In This Issue
Engineering Partnerships
September 1, 1996 Volume 26 Issue 3/4
The Bridge, Volume 26, Number 3/4, Fall-Winter 1996

Partnership in Flux (editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: William J. Spencer

The 1996 NAE Annual Meeting symposium focused on cooperation among industry, universities, and government for U.S. technological leadership in the twenty-first century. Today, the United States leads the world in all three sectors. American democracy, our capitalistic system, and our open market practices are being copied and accepted around the globe. U.S. industry--whether in biotechnology, computers, communications, software, or semiconductors--holds a dominant position nearly everywhere. This is true of well-established corporations that are experiencing major and sometimes painful turnarounds as well as new businesses. Whether measured in terms of the academic and honorific prizes they garner, their outstanding graduates, or by their track record as incubators of new technologies and even entire industries, U.S. universities have set an international benchmark in education and research.

But the three sectors face a number of challenges, resulting from major changes that have occurred with economic globalization, the end of the Cold War, the U.S. drive to eliminate its federal deficit, and the changing nature of technological innovation. Theirs is a partnership in flux.

Global competition has led to a reduction of corporate R&D in the United States. National resources such as Bell Labs, IBM Watson Labs, Alcoa, DuPont, and other major industrial research facilities have been downsized and their research efforts redirected. Government priorities are changing with regard to R&D funding. Defense, which has been a principal funder in the past, is shifting and in many cases reducing its support for basic research. Universities have aging facilities and a high percentage of foreign students (often their best and brightest students), and the U.S. primary and secondary education system has multiple problems.

If the United States is to continue its global leadership, we must as a nation reexamine these pillars of our society and determine what has worked and what needs to be changed. Engineering, through its role in the national R&D enterprise, has been a unifying force for government, industry, and universities. It is my belief that there isn't any other profession today as well suited for this pivotal function. Clearly, the NAE and its membership figure prominently in this regard.

This issue of The Bridge presents four edited papers and a portion of a lengthy panel discussion from the symposium. The authors and panelists speak eloquently, from a variety of points of view, about the evolving and vital partnership that links government, universities, and industry. The question of how this partnership can help assure U.S. technological leadership becomes more critical as other regions of the world coordinate their activities in support of strong industrial bases in biotechnology, information technology, and other rapidly growing industries.

I wish to personally thank the symposium speakers, Richard Celeste, Robert Galvin, Jonathan Cole, and Thomas Everhart, and the symposium panelists, Mary Anne Fox, Thomas Malone, David Goldston, and Linda Cohen, as well as the panel moderator, John Armstrong, for their contributions to what will certainly be an important and continuing dialogue.

About the Author:William J. Spencer, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is president and CEO of SEMATECH. He served as symposium chair.