Understanding Engineering

C. D. Mote, Jr.
C. D. Mote, Jr. Read Bio
President, National Academy of Engineering
Subject: Understanding Engineering
Venue: Annual Meeting
Date of speech: September 28, 2014


Mr. Chairman, members and foreign members of the Academy, and distinguished guests, it is my privilege to welcome you all to the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). On behalf of the Academy I offer sincere appreciation to President Zhou, of the Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences, for his generous anniversary message from the world’s engineering academies.

Having the world celebrate our anniversary is quite humbling. On the other hand, engineering has been “out of this world” throughout the Academy’s history, so someone “out there” may be thinking about us too. Wait . . . I believe I hear a voice from the International Space Station. Is that you, Astronaut Wiseman?

Thank you, Reid, for your most gracious recognition of this special day. You win the prize for having traveled the greatest distance to take part in this celebration.

I extend my warmest welcome to our new members, too. I am confident that you will long remember this special day.


Fifty years ago, on December 5, 1964, the National Academy of Engineering was founded by the stroke of a pen when the National Academy of Sciences Council approved the creation of the NAE.1 The 25 NAE founders, who were appointed by National Academy of Sciences (NAS) president Frederick W. Seitz in March 1964, became its first Council and within days elected Augustus B. Kinzel president and Eric Walker vice president. Simon Ramo, who celebrated his 101st birthday this past May, is the remaining founder and original inductee to the NAE. He sends his best wishes to this celebration.

President Seitz did not want to open a political door by amending the 100-year-old charter of the NAS to accommodate creation of the new academy. Instead, he used a provision in the NAS charter that gave it the authority to “make its own organization, including constitution, bylaws, rules, and regulations” to create the new engineering academy.2 The history leading up to and spanning the founding of the NAE is described in the volume The Making of the NAE: The First 25 Years.1 It describes how engineering professional societies, through the Engineers Joint Council, submitted a prospectus for the new engineering academy to the NAS in September 1962. Today, the National Academy of Engineering joins the National Academy of Sciences in leadership of the National Research Council, and is recognized globally as a principal voice for engineering. We are just getting started.

Meeting Program

Last year, I set out three strategic issues for my presidency having critical importance to our profession and the nation: (1) Talent in the engineering workforce; (2) Visibility and understanding of engineering; and (3) The global role of the NAE. At the 2013 annual meeting we addressed the engineering talent question: How do we ensure the availability of top engineering talent for the national workforce? Since that discussion, the global shortfall of top engineering talent now appears on virtually every shore, including the East Asian countries—China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea—that many of us thought were not affected by this problem. In a recent national survey, the top four least underemployed fields in the US are in engineering.3 Talent in engineering is increasingly recognized as the coin of the global realm.

This 50th anniversary program is focused on visibility and public understanding of engineering. We are fortunate to have three distinguished plenary speakers: Mr. Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google; Dr. Frances Arnold, distinguished professor at Caltech; and the Honorable Sally Jewell, Secretary of the US Department of the Interior. Their perspectives on the future of engineering from industry, academe, and government span the professional domains of our academy. We are indeed fortunate to have them speak to us.

Our anniversary video contest, “Engineering for You,” called for a 1–2 minute video that best communicates engineering solving problems for people and society. The contestant categories spanned middle school students to the general public. Contestants from around the world submitted over 600 videos. You will meet the winners when they receive their prizes later today. Their videos will be shown during this program with the grand prize–winning video shown when all the prizes are awarded at the end of today’s program. The videos will also be shown throughout the meeting in the West Court. We plan to extend the video competition for another year with the theme “Engineering for the Grand Challenges.”

The anniversary essay book Making a World of Difference: Engineering Ideas into Reality, written for a public audience, is available on the NAE home page. A print copy of the book is in your registration packet, and I hope you enjoy it. Three essays span the 50-year history of the NAE showing engineering solutions evolving over time to serve the growing needs and wants of people. The fourth essay prognosticates on engineering solutions needed over the next 50 years. Some of those needs are predictable, even though the future is not. The 2008 Grand Challenges for Engineering are based on that reality. I thank the many NAE members who contributed to the content and review of these essays.

The history documented in the essays shows phenomenal contributions to people and society by engineering. But this comes as no surprise to any of us. After all, most of the Ages are characterized by engineering: The Stone Age, 700 millennia ago, was named after chipping rocks by hand to create tools; the Bronze Age was named for the smelting of tin and copper to cast weapons, tools, and artifacts; the Iron Age was named after hammering and bending iron to create farming implements and tools; and the Silicon Age reflects the material foundation for electronics manufacturing. OK, the Ice Age was not a human creation—as a natural phenomenon it belongs to science.

The Industrial Revolutions were similarly characterized by engineering around machines and energy. The First Industrial Revolution was characterized by steam power and the cotton gin, the Second introduced electric power for industrial processes and serving society, and the Third is characterized by digital information and new materials.

From prehistoric times to this day, advancing engineering capabilities and human advancement have been coupled tightly together. Sometimes engineering advancement leads people’s needs. Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would say faster horses.” Other times engineering responds to people’s wants or to envisioned needs for society as in the Grand Challenges.

Tomorrow, a moderated panel of seven NAE members will provide their perspectives on “The History of Engineering and a Look Forward.” Between their reflections on the essays and their personal stories, this freewheeling discussion of engineering past and future will be illuminating, stimulating, and fun.

The essays document that nearly everything provided to people and society over the past half-century came at least in part through engineering. The currently accelerating advances in engineering can only lead to greater contributions in the future than in the past. With the help of engineering, this century could be a great time for humanity.


This year on December 5, we step into our next half-century, making this a good time to think about which way we should be heading. The NAE Council will consider our strategic direction for the next five years at a retreat in early January, and consequently we need your counsel on what the NAE should do now to support the future of engineering in service to the nation. The section meetings tomorrow afternoon provide a venue for expressing your views on our near-term direction.

I would like to present some of my thoughts for your consideration. My inclination is to place high priority on addressing major issues falling within our mission that are especially appropriate, even singularly appropriate, for the NAE to address.

Understanding Engineering

On understanding engineering, the materials presented at this meeting provide compelling evidence of engineering contributions to people and society throughout our half-century history and on projected needs from engineering in the future. But is having this and other documented information enough to influence the public perception of engineering? I see no reason to think that it is sufficient. Allow me to explain.

Fifty years ago, at his first meeting with the 25 NAE founders, NAS President Seitz presented his most important argument justifying the founding of the NAE. He said, “The establishment of the NAE could enhance the dignity and prestige of the engineering profession at this time and could redress the imbalance [with science].”4 Since then, this situation has worsened in my view.

Today, we regularly see other terminology usurping engineering, literally editing engineering right out of its contributions. Technology is not a synonym for engineering, it is a skill or an indiscriminate end product as it is used today, but it has largely replaced engineering in the public view. Innovation is a successful new implementation, not a synonym for engineering. And science is not engineering either: it discovers and engineering creates; fundamentally, they are orthogonal, as different as you can get. In the public media, the E-word has become largely silent. If President Seitz were standing here today, I expect that he might also seek to redress the imbalance of engineering with technology and innovation.

A key question is, does anonymity matter? Because public perception determines public support and interest, which are essentially everything, I believe that it matters significantly. It is important for our society to appreciate what its future depends on. How will public appreciation of engineering ever develop if it remains cloaked in invisibility? Is it time to consider reintroducing the word engineering into our lexicon?

The NAE holds a unique position of responsibility to the engineering profession and to the nation. As the National Academy of Engineering, we are a principal leader of engineering in the United States, and advisor to government and others on engineering. Yet Academy efforts to improve public understanding of engineering have not been successful. Indeed, those of other stakeholders in the engineering profession have not been successful either. But we need the Academy members to care. If the National Academy members accept this diminishing public presence of engineering, why should anybody else care? Accordingly, we need to know what importance you place on this issue. Representing engineering correctly to the public has to be an issue for the NAE membership, not only for the Academy officers, if this is to become an Academy initiative.

Accordingly, I seek your counsel, that of the membership, on two questions:

1.      Of what importance to the nation is representing engineering correctly in public discourse?

2.      What priority should the NAE assign to the correct public representation of engineering?

If each section meeting could devote a few minutes to discussing these two questions, the section chairs could then provide me and the Home Secretary with an initial sense of their membership to pass along to the Council retreat in January. We will report back to you with what we learn.

Global Focus

As industry is globalized entirely, and as universities are developing global perspectives, I believe that it is time for the National Academy of Engineering to accept that a global focus and global leadership in engineering are central to its mission. We have taken many steps in this direction already. One was to designate our foreign associates as foreign members this past year. Others include welcoming foreign member participation on the Draper Prize for Engineering committee, creating five bilateral Frontiers of Engineering programs and our tri-academy5 Global Grand Challenges program, and continuing discussions with foreign academies and governments on joint activities. So I propose that we formally conclude that

The domain of interest of the National Academy of Engineering is global.

If you concur, the duties of the Foreign Secretary will be expanded beyond serving foreign members only, as is currently the case, to include other responsibilities appropriate for an active, internationally focused Academy. Leadership responsibilities would extend the horizon of the Academy beyond the national border. Please let me know if you concur with this understanding through your section meeting discussions or through direct communications with me, the Home Secretary, or the Foreign Secretary.

NAE Program

The Academy participates in two independent programs that operate in parallel. One is conducted through the National Research Council, where about 500 NAE members serve important responsibilities annually on NRC studies. The needs of the sponsors mostly determine this program. The program financing, administration, operation, and reports are NRC responsibilities.

The second program is under the NAE and reflects NAE goals principally not served by the NRC. This program is relatively small, and requires focused planning and execution to ensure quality initiatives and dedicated sponsor interest and support.

The NAE program initiatives separate naturally into two parts: a perennial program and a baseline program. The perennial program initiatives are longer term, have strong support within and outside the Academy, and serve the long-term mission of the NAE. The perennial program is strategic, for it reflects, and even helps to set, the strategic directions of the NAE itself. The perennial program delivers high value through its impact and visibility. The ultimate impact of a program initiative depends on its long-term support by sponsors. Regrettably, insufficient discretionary resources do not allow the NAE to carry unsupported initiatives for any significant time period.

The baseline program is composed of shorter-term initiatives, about 3–5 years. Some may evolve into a perennial program initiative, while others have a limited-term focus by intent. The baseline program is a point of entry for all initiatives where sponsor support has yet to become long-term. A number of current baseline initiatives could become perennial program initiatives if sufficient sponsor support is realized. This outcome should receive priority attention.

Because of their importance to the long-term mission, visibility, and contributions of the NAE, fostering perennial program initiatives should be a priority for the NAE program and increasing their number a goal.

Your views on this direction for the Council retreat in January would be appreciated.

Perennial Program Initiatives

I will describe two perennial initiatives to illustrate the qualities that characterize such initiatives: the Global Grand Challenges and the Frontiers of Engineering symposia.

 1.      Global Grand Challenges

The NAE Grand Challenges6 set forth the first global vision for urgently needed engineering solutions “to ensure [humanity’s place in] the future itself.” They are arguably the greatest challenges to engineering in history. And as engineering needs, they are global attractors—people are drawn to them.

The Grand Challenge Scholars Program prepares students for careers working on problems like the challenges. It was created by Tom Katsouleas at Duke University, Rick Miller at Olin College of Engineering, and Yannis Yortsos at USC. The program supplements the engineering curriculum with research experiences, interdisciplinarity, entrepreneurship, global reach, and social responsibility.

An engineering deans’ workshop held at the NAE in spring 2014 expanded the number of engineering colleges signing on to the scholars program to about 70. The University of Texas at Austin has approved a Grand Challenges Scholars certificate program that is open to all university students.

In April 2013 the National Academy of Engineering, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Chinese Academy of Engineering jointly sponsored the first Global Grand Challenges7 Summit in London. Its sequel is being led by the Chinese Academy of Engineering in Beijing, September 14–16, 2015, and the third tri-academy summit will be in the US in 2017.

In addition, the Indian National Academy of Engineering has requested a joint one-day symposium in Washington on the grand challenge scholars program, Maersk and Texas A&M are sponsoring a 3-day meeting in Oman this December on “Leadership of the NAE Grand Challenges,” and I understand that the Global Engineering Deans Council conference, scheduled for Dubai this December, will also take up the Grand Challenges.

In short, the visibility and interest in the NAE Grand Challenges initiative have increased steadily since its introduction in 2008. Its attraction and its importance globally are long-term, extraordinary, and universal, making it a strong perennial program initiative candidate.

 2.      Frontiers of Engineering

The Frontiers of Engineering program (FOE)8 is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2015. It may be the only perpetual program of the Academy. As long as there are bright young people building their careers, developing relationships, and serving engineering from diverse perspectives, the Frontiers program will never get stale. About 4,000 Frontiers alumni are spread out around the world and their number increases by about 200 each year.

Three years after the FOE was founded, the first bilateral Frontiers program was created with Germany. Today, the NAE has five bilateral programs—with Germany, Japan, China, India, and the European Union—and other academies are expressing interest. This year the NAE participated in a Frontiers of Engineering and Science program in Brazil; an Arab-American Frontiers of Engineering, Science, and Medicine program is scheduled for Oman in December; and a Pan-Africa-America Frontiers of Engineering and Science program is under discussion.

The increasing interest in bilateral programs parallels the increasing demand for engineering talent in developed and developing societies alike. The bilateral program sits in today’s global mainstream—engaging young and talented engineers in partnerships to accelerate innovation—and, like the Grand Challenges, it is central to our goals of promoting understanding of engineering, and ensuring top talent in the workforce and global leadership.

The NAE should consider increasing the number of its bilateral programs pending assessment of opportunities and the resources needed to support them.

Member Engagement on the Program

As we shape our NAE program stepping into 2015, membership inputs in identifying candidate perennial and baseline initiatives9 and their potential sponsors are needed. The membership can highlight overlooked or unmet national engineering needs that are appropriate for the NAE. In the section meetings members can vet initiative recommendations and potential sponsors, and comment on program directions. The NAE chair, president, and other officers can serve as points of contact as members consider Academy directions. Simply put, I hope the membership wishes to engage in identifying program directions, engineering needs, potential initiatives, and sponsors of them where we can have the greatest impact.


This anniversary year has provided us with the opportunity to showcase engineering’s compelling historical record and to set prospective near-term goals for the NAE. The role of societal needs in catalyzing the evolution of global engineering solutions in the Grand Challenges is striking. When contemplating both the increasing rate of change in the sciences and engineering and the attraction to global engineering needs for the planet, I cannot help but be inspired by the important time that lies ahead for engineering. Our future, just like our past, will be delivered in great measure by engineering.

Regarding Academy direction, I have posed strategic questions today about our near-term direction that I hope you will consider. What role should the NAE play in the representation of engineering to the public? Should the Academy adopt global responsibilities and leadership as central to its mission? What program emphasis should be placed on long-term, proactive, perennial Academy programs? What near-term strategic issues are most appropriate for the Council to consider?

I thank you for the privilege of serving as your president. I look forward to working together to make your Academy service as effective, satisfying, and, yes, fun as possible. In closing, I’ll share this quotation frequently attributed without evidence to President Lincoln: “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”


1The Making of the NAE: The First 25 years by Lee Edsom, edited by Marlene R.B. Beaudin. National Academy of Engineering, 1989, pp. 23-31.

2Press Conference, December 11, 1964: “Acting under the authority granted by its Congressional Act of Incorporation, the National Academy of Sciences has approved articles of Organization which bring the National Academy of Engineering into being as part of its own structure, operating on an autonomous and parallel but coordinated basis.”

3Washingtonpost.com/wonkblog; Christopher Ingraham, PayScale Survey, August 26, 2014.

4The Making of the NAE: The First 25 years by Lee Edsom, edited by Marlene R.B. Beaudin. National Academy of Engineering, 1989, pp. 27-28.

5The Chinese Academy of Engineering, Royal Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Engineering jointly sponsor the Global Grand Challenge Summits.

6Grand Challenges for Engineering, National Academy of Engineering, 2008, available at www.engineeringchallenges.org.

7The Global Grand Challenges have been supported most generously by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Senior Vice President and CTO Ray O. Johnson.

8The Frontiers of Engineering program is generously supported by The Grainger Foundation, NSF, DOD ASDR&E, AFOSR, DARPA, Microsoft Research, and Cummins Inc.

9By charter the NAE is an advisory organization that recommends courses of action to others while avoiding advocating for or taking action on its recommendations to preserve its credibility as a trusted advisor to all interests. Advocacy by Academy members and others, acting as individuals, is not restricted.


Featured Video