NEXT GENERATION ENGINEERING: CRITICAL TRAJECTORIES,
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
September 12, 1997
I am delighted to be here tonight. And I want to quickly
allay your fears about being victims of a droning-after-dinner
talk. I have been audience to many of them and my
remarks will be in the category of brief-after-a-big-meal
In fact, I hope to adhere to the advice on speeches
that the comedian George Jessel would often give.
He said, "If you haven't struck oil in your first
three minutes, stop boring. " So this may be even
briefer than I intended.
The title of my remarks, Next Generation Engineering:
Critical Trajectories, Holistic Approaches,
is intended to address the "new societal context"
for engineering and the new directions underway for
First, the "new societal context." Although many of
us use terms like "post-cold war economy" and the
"information age" with frequency and ease, we have
not necessarily paid enough attention to the far reaching
implications of their meaning. Or, indeed, if they
are the right terms to use.
The end of the cold war, almost eight years ago, was
unpredicted. It did not even show up on the radar
screens of foreign policy experts and political gurus.
It caught the world by happy surprise. No one, however,
had imagined or planned for a global landscape without
the Free World/Soviet rivalry of the previous forty
Among other things, the end of this anomalous period
in world history set an already complex world economy
into a state of heightened transition. We are currently
immersed in a somewhat volatile but also opportunistic
period that will likely continue for quite some time.
The new openness in the world political and economic
arena has created a system "in flux" where different
leaders, as well as different losers, can emerge.
America has grappled with the threat of Japanese economic
competition for over a decade but still remains fairly
unsophisticated in seeing those trends in other nations.
I think we are currently underestimating the technological
leadership coming from companies in South Korea, Singapore,
Malaysia, and Taiwan. And perhaps our most dangerous
myopia is in relation to the behemoth capabilities
of an emerging China.
It is also significant to note that all of these emerging
economies are placing their primary educational emphasis
on training engineers.
This transition period is also characterized by an
explosion in the form and function of what we have
termed "information technologies." The emerging economies
of southeast Asia have quickly grasped the value of
these technologies as a critical driver for technological
and manufacturing capability.
In order for the United States to compete in the wake
of such focused competition, we must forge a "critical
mass" of knowledge, skill, and infrastructure. It
should include public and private schools, colleges
and universities, industry and small business, government
at all levels, and the talented personnel from each
sector. It must be guided by a collective vision of
where we need to go and a collaborative spirit of
how we can get there.
In essence, it means going back to the precepts of
Vannevar Bush that we have either ignored or forgotten.
At the beginning of Bush's 1945 report, Science:
The Endless Frontier, he laid down a concise
vision. He said "Science can be effective in the national
welfare only as a member of a team," I think that
his words become increasingly prescient. It does not
matter that we now talk of partnerships instead of
Bush's "teams." What does matter is that we recognize
the need for collective effort, for collaborations
where each partner has something to offer and each
has something to learn.
We no longer live in an era where academe can provide
an autonomous career sheltered from society's needs
and problems. We no longer live in a time when U.S.
industry believes it has nothing to learn from other
nations or other sectors, an attitude that persisted
for too long. We no longer live in the luxury of succeeding
on first-rate higher education and mediocre K-12 education.
We no longer live in the industrial age when a modestly
skilled assembly-line workforce could propel the nation.
If this is our new societal context, and I believe
it is, then what does this foretell for engineering
We can all agree that the true strength of a society
resides in its human capital -- and especially its
Engineers will develop the new processes and products.
They will create and manage new systems for civil
infrastructure, manufacturing, health care delivery,
information management, environmental conservation
and monitoring, and everything else that makes modern
I believe, however, that engineers must not only be
the people who know how to do things right, but also
those who know the right things to do. The latter
is a much broader task requiring very different preparation
and skills. Engineering is an integrative process
but, for the most part, engineering education has
not been conceived or taught as an integrative preparation.
We have been good at teaching the technical components
of engineering education but we have not necessarily
taught them as connected or related to each other.
And we have been clearly deficient in teaching the,
what I would call, the "sociology of engineering."
What do I mean by the term "sociology of engineering?"
To begin, engineers must be able to work in teams;
they must be able to communicate effectively; they
must be adaptable. They must also better understand
their pivotal role in society in order to accept the
responsibility of that role.
We all know that throughout history engineers have
been "agents of change." Engineers have designed,
made, and built things that have consistently changed
people's lives and their mode of living. We have not
necessarily thought of ourselves as "civilization
movers" but rather as curious and sometimes "quirky
doers." We solve problems, big and small.
We also do not readily focus on the big picture. This
is perhaps why we haven't always seen ourselves as
agents of change. In this heady period of human history,
where technological change occurs at a breathless
pace with instant global repercussions, we need to
help engineers to step back and consider the larger
implications of what they have routinely seen as,
pardon the pun, "small change."
We need to help them contemplate their work in the
larger context because what they do often changes
the "big picture" dramatically over time. That "big
picture" encompasses economic, political, social,
and ethical components.
The philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset presaged today's
challenge in engineering education when he wrote in
his Mission of the University: "The
need to create sound syntheses and systemizations
of knowledge...will call out a kind of scientific
genius which hitherto has existed only as an aberration:
the genius for integration. Of necessity this means
specialization, as all creative effort does, but this
time the [person] will be specializing in the construction
of the whole."
Let me just say that "the whole or totality" that
Ortega tells us must be constructed is not just the
whole of a system or process. If we remember that
Ortega was a "philosopher," we know rather that the
"whole" is also of a concept or direction for moving
a society toward achieving a goal that will benefit
the future of that society -- that "larger whole"
that is so difficult to grasp.
With the new, and I predict amazing, capabilities
that such things as complex engineered systems will
bring, we will have innumerable choices. If the essence
of engineering is integrating all knowledge to some
purpose, then we need to agree on not just the technical
purpose but also society's purpose of our work.
It is important, but not enough, that engineers are
taught excellence in design to achieve safety, reliability,
cost and maintenance objectives. It is important,
but not enough, to teach them to create, operate and
sustain complex systems. It is important, but not
enough, for them to understand and participate in
the process of research. It is important, but not
enough, for them to develop the intellectual skills
for life-long learning.
As I said earlier, engineering is not just about doing
things right, but also about doing the right things.
All of us need to assimilate the concept that for
the first time in human history the environment must
be protected from humankind instead of the historical
6000-year pattern of humans needing protection from
nature. Although we are still vulnerable in the wake
of tornadoes, earthquakes and the like, we have, nonetheless,
reached the historical juncture where the planet is
vulnerable to our excesses and our power to inflict
Congressman George Brown, whom many of you may know
as a first-rate social philosopher and a friend of
engineering, gave a speech several years ago in which
he said, "What we are beginning to understand is that
the path to the 21st century cannot be just an extension
of the route we have taken through the 20th century.
If our planet and its burgeoning population are to
survive, a new societal pattern must replace our current
trajectory. If we call that pattern "sustainability"
what we really mean is a pattern that leads to a survivable
future. And if that future is to be survivable, then
we must heed the advice of the renowned biologist,
Jonas Salk. He said, 'Our greatest responsibility
is to be good ancestors.'"
Engineers can be a primary force in deciding whether
we reach that future, not just because we are civilization's
designers but because we make a conscious choice to
teach our progeny to understand that vision.