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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Engineers as Strategic Visionaries"
Brasilia, Brazil

November/December 2008

Greetings, everyone. I am delighted and honored to join you today. Thank you to our Brazilian hosts for their warm hospitality.

This World Engineering Congress is a gathering place that brings us together from around the globe to share knowledge, to learn, and to grapple with important issues of the day. This meeting is a recognition of the role of engineering as an energizing and significant force in our lives.

Each of us gains, and collectively we are better able to advance the quality of engineering research and practice, and better serve progress and prosperity in our global society.

We all know that communication and community are absolute necessities in this global environment. Strengthening connections among engineers -- and reaching out to every sector of society -- is a mission of great importance today, as change rocks our world and our work with an ever-faster pace and ever-greater ferocity.

I've been asked to speak today on "Advanced Technologies: Engineering with Strategic Vision." We do not frequently see the words "strategy" and "vision" juxtaposed in this way. In my mind, they form the perfect counterpoint for engineers. So I have re-titled my remarks, "Engineers as Strategic Visionaries."

To be visionaries, engineers must think of challenges in terms of designing systems with a specific end in view. To be good strategists, we must also think of crafting solutions that are feasible, optimal, meet physical and economic constraints, but also acknowledge requirements for safety, environment, and health. No responsible engineer intentionally builds defects and dangers into products and processes.

Today, the ends we choose must be grounded in the larger interests of our societies and economies. In this context, the notion that engineers are "strategic visionaries" takes on its broadest and most significant meaning. Vision and strategy must exist in harmony, the one with the other.

Engineers are now recognized as critical players in the new knowledge society. In the knowledge society, we design the future of our choice from the wealth of options available to us. Embracing this vision is a vital step toward improving quality of life, finding new approaches to human problems of long duration, and addressing common goals.

As we look for solutions to our global dilemmas, it is our own and our children's future we are designing -- so we need to be good engineers and stewards of the planet. In today's climate of high-velocity change and super-heated expectations, we need to acknowledge the constraints that sustainability puts on our solutions. The solutions, however, are squarely in our court.

Finding "solutions" brings me to "advanced technologies" -- that is the second half of my topic today. Engineers are drivers of society's technological engine, so we have a truly awesome responsibility.

The noted physicist, Richard Feynman, is said to have left an aphorism on the blackboard in his classroom near the time of his death in 1988. "What I cannot create," he wrote, "I do not understand."1

As engineers, we create much that we do not completely understand. Using the best science and engineering knowledge, we follow our vision, and sometimes our instincts, where they lead us. We strive, nevertheless, to narrow the gap between creation and understanding.

Yet despite the most exquisite vision and strategy, there are some societal forces that have a life of their own. The increasing scientific and technological nature of civilization has been one of those forces, an undisputed pattern. It can be traced from early human history to a veritable frenzy in modern times. In the last twenty years, we have witnessed a tidal wave of fresh discoveries, and we have seen new technologies penetrate every aspect of our lives.

Today, science and technology are forces absolutely fundamental to our global well-being and, in fact, to our survival. We need a continual stream of fresh ideas that constantly redefine and disrupt the frontier, spur new innovations, and bring creative solutions to address the urgent global challenges that confront us.

Recently the U.S. National Science Foundation -- the agency I head -- asked the U.S. National Academy of Engineering to convene a diverse panel of experts from around the world in order to formulate a set of grand challenges in engineering. The group settled on fourteen opportunities that were both "achievable and sustainable to help people and the planet thrive."2 In no particular order of precedence, here they are:

  • Make solar energy affordable
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personalized learning
  • Engineer the tools for scientific discovery

What an impressive list! We might quibble about specific items on or off the list. But we can all agree that these are far-reaching, vital objectives that are appropriate goals for "strategic visionaries."

Today, I want to talk about three issues, among the many we face, that stand out as particularly complex, difficult, and, above all, urgent. They are climate change, energy, and water. These pressing issues are closely related, indeed, they are interdependent. They affect every nation and every citizen on the planet.

We cannot hope to solve them unless and until we work together. Engineers have a critical role to play in making this happen.

We are living in a time of rapid planetary change, caused in part by the resource demands of a single species: namely, Homo sapiens. The Earth's climate and life support systems are changing today in surprising ways, and at rates that many of us find troubling.

Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen has coined the phrase "Anthropocene Age"3 to describe the present day as the first geological era in which human actions have resulted in impacts on our environment that are planetary in scale.

The physics of climate change tells us that temperatures and sea level are likely to continue rising for decades to come, even under the most stringent mitigation regimes. We can certainly lessen future impacts on people and the environment, but we cannot entirely prevent them. Adapting to change will require new technologies, informed by robust science and engineering.

Here is one example of work we need to do internationally to make the rapid progress we need to combat climate change.

Today's climate research relies on highly sophisticated computer models to explore the complexities and project the potential consequences of a changing environment. Without these models, it would be nearly impossible to anticipate the extent and severity of the changes that may lie ahead.

Our current models cannot yet forecast the relatively rapid changes to which humans, ecosystems and economies are vulnerable over a few decades and on regional scales. Improving our ability to anticipate near-term impacts would reduce uncertainty, providing the public, business and policy makers with the information they need to make intelligent choices and plan for the future.

Reducing uncertainty can buy us time and save us money. We will be able to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies and new technologies that are efficient and effective.

That brings me to the subject of energy. Nowhere is innovative thought and inspiration more urgently needed than in the search for sustainable energy. To a large extent, 21st-century civilization is still running on 19th-century energy technologies -- most notably, the combustion of fossil fuels.

And humanity is still practicing a social paradigm unchanged in 100,000 years, that of burying or burning its copious wastes. Only a very small percentage of products are made on the premise that it is better to prevent waste than to clean it up once it is formed -- a basic principle of "Green Chemistry." The production of a typical 2 gram computer chip requires about 1.7 kilograms of chemical inputs.4

Globally, we need a portfolio of alternative energy systems to reach a sustainable balance between nature and human activities.

The development of many of these technologies is still at an early stage. In addition to the necessary transition to non-fossil fuels, new concepts are also needed for energy conversion, storage, and conservation. Expanding the knowledge base in all these areas would expand the options for every nation to respond to climate change.

In many cases, there are fundamental roadblocks in basic science and engineering that must be overcome in order to move novel renewable energy systems from concept to reality. That means ensuring that these technologies are not only effective and efficient, but also sustainable. This is surely one of the greatest challenges of our generation.

Rapid progress on new energy technologies will require a heightened level of collaboration -- across science and engineering fields, among academia, governments and industry, and across national borders.

Energy is by no means the only important focus for research and technology development. Innovative technologies could help with coastal erosion, diminishing water supplies, infrastructure, and much more.

Consider the links between energy and water, for example. In the U.S., electricity production and agriculture each account for roughly 40 percent of freshwater withdrawals.

Simply stated, without water, there is no life. UNESCO5 reports that by 2025, more than half the nations in the world will face freshwater stress or shortages. By 2050, as much as 75 percent of the world's population could face freshwater scarcity.6

There are myriad examples of policies that do not take into account a full array of options based on existing knowledge. Policy governing the management of global fisheries, many of which are near collapse, is one example. The management of increasingly scarce water resources is another case, and one that is likely to loom large in our future. When we consider the need for policies to manage energy, environment and economy -- fisheries and water included -- the scale of the problem increases exponentially.

Scientists have concluded that the rising global temperature is a major contributor to the melting of Himalayan and other tropical glaciers. Mountain snow pack and glaciers are a large source of water in many regions of the world, including the Andean nations and the western United States. Ice loss from glaciers reached record levels in 2006, and many mountain glaciers could disappear completely within decades.

The intellectual creativity and capital needed to address the complexities of climate change science, the engineering challenges of both mitigation and adaptation, the development of novel energy systems, and the conservation of the earth's water resources, can only come from a concerted international effort. Here, too, engineers throughout the world will play a leadership role.

What is necessary to make that happen? One word provides an answer: Connections. By connections I mean both the expanded cyberinfrastructure that provides the tools for collaboration and innovative partnerships.

As you are well aware, a good deal of recent change has been heralded by the advent of high-speed digital computing, enabling new telecommunications and information technologies. These twin technologies make possible the sharing of information across the world at the speed of light.

The need for a comprehensive cyberinfrastructure ranks as a top priority worldwide, for all disciplines and research programs. Cyberinfrastructure will ultimately join the ranks of electrical grids, highway systems and other traditional infrastructures.

As engineers, we no longer see computers as mere tools, but rightfully view them as extensions of our cognitive powers and design skills. They are also the key to international collaboration and communication.

Brazilians in the audience will recall that AMPATH -- a connection between Sao Paolo and Miami -- was the first high-speed research and education network to link the Americas, using Internet 2. NSF provided critical support for this project to create a high-performance gateway to South American research and education networks.

The NSF International Research Network Connections Program is working with peer groups throughout the world to develop a global integrated network environment. The program includes links to GEANT and CLARA, the European and Latin American regional research and education networks. Similar collaborations across the Pacific Rim are creating enhanced connectivity to research and education networks in China, Japan, Korea, and Australia. From there, they will connect to other Asian research and education networks.

Expanding these capabilities to less developed nations is a critical priority. We will need the participation of all nations to resolve our current climate, energy and water challenges. I repeat: engineers will and must play a huge role in making this happen.

Today's interdisciplinary, international research teams require access to a broad range of cyber resources, including gargantuan data banks, and simulation, visualization and other problem-solving tools.

The challenge is to map an even greater vision for an integrated international cyber-system. Such a system could empower every sector, meet the need for innovation across all levels in education, and continue to advance the ongoing computing and communications revolution.

Such a system would reach into every home, every office, every manufacturing plant, every classroom and laboratory, and every rural village to provide unprecedented resources for students, teachers, researchers, designers, planners -- in short, for all.

The distance to that goal may appear inter-galactic today. But if we have learned anything over the decades, it is that we are often too conservative in our vision of what science, engineering and innovation can accomplish.

The startling reality is that we have only opened the door on the computation-based engineering revolution. We are still in the early stages of advancing our systems of research, education and innovation through the greater use of these powerful capabilities. The transformations ahead are likely to be much broader and deeper than anything we have yet experienced or imagined.

In the U.S., the National Science Foundation has promoted the establishment of the TeraGrid -- which has already become a PetaGrid! -- to serve several thousand members of the research and education community, providing a range of services, including training and consulting help in the use of advanced digital resources. It's a pioneering example of both a large-scale virtual organization and leading-edge distributed cyberinfrastructure.

Now we are looking to a grander scale. The NSF Blue Waters project will build the world's first sustained petascale computational system dedicated to open science and engineering research. When Blue Waters comes online in 2011, it will deliver one to two petaflops -- that's one to two quadrillion calculations per second.

Petascale capabilities will permit researchers to perform simulations that are intrinsically multi-scale or that involve multiple simultaneous reactions. These include the ability to model the nation's electricity grid or simulate the interactions among the ocean, atmosphere, cryosphere and biosphere in a global climate model.

A new program, called PetaApps, will provide support for multidisciplinary teams to explore compelling science or engineering challenges that require the petascale computing resources on the Blue Waters system.

Among them is an ambitious project, led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), to improve and refine climate modeling. Researchers will devise new strategies and capabilities for coupling multiple processes in the atmosphere, oceans, and on ice and land.

Expanding cyberinfrastructure is a critical strategy to expand partnership opportunities. How we design those partnerships requires vision: Partnerships are limited only by our collective imagination.

For many years, NSF has pioneered new partnership structures to enhance the productivity and creativity of research and education by bringing all players in the innovation game to the table. Increasingly, these collaborations reach across national borders.

NSF has been pioneering innovative and fruitful partnerships for many decades. In particular, we have supported Engineering Research Centers since 1985. The intention of these Centers is to stimulate industry and university interaction in industrially relevant research with the objective to speed technology transfer. Each center is a place where university science and engineering and industry can be long-term and powerful partners to achieve innovation and marketplace success. One of the greatest achievements of the ERCs is the cadre of fresh talent they provide to government, industry and university research enterprises.

In line with the changing times, NSF has just established a "third generation" of ERCs with a new overarching focus on innovation. These "third generation" Centers have an increased emphasis on combining fundamental research with research and education focused on innovation. Moreover, the Generation Three ERCs are now encouraged to partner with foreign universities. These collaborations strengthen international ties and build new networks that bring benefits to all parties.

One feature of centers has not changed over the years. That is an emphasis on the integration of cutting-edge research with the education and training of graduate and undergraduate talent at the nation's colleges and universities.

As these freshly minted graduates move into the private sector, they carry with them the new knowledge that could generate the next "killer app." I consider this one of the most valuable investments made by NSF to the nation's innovation system.

Let me give you an example. A new "Third Generation" ERC will investigate how to transform a national power grid into an efficient network that integrates alternative energy generation and novel storage methods with existing power sources, in any combination and at any scale. The ERC for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management, or FREEDM, based at North Carolina State University, will partner with four other U.S. universities, as well as universities in Germany and Switzerland, and more than 65 industry partners.

The global scale of research today is unprecedented, and as engineers we know how the international flow of ideas and people are fundamental to our profession. International partnerships are increasingly the best way to address common challenges on a scale appropriate to their complexity and urgency.

One of the most significant ways in which government can stimulate discovery and innovation is to encourage international cooperation in research and education. The issue for agencies like NSF is not whether we should encourage international partnerships, but how we can make them work faster, smarter, and better. Research and education may now be the most important aspects of the interconnectedness that we now call "globalization."

Such an undertaking requires that we draw upon all scientific and engineering disciplines. Our goal will be to achieve new understanding of the resiliency of natural and human systems, to elucidate their vulnerability to disruptive change, and to study pathways for healthy and sustainable adaptation to change.

Sustaining energy availability and environmental protection is vital to all nations of the world. International collaboration will be a necessary ingredient in any effort to develop new understanding and solutions.

Engineers can't solve these problems single-handedly. What we can do is provide leadership, by reaching across borders to explore new concepts and models that will provide effective solutions to problems that concern everyone on the globe. I can't think of a more important task for engineers to undertake as strategic visionaries.

I know all of you are ready and willing to move forward. Together, we can hasten hope and change. Thank you.

  1. Hawking, Stephen, The Universe in a Nutshell, p.83.
  2. Return to speech
  3. Grand Challenges in Engineering, National Academy of Engineering, 2008. Return to speech
  4. Crutzen, Paul; Nature 415, 23, 2002. Return to speech
  5. Environ. Sci. Tech. 2002, 36, 5504. Return to speech
  6. Return to speech
  7. Nature; Vol. 452120 20 March 2008 pp.285. Return to speech