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The 2003 Bueche Award was presented to Robert A. Frosch, senior research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, “for a career of advances in aerospace and automotive technology, and industrial ecology; and for administration of R&D in industry, government, and academia.” These remarks were delivered on October 12, 2003, during the NAE Annual Meeting.
Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, colleagues and friends, family, ladies and gentlemen, and, as they say at the circus, children of all ages: It is a tremendous honor for me to receive the Bueche Award. I greatly respected Art Bueche for his accomplishments and for his service to the engineering profession and to society, and the award named for him has special meaning to me. It will also be a great honor and pleasure to find my name on the list of Bueche awardees with my distinguished predecessors, whom I know, like, and revere. I even revere those I know and like.
It is especially important and interesting for me to be honored by this academy, not only because of what it is and who its members are and because I have been associated with the National Academies and the activities of the National Research Council for a long time, but also because I was nearly a founder of this institution. The late Eric Walker asked me if I wanted to join a few people trying to found a U.S. national academy of engineering, but I passed, largely because I did not then think of myself as an engineer. By the time I was elected a member some years later, I had a better appreciation of what I did professionally and what technology and engineering meant. By then I realized I was dealing with scientific, technological, social, and global problems—and that entire technological systems and organizations were the working ingredients and materials of my work. I say this not to claim too much but to note that these systems tend to be similar at all scales. The principles of good science and eng
ineering are applicable at all scales at which one may be called upon to practice the profession of engineering.
As my perceptions of myself have changed over the 50-plus years of my professional career, so have the problems addressed by scientists, engineers, and technologists. Our concerns have increased in scope and complexity. At least, we are now much more aware of their complexities. When the late Senator Patrick Moynihan left the White House staff, where he had been advisor on domestic affairs, he said that Washington, D.C., was full of simplifiers, people who could tell you how simple a problem really was. He said he hoped someday there would be more “complexifiers” inside the Beltway, people who could tell you how complex problems really were. Increasingly, engineers must be complexifiers. We must not only recognize the complexities and ramifications of the problems we face, but also invent ways to deal sensibly with these extremely complex problems.
Increasingly, units of technology and engineering include the whole environment in which they work are embedded—from the human-made environment of a city to the “natural” environment of an ecosystem, a natural region, or the whole planet. People, like other organisms, for example, microorganisms, termites, and ants, have had, and continue to have, major effects on local, regional, and global environments. These effects are both purposeful—the effects of growing and building what we need and want—and inadvertent—the effects of our actions on the places and surroundings in which we grow and build. However, we have the capacity to take these effects into consideration, to think about the implications of what we do and design systems that address the possible effects. We need to make concerted efforts to develop technical methods for dealing with extremely complex systems, especially systems that involve combinations of technological systems, natural systems, and human systems.
In response to the complexification and globalization of our tasks, and of the means we must devise to deal with such tasks, it is more important than ever that we aim for the ideals of Art Bueche and the Bueche Award, especially the ideal of working in close cooperation with the academic, governmental, and industrial branches of the scientific, engineering, and technological professions. It is no longer sufficient, if it ever was, for technologists to be tools of policy—“on tap, but not on top.” We don’t have to be necessarily on top, but we should be fully engaged, early on and continuously, in policy issues that have technological components. It is not enough for us to “stick to the science.” Most policy systems and issues have technological aspects and components, even systems that are not considered technological. Take financial accounting systems; it is important to note that many scientists and engineers are experts in the collection, handling, and testing of data and that financial data are
only data about a human system. Or take voting systems. We know something about the mechanics and mathematics of proposed voting systems and quite a lot about whether any system of data and evidence can provide 100 percent certainty about a legal or other conclusion.
In a democracy, the technical aspects of an issue should not necessarily be the determining factors, but the people who make decisions should not avoid, and should not be allowed to avoid, taking into account the likely technical consequences of their decisions. I believe our profession should find appropriate ways to make known the technical consequences of public, regional, and global choices and to make clear the inevitable uncertainties about those consequences. We need a better seat at the table. At the very least, we must become helpful critics at the policy and implementation table. For some years, I have regretted that in 1897 the Indiana state legislature did not pass legislation that a totally absurd value (apparently: 16/√3 = 9.2376….) would be the legal value of π for the state. Passage of the law was narrowly averted by the accidental presence of a professor of mathematics from Purdue, who happened to be there lobbying for university appropriations. Had the bill become law, its consequen
ces might have drawn considerable attention to the necessity of making careful decisions involving scientific and engineering matters.
I have many people to thank for my accomplishments. In the course of my life, I learned a great deal, first from my wonderful parents and then from a series of exceptional teachers in the schools I was lucky enough to attend. In the kind of work I have been fortunate enough to do, one accomplishes nothing alone. During my career, I have learned from, and worked for and with, many wonderful bosses and mentors in many exceptional organizations. Those organizations and I also benefited from many colleagues who worked with and for me, who did the real work, and who taught me how to help them do so. It would be impossible to mention all of their names, but I have been very lucky to have had many wonderful colleagues.
The Taoist work attributed to Lao Tzu, who may or may not have existed, expresses this same idea. This translation (one of many) of a stanza is by the American poet, Witter Bynner:
A leader is best
When people barely know he exists,
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
Worst when they despise him.
“Fail to honor people,
They fail to honor you.”
But of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.”
In addition to the colleagues who were my partners, I want to thank my family, my wife Jessica and my daughters Elizabeth and Margery, who put up with my absences, both when I was working elsewhere and when I was there but occupied in my own head so that I might just as well have been elsewhere. That was not strictly necessary, but, unfortunately, it is my personality and my way of working. They have my deep love and also my gratitude. I would also like to thank our grandchildren, Jonah and Lael, for their love, and for being Jonah and Lael.
Finally, you probably noticed the last phrase of my salutation—children of all ages. That salutation was not intended to be disparaging, but rather to remind us all that professional success is a matter of having fun in the exercise of one’s talents and capabilities. I have been lucky enough to have had, and to continue to have, professional fun. In the Talmud, it is said: “You may not expect to complete the work, but you may not take your hand from it, either.” Thank you!
Beckmann, P. 1971. A History of π (Pi). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Bynner, W. 1980. The Way of Life, According to Lao Tzu. New York: Perigee Books, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.