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Remarks

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Biography

Meeting of the Engineering Workforce Commission
Washington, D.C.
October 29, 2003

Good morning. I'm delighted to join you today for this meeting of the Engineering Workforce Commission. You are a terrific group, and I'm honored to talk with you about a subject vital to your vision and mission-and to the nation's future.

The subject of my remarks--and an important focus of the Commission's ongoing work--is increasing the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the engineering workforce.

Working toward the future of U.S. engineering has occupied the greater part of the lives of the people in this room. That future depends most importantly on making engineers. This means educating engineers. In our knowledge-based economy and society, education is an investment in our nation's future. Our design of this process manifests our intent for society. Engineering education in particular is an investment in our nation's capacity to perform.

Society's appetite for high performance in every sector is expanding. Standing at the fulcrum of scientific and technological change, engineers are expected to foster progress toward a daunting array of ends--creating new knowledge, artifacts, and systems, stimulating economic development, creating wealth and jobs, sharpening the nation's competitive edge, raising our prospects for more productive and satisfying lives, caring for the environment and strengthening our national security.

Demands, thus, are increasing for a holistic kind of engineer -- graduates with the skill to integrate across intellectual and organizational boundaries and to understand the eclectic world within which they are working. Engineers must possess integrative capabilities and insights into global diversity in order to perform and succeed in an increasingly complex and international work environment.

That raises a question of overarching importance: can we meet this challenge? I say "we" because this is first and foremost a challenge for engineers, for those who educate them, for those who lead their professional societies, and for those who employ them, in many cases doing so collaboratively.

Engineers have always had a role and responsibility in the continuing progress of society. From an engineer's point of view, we are the ones responsible for getting things done and out the door in our society. Our knowledge environment is ever changing and growing in more dimensions than we ever thought possible, on scales ranging from the nanoparticle to newly discovered galaxies. We must define our visions for the future of engineering in such a way that we will not confine and constrict our potential. The possibilities are endless, but we need to act now and institute change as the world is rapidly changing, rather than play catch-up when it is too late.

Although some might quibble, most of us would agree that US engineering education is the best in the world. Our schools of engineering are magnets, drawing students from every nation. But this raises an obvious and sobering question. If U.S. engineering education is the best in the world, why aren't U.S. students flocking to the engineering fold?

For some years, this question has been a serious concern and focus for the National Science Foundation and its partners in the engineering and science community. More recently, it has become a hot topic well beyond the engineering and science community. Industry, academe, government at all levels, and parents want to know if we are on the right track.

They want to know if students today are learning what they need to know to meet the increasingly complex demands of the workplace and to thrive in a knowledge economy. They want to know if there will be an adequate supply of these capable, knowledgeable workers. Will the U.S. be able to maintain its competitive edge if foreign-born students return home and future international talent stays home?

I won't repeat the numbers that are deployed to demonstrate what some have called a "looming crisis" in engineering talent in the United States. They wax and wane in consonance with the condition of our market economy. The Commission does a stellar job analyzing these trends and keeping us rigorously conscious of them. We all need to be vigilant in understanding these trends -- there is much we have yet to learn about their causes.

But whatever these numbers turn out to be, we need a robust mix within them. Demographic factors and questions of capitalizing on all available talent tell us that a larger portion of the engineering workforce must be women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities. Said another way, we need to attract more of our diverse domestic talent to the engineering fold. We need both their intellectual talent and their eclectic perspectives. Without them, we will one day awaken, like the fictional Rip Van Winkle, to a world that has passed us by. The differences that abound in race and ethnicity and gender in our society should be gainfully embraced. They are a gift for our future. The divisions should be erased. They are a drag on our energy and creativity.

The largely untapped pool of women, underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities is our nation's competitive "ace-in-the-hole." While doing better than we did thirty years ago, we have not yet seriously capitalized on this national treasure and are now playing catch up in a very competitive world. We need to tap our eclectic intellectual treasury vigorously and we need to tap it now.

Broadening participation is also the smart thing to do. We can't expect a workforce with a flair for innovation and agility in the face of rapid change to arise from a homogeneous talent pool. The urban analyst Jane Jacobs catches this propensity of diversity to engender productive creativity perfectly. She says, "... city areas with flourishing diversity sprout strange and unpredictable uses and peculiar scenes. But this is not a drawback of diversity. This is the point ... of it."1

Most important of all, broadening participation is the right thing to do. Forty years ago, President John F. Kennedy said: "Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream, which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation." Excellence in engineering is our individual and our collective responsibility.

If engineers want to welcome new participants to their ranks, and make sure those participants include the whole gamut of U.S. diversity, they need to go beyond a public pledge to invite diversity--they need to work for it. MRC Greenwood, Chancellor of U. C. Santa Cruz, says, "You can't wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time."

We will need to engage in some radical rethinking about education. We need a model suitable to a world in which change and complexity are the rule, a world continuously transformed by new knowledge and the technology it makes possible, a world linked globally, where differences and divisions, if they are allowed to fester, can have immediate and large scale consequences. In other words, a world where diversity is an asset and dissimilarity a valuable component of progress.

Learning how to work together more synergistically will be vital to this effort. We have made progress in building bridges across the organizational boundaries of academe, industry, and government. Partnerships today are proliferating. And yet we have scarcely begun to explore their potential for broadening participation in the workforce. We have learned how to share information--especially when it concerns our own needs!

But we have yet to understand deeply the factors that foster teamwork, let alone hone our ability for genuine collaboration that draws on the knowledge and experience of diverse partners.

If you have been fortunate enough to be part of a group of individuals who share a common purpose and passion, who generously give and gracefully take in building the team's competence and performance, you understand how energizing this experience can be. It is absolutely electric. But isn't this precisely diversity's greatest strength? Just imagine the extraordinary progress we could make if all parties to the issue took a seat at the table.

How do we get there? Well, we can begin by designing new practices and processes to enlist, educate, engage, ensure diversity, instill values, and encourage passion in the next generation of engineers. Once again, diversity will prove to be strength. We will need input from all the players. The wise advice of Woodrow Wilson applies here. "I not only use all the brains that I have," he said, "but all the brains I can borrow."

We can draw up our design today. As the saying goes, there is no better time than the present. We can make course corrections along the way. Design is the necessary first step in a journey toward improvement and change.

As we begin to put the design in place, we move from intent to action. This is often the stumbling block on the path to the future. This is one time when none of us can afford to trip up. Together, we need to grab the reins and drive the beast, unless we want the beast to drive us. Unless we turn our intentions into action, we will face a future not of our making, and perhaps not to our liking.

Our ability to meet the formidable challenges of our times depends in part on our willingness to be on the same team. NSF is one of the players, and so is the nation's superb higher education network--our universities, colleges, and community colleges--and the K-12 schools that prepare our youngsters. And so are the magnificent enterprises that rely on engineering skill and creativity.

This is an opportunity for me to say a bit about the National Science Foundation and why we appreciate being at the collaborative table. As steward of the health of our nation's science and engineering enterprise, NSF works at the frontier of research and education, where risks and rewards are high, and where potential benefits to society are most promising.

This is familiar territory to all of you. More than most, engineers have opportunities to ride the crest of the wave and arrive first at new shores. I say "opportunity" because exploring new frontiers is exhilarating and deeply satisfying. We can realize our personal aspirations as we also advance the collective future of our society and nation. It doesn't get any better than that!

At NSF we are committed to identifying and supporting innovative programs to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities, women, and persons with disabilities in the science and engineering workforce. Our statutory mandate explicitly includes this responsibility.

NSF's approach is to incorporate diversity initiatives throughout our scientific and educational programs. That means identifying our most successful programs to encourage minority participation and bringing them together with other highly successful NSF programs.

The idea is to weave together what are now separate but complementary efforts and to integrate these activities across and among institutions. The innovation that the community brings in response to this challenge is key to moving beyond our current performance to fresher, more inclusive, more productive, educational systems. The focus of this effort is on domestic students and broadening participation throughout all NSF investments.

We express this intent in our budget as an action investment called Workforce for the 21st Century. Its focus will be on drawing elements from existing NSF programs and challenging collaborators at these institutions to design programs that develop an innovative and seamless route of advancement for the students they serve.

Of course, at NSF we recognize that the best ideas come from the larger community. That's where you come in.

As we set out on this journey toward diversity, we can carry with us the knowledge that there is a deep, abiding issue at stake. In 1822, James Madison wrote:

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." Madison's words are still fresh and instructive today.

This is the most fundamental rationale for an open-door policy to an engineering education. Let's advocate an open door policy that educates and enables our own citizens to be contributing participants in our great democratic system as well as continuing the successful policy of embracing those from abroad.

This new perspective on an old policy will make us a genuine welcoming nation to both talent from abroad and from the nation's women and underrepresented minorities. It can never be one or the other. The Statue of Liberty's torch must light the way for those within our borders as well as those from outside.

If we engineers aspire to be leaders-in academe, in government, in education, in industry--this is the challenge we must accept and meet.

This process of including and embracing everyone in engineering does not have a beginning or an end. It must become the new fabric of engineering and endure throughout this new century.

This will require us to speak with one voice, along with the valuable multi-faceted chorus of our eclectic set of engineering disciplines and diverse peoples, but with a singular objective and strategies that reach academe, public school systems, industry, government and the public. To achieve success we must take the cacophony of well played individual instruments played individually and turn it into a frontier-busting symphony.

The on-going activities of the Engineering Societies Diversity Summit this year, which has developed a joint strategic policy statement on this issue, bode well for a future of action.

The Engineering Workforce Commission has always been in the vanguard of change. Here is a challenge you can tackle with fervor and one you can carry with you into your professional and personal lives. Each of us needs to do so, and I'm confident we will.

1 Jane Jacobs (b. 1916), U.S. urban analyst. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, ch. 10 (1961).
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