Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation
Association of Independent Technological Universities (AITU) Annual Meeting
After Dinner Remarks
Palm Desert, California
January 12, 2006
I want to thank Jon Strauss for inviting me to be here with you. I also thank all of you who came from far and wide to share your expertise and passion for the engineering profession. The AITU has invited many of my predecessors to your yearly meetings and I am honored to share a few ideas with you. You fill a vital leadership role in sharing best practices and new ideas in the S and E academic universe.
Franklin Roosevelt had three simple rules for public speakers: be brief, be sincere, and be seated. I can assure you, I intend to follow that advice!
This past fall, I attended the UNESCO General Conference in Paris with Jack Marburger, the President's science advisor. I found the conversation on building science capacity quite provocative.
Nearly all of the nations attending the workshop recognized the critical importance of their knowledge and human capital bases. Like the U.S., these nations identified S and E talent as a key driver in the global economy—and in their respective national economies—far into future.
There are still many disparities in the global economic, technological, and educational landscapes. While we are experiencing profound transformations in jobs and technological capabilities, in many areas of the world, people are left to scramble for food, water, and shelter.
That being said, even those nations struggling with these inequities recognize that their human capital is the single, most important resource to fuel a knowledge economy. Within that context, they are making education their highest priority.
The world over, education and knowledge are becoming an increasingly precious commodity in the 21st century economy. A nation's present and future value in the world marketplace can no longer be measured by past standards.
Years ago, it was a nation's natural resources that gave it power. Today, a nation's preeminence is measured in terms of its intellectual resource.
The "knowledge economy" is driven by intellectual capital, robust infrastructure, and broad R and D investment, not timber or navigable rivers.
In countries like China and India, they are working quickly to build economic momentum by building an expanded S and E workforce and ramping up research capacity.
These ambitious developing nations clearly recognize that the size and ability of their science and engineering talent pool will likely determine their potential for economic growth.
While all countries are setting goals to increase R&D as a percentage of GDP, they all face the dilemma of having sufficient R&D talent to increase their research. We face the same challenge.
Many of the "opinion and thought leaders" would have us believe that the sky is falling. While I share their concerns, I do not share this view.
Whereas Tom Friedman would say the world has "flattened", I would point out that our innate ability to continually innovate makes the U.S. "spikey". By this I mean that we have a long and rich national history of creating new technologies and innovations so advanced, that we find ourselves alone atop the spike with no competition in sight.
Gradually, that spike will flatten out as the rest of the world continues to catch up to our innovations. But if our pattern holds, we will then be developing the next spike. This will require a new generation of engineers that are able to constantly drive that innovation forward.
Global success in market competition will depend on constantly "destabilizing" the marketplace with the most versatile and unique products and applications, as Joseph Schumpter taught us with his term "creative destruction." The ever-decreasing lead times from research to product will create a pressure cooker effect.
Engineers are crucial to the success of this process.
As I see it, there are three spikes that give us an advantage. The first is our broad and deep R and D infrastructure. Unlike the rest of the world, our research and development funding is not provided primarily by the public sector. In Europe, where the ratio of public to private sector investment in R and D is higher on average than in the U.S., R and D is funded to a greater extent, on citizens' desire to pay for it. Austere economic times can cripple R and D funding in such a context.
By contrast, U.S. R and D support is diversified, involving multiple sources including private and public sectors as well as universities, other endowed organizations and foundations.
A full two thirds of our nation's R and D spending comes from the private sector and that R and D is closely coupled to the marketplace.
The second spike is the world-class stature of our research institutions. Our academic infrastructure is far and away the best in the world and it attracts the best minds from all over the globe.
In recent years, there has been a drop-off in international student enrollment in the U.S. and this is a concern. 9-11 has been cited as a cause for this but the trend started earlier and can be in part attributed to the high price of tuition in the U.S. and greater competition in other developed countries for top S&E talent.
When sixty percent of the world's population survives on less than two dollars a day, the cost of a four-year education at a U.S. university is simply beyond the reach of too many.
The third spike is having universities and national laboratories with modern research facilities that are backed up by instrumentation builder's solid technical service support. These facilities allow us to do innovative and groundbreaking work and they serve as a powerful magnet for the brightest researchers from all corners of the globe. However, I would also agree that we don't have the only spike in this respect.
These first-rate facilities also allow us to deal with shorter lead-times in moving from discovery, to analysis, to marketplace. Long lead-times are a luxury of the past. The future of high energy, high speed, and high stakes is here and now. Our global competitiveness depends critically upon speed to market, or as Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famous rebel cavalry general of the Civil War, advocated "getting there fustest with the mostest."
By taking optimum advantage of these three spikes, I think we can continue to supply new technological concepts to our national innovation system. But we must recognize that competitor nations are working to strengthen these areas as well. The process of innovation is never ending. The destination is always a moving target.
There is much press these days on the disparity of engineering production in the U.S. relative to China and India not to speak of Russia and the E4. If U.S. industry can find engineering talent in the developing world for 20˘ on the dollar to develop software and manufacture engineered materials and low-cost commodity components, they will do so. They will also employ this talent to develop their most advanced technologies and products.
The challenge for engineering schools in the U.S. is to educate engineers who can provide four to five times more added value to U.S. transnational corporations.
In essence, our goal is to create a new generation of engineers who can think nimbly, collaboratively, and comprehensively across the boundaries of disciplines and industries, rather than in "narrow tracks". That is your particular challenge as leaders in academia.
Tomorrow's engineers will have access to petascale computing and increasingly sophisticated instruments and research labs. They will be connected to colleagues across the hall and across the world. They will work with new materials containing novel properties engineered at the nanoscale.
Engineers will need to be prepared to carry out designs in the context of higher-order complexity.
Our young engineers are also going to have to think and act more collaboratively across integrated enterprises to include energy, transportation, manufacturing, financial, and policy-making sectors. They will also need to have the collaborative skills to work across international boundaries and become involved in the global innovation system. In the emerging knowledge economy, U.S. engineers will need the skills to develop global collaborative as well as competitive advantage and to lower the barriers for foreign engineers in the trans-national corporations to confer and collaborate with their partners in the United States.
To stay competitive, we are going to need "all hands on deck." As a matter of fact, we are going to have to find an increasing number of new hands for the future of engineering.
To keep our edge in this rapid innovation race, we simply have to do a better job of broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in the engineering field. We have made some progress but we are still on a very low, linear slope. We need to design feedback mechanisms that will make our growth rate nonlinear.
This view into the looking glass may be uncomfortable but it is hard to ignore. As we talk about the transformative power of engineering innovation, I would hope that we have the courage to examine and begin addressing some of the institutional problems in our midst.
It is critical for all members of the engineering community—but especially those in academia—to demonstrate strong and forward-looking leadership, particularly as it applies to leveraging the talent and potential of underrepresented groups.
We need to create a broad and vibrant pathway of talent that extends from K through 20 and beyond. We need to reach and excite young people. Engineering practitioners need to step out of the professional cloister to reach out to African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and women. We need to accept the roles of "mentor" and "innovator" as well as that of "practitioner".
Leadership in a rapidly changing landscape is not easy. We must be willing to change the engineering profession to meet changing times.
It is useful to remember the words of Mark Twain when he said: "Sacred cows make the best hamburger." We should at least be willing to let these cows go.