talent, it is an evergreen issue that has not received the attention, let alone the priority attention, needed. 

We are most fortunate to have assembled a distinguished panel for tomorrow morning’s Forum on the engineering talent question. The panelists, whose experiences span different professional sectors, will address the significance of the engineering talent issue from their perspectives. They may provide counsel on ensuring that our need for engineering talent is satisfied. My remarks are a trailer for the Forum, which I look forward to greatly, as you can see.

Globalization and the Global Role of the NAE

Now my second match strikes under globalization and the global role of the NAE. Globalization has uncertain footing in the US both in its concept and in reality. It is the proverbial elephant in the room that nobody wants to see or talk about. Even not talking about it is not talked about. US industry has been fully globalized for well over a decade though it remains publicly mute on globalization. And so is the government. A highly skeptical public believes globalization is for other countries, not for the US It associates globalization with the loss of jobs, competitiveness, and intellectual property and it professes to see no benefits. Consequently, the foundation for national global policies, and those of direct importance to engineering, is more quicksand than concrete.   

Still, the NAE is moving to an active global perspective, which I endorse strongly. I have long believed that every university student should have a global perspective derived from personal experience in other cultures prior to graduation. This is the world that our next-generation engineers will live in, work in, and make a better place, and . . . it is globalized. 

Two NAE programs have been particularly effective at pushing the global reach of the academy: the Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) and the Global Grand Challenges. The founding of our Frontiers of Engineering Program led quickly to interest from abroad in creating bilateral FOE symposia. We now have bilateral Frontiers programs with Germany, Japan, China, India, and the EU, and a new one with Brazil is scheduled for 2014. The attendees of these symposia, half chosen by the NAE and half by the partner academy, all become alumni of our Frontiers program, who now number about 4,000. In a literal sense, the Frontiers of Engineering is leading the NAE to the global frontiers of engineering, and attracting the global engineering leadership of tomorrow. This important effort is central to the mission of the NAE. 

The Grand Challenges for Engineering, a program initiated under presidents Bill Wulf and implemented under Chuck Vest, is also an attractor of the global engineering community and an expander of the NAE’s global reach. The Grand Challenges led to the first collaboration by the national academies of the United Kingdom, People’s Republic of China, and the United States in sponsoring the first Global Grand Challenge Summit in London this past March. Two years hence, the Chinese Academy of Engineering will host the next Global Grand Challenge Summit, and the NAE will follow. The deans of engineering at Duke and USC, Tom Katsouleas and Yannis Yortsos, and the president of Olin College, Rick Miller, who have taken the leadership on many Grand Challenge activities, established the Charles M. Vest NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering International Scholarships to recruit international graduate students to the US for a year’s study. The Grand Challenges symposia are leading the NAE globally, attracting international attention to the Challenges, and catalyzing meaningful international partnerships.

This expanding global focus of the NAE is a consequence of the many globally connected engineering issues at the forefront of our attention, such as climate change, food and water supplies, environmental degradation, and so on. The engineering talent question also has global consequences. And while every country is organized to serve its national engineering needs, who is responsible for engineering-related things in that grand space outside of and across countries? Who can convene the expertise and possess the credibility required to lead engineering policy studies and make recommendations for that space? The major national academies are well positioned to increase their technical roles in these global domains on behalf of their countries and global society.  

If not they, who would you wish to do it?

Visibility and Understanding of Engineering

Now, as I strike my third match under the visibility and understanding of engineering, I can telepathically feel you thinking “What more can there possibly be to say about understanding engineering?  Haven’t we talked about this for decades?” My answer to that is, oh my, yes we have! But please let me try it.

Our academy is the National Academy of Engineering, not the national academy of engineers. This is a distinction with a difference. About 25% of the NAE members have no degree in engineering and many do not even describe themselves as engineers. Yet they “do engineering” at such an extraordinary standard that they were elected to membership in the NAE. 

The activity, engineering, is clearly defined, while the person, the engineer, is self-identified. I am an engineer because I say so. The essence of engineering is “creation.” Engineers create, or to paraphrase the late Theodore von Karman, “engineering creates what never was.” But, the unfailingly confused public repeatedly asks “what is engineering?” and “what do engineers do?”   I am confident that all of you have been asked this question many times, essentially forever. 

Our Academy, and every major engineering society I know of, has dedicated extraordinary efforts to answering this question, but most of us likely agree that the understanding achieved has been as yet . . . . modest. Our answers often rely on common engineering practices, like designing airplanes, as exemplars. Engineering becomes associated with the exemplars given, but not with its essence . . . creation. 

The public finds it difficult to grasp that essentially everything it sees that is not growing out of the ground or dug out of the ground is engineering. Engineering is too ubiquitous to be seen.   How can engineering be simultaneously everywhere and invisible?  But apparently it is. Today, even what is growing out of the ground may be engineering too.

No matter how the exemplars are chosen, they represent a de minimis few of all engineering creations, especially considering that the overwhelming majority of them have yet to be realized.  Representing the essence of engineering as “things,” rather than as creation, maintains the public confusion about engineering. First, the use of things to describe engineering reinforces the incorrect idea that things are the essence of engineering. Second, “the value proposition for engineering is its creative contributions serving the welfare of humanity and the needs of society,” which clarifies that things are the vehicle but not the destination of engineering.  When speaking about things, we show the trees and hide the forest. This distinction is important to the next generation, who are interested in serving people and societal needs. 

All major engineering prizes have long recognized that the most eminent engineering contributions are to humanity, not to things. For 25 years the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering has been given for “contributions to the well-being and freedom of humanity.”  For more than a decade the Millennium Technology Prize presented by the President of Finland recognizes “technological contributions to improve quality of human life, encourage sustainable development and a humanitarian focus.” The new Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, given for the first time this past June by the Queen herself, was awarded for the “demonstrated impact of engineering on a significant fraction of the world’s humanity." QED.

We need to do better.

The NAE Semicentennial Year Celebration

This brings us to the strategic message for our 50-year Anniversary celebration.   Our Semicentennial Celebration Year explores the value proposition for engineering. We will examine the nexus of engineering creations to people and society over a century, starting with the founding of the NAE in 1964 and continuing 100 years to 2064. We will highlight this nexus through essays and a nationwide video competition.

First the Essays

The essays are being written around the five years that divide the century into 25-year intervals—1964, 1989, 2014, 2039, and 2064. Written for a public audience, the essays will illustrate how prominent engineering creations contribute to ongoing advancements of humanity and society. Each of the five essays will capture the engineering, humanity, and society nexus around that year. The three essays around years 1964, 1989, and 2014 will use the historical record that shows the evolving nexus. The two futuristic essays around 2039 and 2064 will use the Grand Challenges and other materials to imagine future engineering creations and their contributions to humanity and society. Underpinning the essays will be two NAE references: the Century of Innovation that documents the greatest achievements of the 20th century, and the Grand Challenges for the 21st Century

The essays will showcase engineering’s role in the quality of life of all Americans and the needs of society, both as documented in the past and as projected into the future. The essays and subsequent discussions about them may provide a new point of reference for describing the value of engineering to the public and for answering, more effectively, the question “what is engineering?”  Two professional writers will undertake drafting the essays with consultation provided by NAE members. The final editing will be done by the NAE. The essays will be distributed at the anniversary celebration during the 2014 Annual Meeting.

Next the Video Competition

Get out your cell phones. A national, one-to-two minute video competition asks contestants to highlight the nexus between engineering creations and the welfare of people and the needs of society. The video can highlight any period during the century (1964-2064) in less than 2 minutes. The rules of the competition, evaluation criteria, prizes, and other pertinent information are provided on the website www.e4uvideocontest.org.  Let me mention a few salient points about it and show you a promotional video clip.

The attractiveness of the video to the public and its relevance to the goal will be valued characteristics of a submission. 

  • The contestants are placed in one of six groups for the awarding of prizes. The contestant groups are (i) primary school students (grades 6-8), (ii) secondary school students (grades 9-12), (iii) tertiary school students, (iv) Frontiers of Engineering and Frontiers of Engineering Education participants, (v) NAE members and foreign members, and (vi) the general public.
  • The best overall video, as determined by a panel of judges, will be awarded $25,000. The top video in each of the six groups is eligible for an award of up to $5,000 at the judges’ discretion. The “people’s choice” video identified by viewer popularity will be awarded $5,000. 
  • Videos addressing the future will be retained in a time capsule for later review.
  • The 2014 Annual Meeting program will feature presentations on both the essays and the videos, and the awarding of prizes along with other anniversary celebrations. 


The semicentennial year ahead provides an opportunity to highlight how the future quality of life of all Americans and the needs of our society depend on and are tied to engineering. The future of engineering, and consequently its service to our people and society, depends on making this point to the public. As Abraham Lincoln counseled, “public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” Engineering needs public sentiment—the public sentiment that engineering creations serve the welfare of humanity and the needs of society. 

Practitioners of engineering must carry this understanding to the public. 

If not, who else will do it? 


[1] Assuring the U.S. Department of Defense a Strong Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Workforce;  National Academies Press, 2012, 157 pages.

[2] National Science Board, Science & Engineering Indicators 2012; appendix Table 2-32 

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What I have been thinking about . . .
October 5, 2013
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