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Re-Engineering America: Not Just About Numbers

Address to the National Academy of Engineering, Annual Meeting - October 6, 2013

Mr President, Members of the Academy.  It is conventional to the point of banality for a speaker on an occasion like this to proclaim what a privilege it is to be invited.  In my case today, the honor is so literal and so profound that I cannot fail to note and thank you for it.  The opportunity for a non-member, in fact a non-engineer like me to be afforded the privilege of this podium is so unlikely that I am tempted to ask, “Who cancelled?”

But the invitation came many months ago, and thus I know was sincere.  And if such an improbable choice of speakers makes any logical sense, it must be because your organizers saw a chance to bring variety, and perhaps a complementary perspective, to those magnificent scholarly presentations that always characterize your meetings.  If I can add any value today, it will come through the reflections of someone who was neither wise nor fortunate enough to pursue a life in engineering, but who has worked in close proximity, in several different settings, to superb engineers, and who has studied the dramatic and essential contributions that your profession makes daily to the prosperity, happiness, and literally the future survival of us all.

Among my most educational exposures to engineers and their thought processes were the days I spent at the Hudson Institute, the Rand Corporation spinoff that, at that time, was a contract research organization known for its often surprising, contrarian findings.  To capture the spirit of the place, our research fellows made up the following fable.

When the anti-intellectual revolution came, our founder, the legendary Herman Kahn, was among those imprisoned and sentenced to the guillotine.  As he awaited his turn on the execution platform, the blade failed to drop on another victim, who by custom was then released.  The next defendant was brought forward but again the blade malfunctioned, and he too was let go.  As Herman’s head was placed on the block, he looked up at the mechanism above and said, “I think I see your problem.”

My appreciation for unbiased thinking, for unconventional viewpoints, and for the problem-solving mindset we associate with excellent engineering has grown steadily over the years, as I have been lucky enough to see great engineers at work in the pharmaceutical industry, and in the more excellent of our public sector activities.  The most recent of those exposures I also owe to this Academy, whose past president Charles Vest asked me to co-chair the National Research Council’s current commission on the future of human spaceflight.

The chance to promote engineering was a major reason that I accepted Purdue University’s invitation to service.  I can say honestly that I had never aspired to a role in higher education, or imagined myself occupying one, prior to Purdue’s overture.  But as I contemplated the offer, I found myself drawn to the “sound of the guns”: first, to try to contribute to the support of higher education and, specifically, research universities, at a time of unprecedented stress and threat; and second, to help meet the well-documented national need for more STEM graduates and, specifically, engineers. 

A few days ago, Purdue was excited to welcome to campus GE CEO Jeff Immelt.  Mr. Immelt was one of the few people to whom I had confided my potential new role in advance of accepting it.  His strong encouragement was one important factor in my saying yes.  “Absolutely you should do it,” he told me.  “You can be the patron saint of engineering.”  Well, I will never be a candidate for sainthood, of engineering or anything else.  The very idea calls to mind St. Augustine’s confession that, in his younger days, he had prayed “Lord, make me chaste.  But not just yet.”  Unlike Augustine, I failed to progress much past that stage.

Nonetheless, knowing how purely metaphorical Jeff’s comment was, I understood the seriousness of the objective to which he was alluding.  For years, report after report, commission upon commission has pointed to the severe shortfall in new engineers and scientists that our nation faces.  The dimension of the problem is familiar to everyone here, and the alarming numbers need no repetition.  While China, India, and other nations forge ahead in attracting or steering their best young minds into STEM disciplines and careers, the U.S. is falling woefully short of producing the new talent, in particular engineering talent, our economy and national interest require.  Jeff Immelt is fond of pointing out that we routinely turn out more sports exercise majors than electrical engineering majors.   As he puts it, “If you want to become the massage capital of the world, you’re well on your way.”

So, to me, Purdue was not just another prestigious major university.  It was already home to one of the finest engineering colleges, one which produces each year more undergraduate engineers and technology graduates than any other American institution.  Moreover, I learned to my great excitement, Purdue’s Board was considering a significant expansion of that school.  In fact, late last year, we made official our intention to expand our engineering faculty by more than one hundred and our student population by more than seven hundred undergraduate and seven hundred graduate students over a five-year period.

I am pleased to report to you that last month our Board of Trustees endorsed my suggestion that we already begin planning a further expansion of the college, either to follow immediately or to overlap the current plan.  At the same time, we committed to a 25% growth of our department of computer science, and a transformation of our College of Technology, featuring a revamped, more experiential and project-based curriculum aimed at cultivating an aptitude for innovation among its students.  When these actions are complete, we believe we will be the second most STEM-centric public university in the nation, behind only Georgia Tech, a school barely half our size.   Against the commonly-expressed national goal of graduating an additional ten thousand engineers per year, our university alone will contribute between five and ten per cent.

I would also like to stress that at Purdue we remain fully committed to our land grant heritage, and to the mission of providing a first-rate education to all who meet our standards at a price affordable to families of any income level.  This spring, we announced a two-year freeze on tuition, as well as a 5% reduction in the cost of meals and a larger cut in the fees charged to engineering students participating in our work-study or “co-op” program.  It is our intention to furnish the best engineering program, dollar for dollar, available anywhere.

We have also set out to improve the rate at which Purdue discovery and technology transfers to the market for the benefit of society.  Many of our engineers and scientific faculty had told me of the obstacles and burdens our historic practices often placed in the path of inventors and would be entrepreneurs, and beginning immediately in January we initiated changes to ease and encourage tech transfer activities. 

We have centralized tech transfer promotion in our Purdue Research Foundation, and created new facilities, available to all, for prototype development and new company formation.  We have revised a host of contract and intellectual property rules.  A standard, ten-page, minimal royalty contract is now available and can be signed in minutes, versus the lengthy negotiations to which we used to subject our faculty innovators.  We now return all IP rights to the discoverer in no longer than six months, if the university decides not to proceed with patent filing.  And, in a step I took the morning after a student alerted me to the topic at dinner, we now treat intellectual property arising from undergraduate research or engineering projects as the student’s IP, not the university’s.   

So at Purdue we are consumed with the mission to address America’s engineering, STEM, and innovation deficits.  Count on us to do our part.

But led, it is important to say, by our engineering faculty, we believe that building scientific and technical excellence alone does not constitute the entirety of the job we have in preparing tomorrow’s leaders of your profession.  A firm grounding in the liberal arts, and in the skills of teamwork and communication, must also be part of the package. 

In the same week that we unveiled our STEM expansion plans, we also were thrilled to announce the endowment of two new chairs in our history department, one in the history of science, the other in the history of medicine.  We want our STEM students to understand where their disciplines have come from just as well as they understand where they may be headed.

Similarly, we want them to depart Purdue with all the tools necessary for effective citizenship. Among these are the ability to write clearly, speak clearly, and to work collaboratively with others. There may have been a time when engineers and technological experts could afford to stand aside from important public debates, talking only to each other, but that time has passed. 

We live in an age of scientific complexity far beyond the comprehension of most citizens.  It is easier than it has ever been for opponents of innovation to alarm others about even the most promising and important of scientific breakthroughs. Substances now measured in parts per billion sound no less scary to people who cannot put such infinitesimal risks in perspective.  The tradeoffs inevitable in new medical therapies or energy production or genetic modification can be misrepresented to either overstate or understate the net societal benefits, and too often those most audible in the discussion are not those scientifically best-equipped to make such judgments.    

Moreover, issues of direct consequence to science and technological progress increasingly depend on public decisions on far broader, non-scientific questions.  It is regrettably true that public support for investments in research and the quest for new and unpredictable knowledge is lower than it should be.  We have seen this all too clearly in our work for the Academies’ human spaceflight commission.  We must all speak on every possible occasion about the centrality of research, particularly basic research, to the nation’s future prospects.

But we face far greater threats than public indifference, and our greatest engineers and scientists must somehow find the time to make themselves heard on these broader issues.  I will cite three, each of which menaces our innovation engine in a fundamental way.  They are the runaway growth of the so-called entitlement programs, the host of ways in which public choices limit economic growth, and the continued failures of our K-12 education system.

On the last item, there is nothing new I can say, except that not enough is new.  Three full decades ago, a national commission report labeled us a “nation at risk” and asserted that if a foreign power had sought to undermine the United States, it would have started by giving us the K-12 public school system we have.  Thirty years later, we have only just begun to take the steps necessary to produce literate, numerate, scientifically capable young people with some true sense of the history and the values necessary to a successful free society.  Meanwhile, the job has gotten much tougher; other societies now far surpass us in the cultural underpinnings conducive to a well-educated, technically proficient population.  At every opportunity, we must insist that our children be taught rigorously, to high standards, in an environment of genuine competition and accountability.

The other two topics bear a bit more discussion.  In my view, the nation’s transcendent problem, the one that endangers our entire position as the leading country of the world, is also the single biggest danger to the future of our historically dominant scientific research enterprise.  I refer to our national debt, which I have elsewhere labeled the “new Red Menace”, this time consisting not of a militarily aggressive Soviet imperialism, but in the perhaps more dangerous red ink in which our national finances are drowning. 

The terrible inequity through which massive national borrowing will penalize future economic growth and plunder the same young people we are now striving to educate at Purdue and your universities, is a sermon for another Sunday.  For today, allow me to focus on the direct hit our federal deficit and so-called entitlement spending in specific increasingly impose on the NSF, the NIH, and other federal departments like Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture, and others.  These vital research budgets are being brutally squeezed by the way in which Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamp, and other automatic spending programs are devouring all the dollars American taxpayers can produce.  Within a decade or so, autopilot spending and debt service will consume every dollar Americans pay in taxes, meaning that every dollar for the discretionary core of government would have to be borrowed money.

Much of the research community’s advocacy in recent days has concentrated on making the case for the value of scientific inquiry, and its huge and often unforeseen contributions to national wealth and wellbeing.  We can never make this point too frequently. 

But in large measure, this is pushing on an open door.  Ironically, the importance of basic research and public support of it is one of the few things on which I find that decision makers who differ on other questions generally agree.  The real problem is that there isn’t any money; more each year, it flows out the Treasury door in the form of checks and payments for medical bills.  And, unjustifiably, it flows not just to poor or middle-income people, but also to the wealthiest among us, in systems fifty to eighty years old, designed for bygone eras. 

Our approach to public policy has become, without anyone intending such a perverse result, to indulge in current consumption at the expense of the investment needed for a better tomorrow.  Reversing this mis-priority will be the test of this generation; failure to act on it will properly lead to our condemnation in the eyes of history.

Friends of the research enterprise should be out front in demanding bold action to reform entitlement spending and again liberate resources for the investments in new knowledge that, without public dollars, are unlikely to come any other way.

In the same way, we must advocate any reasonable action that is likely to generate faster economic growth.  An economy limping along at less than two per cent annual growth cannot possibly produce the public revenue needed to sustain the research and other investment spending we need.  And quite often, the senseless decisions we make are the product of unscientific or even anti-scientific arguments. 

Consider just one, in my estimation the most important current example, the new energy extraction techniques referred to as fracking.  This triumph, not of basic science and certainly not of public policy, but of engineering, is the single most positive development for the American economy since the silicon chip.  Like so many breakthrough technologies of the past, it has suddenly rendered  all the existing models and projections obsolete, and given birth to a new world of possibilities.

The vast new amounts of domestic oil and natural gas now in prospect can be a boon to poor people through lower energy costs, and to unemployed people as new jobs are created both directly in the extraction and transportation of these new resources, and indirectly as dramatically lower natural gas prices make on-shore manufacturing attractive once again.  No new fertilizer plant has been built in the U.S. in more than twenty years; fourteen are now proposed and, in my home state alone, two new plants, with a combined capital investment of over $2 billion, are now headed for construction. 

And that’s just the beginning of the possibilities.  Our longstanding balance of payments problem could soon look entirely different, as we import less oil and perhaps become a significant exporter of natural gas.  The economic benefits could be matched by a new and healthier geopolitical environment in which the Middle East is no longer nearly so important to us.  And then there’s CO2, where we have already seen reductions well beyond those envisioned by the various command and control schemes that have caused such heated debates in our country.

A nation led by engineers would leap to maximize this set of massive opportunities.  It would see the risks and unknowns around fracking as problems to be tackled, as surely they can be, and would get about addressing them.  Let’s hope this is the course we adopt as a nation, but it is troubling how mixed our response has been in some states and at the federal level, where the first instinct in many cases was to throw up obstacles and delays and to rush to regulate and control this new growth sector.  One hopes that some of the matchless credibility and prestige in this room can be brought to bear on this and similar debates.

Just as some dispute or dismiss the value of the new energy era, there are those who do not share Purdue’s urgency about the need for more engineering education and research. There are analysts who believe the need for more STEM graduates has been greatly overstated, and is merely an “obsession” and a “myth”.  At least one of the corporate recruiters visiting our campus recently asserted that we are headed for a “glut” of engineers in a few years. 

My attitude is, let’s try to cause such a problem.  For one thing, the data as I read them seem squarely on the side of Norm Augustine’s 2010 “Gathering Storm” report and its kin.  But even if the skeptics prove to have a point, we will be a stronger nation with a lot more engineers around.

Engineers, unlike, for instance, lawyers or financial experts, frequently generate through their innovation new work for themselves and others.  Somewhere in any potential “glut” will be new Watts and Edisons and Noyces who give birth to entire new industries that require the services of engineers and non-engineers alike.

But even if we were to somehow outrun the market’s need for engineering talent, we will be a far stronger country if the engineering mentality takes a more prominent place in our national conversations.  Too often today it is a fearful, risk-averse, regulatory impulse that dominates our debates, rather than the problem-solving, can-do attitude one associates with engineering and related professions.  A competitive, successful 21st Century society will constantly ask not “What if something goes wrong?” but the engineers’ questions:  “Why not?”  “What’s next?” and “Let’s figure it out.”

On behalf of one university that reveres this Academy and the indispensable profession whose pinnacle it represents, I pledge Purdue’s best efforts to train the next generation of great engineers, and to help launch them on careers of world-changing research and invention.

As an appreciative and grateful citizen of a nation made great largely through the brilliance of people in this room and your predecessors in engineering excellence, thank you for the better life you have made possible for millions, and for the ongoing national success I know your continued leadership will ensure.