Arthur M. Bueche Award

2000 Arthur M. Bueche Award Acceptance Remarks

Remarks made by Charles M. Vest on October 22, 2000 at the National Academy of Engineering 2000 annual meeting, Washington, D.C.

I am deeply honored and grateful to receive the Arthur M. Bueche Award from America’s National Academy of Engineering.

Frankly, I find myself amazed to be included in the company of those outstanding individuals who have previously received this recognition.

In 1990 I had the privilege to become MIT’s president. It seemed to me that this singular opportunity was a call to national service. It further seemed to me that this position afforded me a "bully pulpit" that could be used to call attention to the urgent need to revitalize the relationship between the federal government and our nation’s public and private research universities.

The understanding of this partnership, which had been so important to the nation’s spirit, prosperity, health, quality of life, and security, seemed to be slipping unnoticed into the mists of time:

  • Slipping away because of a rapid loss of "corporate memory" in the Congress, in the executive branch, and even in the university community.
  • Slipping away because of a shift in the formulation of science policy away from the executive branch and into the chaotic world of congressional appropriations.
  • Slipping away because of the end of the Cold War, with an attendant diminution of concern about science and technology as bulwarks of our national defense.
  • Slipping away because of hubris... and a lack of understanding by many in our academic community of the need to talk to Congress and the public.
  • Slipping away because of lack of active interest on the part of too many leaders of industry.

Particularly unfortunate was the dissipation of bipartisan support in Congress. The decline in the sense of partnership and national purpose was exacerbated by sharpened ideological divisions, growing skepticism about universities, and the intensified competition for declining resources. And the dominant messages from our community were all too often only about the desires of individual disciplines and individual institutions.

With the tutelage and participation of Jack Crowley at MIT, and leaders of industry such as Norm Augustine and John Young, and with an ever-widening circle of my academic colleagues, I have tried to help spread the word that science and engineering are essential to our future; that it is a proper and essential role of the federal government to support research in our universities; and that the glory of this system is the intimate interweaving of research and education.

We have tried to do this within a context of respect for the political process and recognition of the real choices our legislators must make, but we have pushed for an understanding that these matters must be moved higher on the list of national priorities.

While I might have secretly aspired to be a statesman of science and engineering, the truth is, I have been more of a minor operative in great company.

But something else happened during this decade. The role of the private sector changed so dramatically that we can never again think of science policy as a simple matter of government and academia. We now must think of science and engineering policy - or perhaps even innovation policy - and it must include private industry as well as government and academia.

Even so, the role of private industry itself is dynamic, unpredictable and metastable. Put simplistically, U.S. corporations have changed their R&D functions dramatically. They are mostly out of the business of moderate- or long-range corporate R&D. They have gained astounding efficiencies and value by integrating near-term R&D into the broader context of product development. They now gain much of their actual innovation by buying successful start-up companies, whose intellectual capital often flows from our universities.

Will this system be stable in the long run? I don’t know, but all three parties - government, industry and academia - need to better understand and shape this system. I am not a pessimist about this; I believe it offers great opportunity for productive change.

I also believe that the role of the Federal Government in supporting research and advanced education will remain absolutely essential. During this past decade I have deeply appreciated the willingness of many elected and appointed leaders to listen carefully and take the long view of the national good. There are those prepared, and even enthused, to work on behalf of strong American R&D and advanced education - if we are willing to invest the time to work with them.

But in the final analysis, our responsibility for human capital - for educating and developing the talents of young people - is the most important agenda item of all.

The number of young American men and women pursuing science, mathematics and engineering is declining at the very moment when science and technology are so clearly key to our future. We must turn this around.

Yes, we must make clear to young people the value of the engineering and scientific professions to our economy and quality of life. But even more, we must help students at every level experience the joy of discovery, the love of analyzing and understanding our wondrous universe, the thrill of design, and the power of synthesis and creativity.

Let me leave you with a reminder about why science and engineering are so important. The life expectancy of Americans has increased from 55 years in 1900 to nearly 80 years today - largely because of advances in science and engineering. Over 50 percent of the growth of the U.S. economy in the last fifty years is due to scientific and technological innovation, which largely flowed from our university laboratories. And science and engineering have been the ladders on which so many young people of modest financial backgrounds have climbed to the heights of American society.

The national pursuit of excellence in engineering and science is a great cause - a cause in which we, as members of the National Academy of Engineering, are joined.

Thank you again for this honor, and for giving me a bit of airtime in the process.