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Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

"The News about Engineers"

IEEE - Philadelphia Section
Annual Awards Night Banquet

April 2, 2005

Thank you. I am truly honored to receive the Electrical Engineer of the Year Award. The esteem that I have for your work, the work of the Section, and the heritage we share as part of the evolving story of the Delaware Valley is what makes this occasion so exceptional.

You have been mentors, colleagues, students, and above all, friends. The tribute belongs to all of you. And it belongs to those pioneers who came before to smooth the path, and to those who will explore new frontiers in the future. We can celebrate together the community of purpose we have shared across the years.

I have titled my remarks this evening as "The News About Engineers." As I thought about what to say, my first inclination was to acknowledge the rich history of electrical, electronic and computer advances in the region--accomplishments that you have made possible. But as I reviewed this book, published for the 100th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Section in 2003, I realized that it would take many hours--if not days--just to highlight the most remarkable landmarks. There are so many superlatives--so many "firsts" and so many "bests."

But the allure of history is too strong, and I will momentarily give in. All of us remember well July 1776 but few of us connect our destiny with perhaps an equally important date that auspicious year. In December 1776, Philadelphia's own Benjamin Franklin arrived on the shores of France to begin an eight-year "visit" as America's emissary. Why Franklin? we might ask. Well, he was an internationally known and respected American, broadly recognized in France for his scientific and engineering discoveries. His works on electricity were known universally in Europe as the "Philadelphia Experiments."

To conclude this foray into history, I would remind all of us that Franklin's influence in France led to nothing less than American victory in the War of Revolution. Not because he had been a printer, not because he was a diplomat, but because he flew a kite.

Yes, he flew a kite, discovered the universal nature of electricity, and applied this new knowledge in service to society. Sounds like an engineer to me, an electrical engineer at that! Because of this he was not only admired throughout all of France but he was actually the only American of popular distinction at that time.

From our engineering point of view, our personal connection to Franklin is that he firmly planted the seeds of engineering in Philadelphia that have grown into the grand regional engineering enterprise we are all a part of today.

Taking history's long view, I was reminded once again that engineers have always been pivotal agents of change--locally, nationally, and globally. Although that may not sound like "news" to engineers, it is an insight worth revisiting. In today's climate of high-velocity change and super-heated expectations, engineers need to acknowledge this role and reclaim their central place in the nation's future. That is the "news about engineers" that I want to share with you tonight.

Today, engineers serve our society in more fundamentally critical ways than ever before. Engineers are critical resources that make a valuable contribution to economic development--much the same way that agricultural, industrial and natural resources did in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the pace of discovery and innovation quickens worldwide, you are needed to maintain the nation's competitive edge and to reap the larger benefits that engineering brings to every avenue of domestic need and opportunity.

Now, we have heard pejorative comments for years about the low savings rate in the U.S. compared to that of other nations. Writing in Business Week this past January, commentator Michael Mandel1 suggests that these complaints might be answered by focusing on the nation's "hidden savings."

"In today's economy," he says, "education and innovation are the main engines of wealth-producing growth, not physical capital. Yet the official statistics count spending on education and research and development as consumption, rather than as an investment."

Just think about this for a moment. If discovery, innovation and education are the nation's new capital, we must constantly replenish the stock. As the fulcrum between science and technology, engineers are not only well equipped to lead, we have a particularly important responsibility to meet the challenges in our new global knowledge economy. I will mention just three.

First, we must continue to create the frontier knowledge that drives innovation, and sustain the innovation that both feeds and draws from the knowledge base.

Second, we must be leaders in shaping a workforce with extraordinary capabilities so that now, and in the future, the nation can sustain progress and prosperity. It's invigorating at this awards banquet to see students of this stature among us.

Third, we must develop strategies to maintain our nation's engineering preeminence in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Every sector has its role and responsibilities to meet these challenges. This is certainly true for the National Science Foundation, where I presently work. NSF's mandate is to ensure the overall health of the nation's science and engineering research and education enterprise--what I call "R&E" rather than "R&D." That's an enormous undertaking--one that would be impossible without collaboration with academe, industry and other government agencies.

My work at NSF gives me a bird's-eye view of discovery, innovation and education across the entire frontier of science and engineering. Imagine being on the summit to glimpse the unfolding of the future! Believe me, this is an exhilarating and challenging perspective. The explosion of new knowledge and the possibilities inherent in its exploitation are breathtaking.

The advent of this revolutionary frontier has exciting potential and major implications for engineers and the engineering enterprise.

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."2

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

Today, this is an enormously exciting prospect. Discovery operates at many frontiers simultaneously. There are fundamental questions to be answered across more than fifty orders of magnitude in space and time, ranging from the subatomic to the cosmic, and from quintillionths of a second to billions of years.

In addition, answering many of the most profound questions will often involve combining insights from two or more scales, and from different disciplines. For example, progress in cosmology will demand dramatically improved understanding of particle physics, just as a complete understanding of gravity--the dominant force at astronomical distances--will entail reconciling it with quantum mechanics--the rules that govern matter and energy at the very smallest dimensions.

Indeed, entire new horizons of research have appeared in the past few years thanks to developments made possible by the convergence of fresh insight and powerful new technologies.

One, arriving through the science of complexity, recognizes that self-organization and "chaotic" or nonlinear phenomena may be more prevalent, and more important, than previously realized in fields ranging from climate studies to social behavior to fluid dynamics and biodiversity.

Another is the growing ability to detect, record, and analyze the complicated interplay of numerous covariables in large systems--whether ecological, social, neurological or geophysical.

A third is the advent of "virtual" experimentation. Computing power and visualization techniques are reaching the point at which mathematical models can be used to conduct primary investigations of even the most intricate processes and systems, and to extract from enormous and disparate datasets, patterns and relationships that might never be observed otherwise.

Here is just one example to illustrate how this plays out in our own field of electrical engineering, understood in its broadest dimensions. U.S. economic and technological leadership is grounded in state-of-the-art engineered systems. These include the electric power grid, and the computer-communication infrastructures so vital to our contemporary economy and quality of life. These large, complex systems are so intricately woven into the fabric of our lives that we scarcely notice them--until something goes wrong. And yet, they underpin other, more visible systems we depend upon daily: manufacturing, weather forecasting, drug discovery and medicine, environmental protection, agricultural production, defense, and banking and finance, to name only a few.

As these systems continue to become more complex, threats to their secure and stable operation become more difficult to foresee and manage. Breaking the system into its component parts often does not help us understand the behavior of the whole because these complex systems can display emergent behavior.

Surely this is a clear case of creating something we do not yet fully understand! We must continue to explore new frontiers to discover common principles, unified theories, and new methods to design, operate, and protect complex engineered systems.

Fundamental knowledge of complex systems and their emergent behavior, coupled with modeling, simulation and visualization, sensor arrays, and experimentation that shifts from the physical to the digital--all of these are likely to help us better understand what we have created and also guide us as we create in the future. Of course, the study of these fresh ideas and tools must be incorporated into the education of our scientific and engineering workforce or there will be no future!

Applying new knowledge to large engineered systems is only one example among many of equal importance. Discovery, innovation and education are vital for the development of new products, processes and services across the board. But focusing on the electric power grid and our computer-communications infrastructure highlights with particular clarity the need to replenish our nation's new capital stock. These systems touch every citizen, every enterprise, and every national interest.

As engineers, we are accustomed to designing systems with a specific end in view. Today, those ends must be grounded in the larger interests of our society and economy. In this context, the notion that engineers are pivotal agents of change takes on its broadest and most significant meaning.

We are superbly positioned to venture beyond the knowledge economy to the 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 the vital step toward improving the quality of life, finding new approaches to human dilemmas of long duration, and addressing common goals.

As heirs of Benjamin Franklin, we rely on his wisdom for insight on this point. Franklin is a larger-than-life figure in our local heritage, and also in our national history. As an accomplished engineer and scientist, a statesman, a distinguished writer and philosopher he was the quintessential agent of change.

In his Life of Franklin--written, as he says, "By Himself"--Franklin relates an incident from his childhood that he recalls as a critical life lesson. I want to share this story with you.

"There was a salt-marsh," he begins, "that bounded part of the mill-pond, on the edge of which, at high water, we used to stand to fish for minnows. By much trampling, we had made it a mere quagmire.

"My proposal was to build a wharf there fit for us to stand upon, and I showed my comrades a large heap of stones, which were intended for a new house near the marsh, and which would very well suit our purpose. Accordingly, in the evening, when the workmen were gone, I assembled a number of my play-fellows, and working with them diligently like so many emmets,3 sometimes two or three to a stone, we brought them all away and built our little wharf.

"The next morning the workmen were surprised at missing the stones, which were found in our wharf. Inquiry was made after the removers; we were discovered and complained of; several of us were corrected by our fathers; and though I pleaded the usefulness of the work, mine convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest."4

I am moved by this simple, homely story because it reflects so much of what we admire and value in Franklin's character. The preeminent American historian Samuel Elliot Morison captures these qualities when he describes Franklin as "the embodiment of what we like to call the American spirit--idealistic but practical, principled but expedient, optimistic for human betterment and the world's future."5 There could be no better model for engineers to emulate in our own times.

I often wonder how to convey the larger purpose and the transformative power of engineering to students who may be prospective engineers and to the public. What if we began to address this task with the same commitment and fervor with which we undertake our other engineering responsibilities? That might start a revolution that would elevate engineering to its rightful place in the vanguard of the nation's future. That's a deal--and a challenge--we can't refuse. The nation and the world need it. I know we can deliver. I am proud and privileged to be on your team.

1 Michael J. Mandel, "Our Hidden Savings." Business Week Online, January 17, 2005.
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2 Hawking, Stephen, The Universe in a Nutshell, p.83.
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3 "Emmet" is an archaic word for ant.
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4 Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, chapter 1.
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5 Samuel Eliot Morison, "The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin", Saturday Evening Post, May/June 1990.
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Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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