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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
The Herman Schneider Lecture Series
University of Cincinnati

April 19, 2002

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

As I was thinking about my remarks for today, uppermost in my mind was how deeply engineering is woven into every aspect of our society and yet how misconceived is engineering's role in how we live and thrive. The misconceptions perhaps lie even in the minds of engineers as well as other citizens.

Among non-engineers, there are lots of jokes about what engineers think and what they do. For example, you're an engineer if:

  • in college, you thought Spring Break was metal fatigue failure, or

  • if at an air show, you're the one who knows how fast the skydivers are falling, or

  • if you've saved every power cord from all your broken appliances.

From an engineer's point of view, we're the ones who make stuff, and we make it right . . . but how often do we seriously consider if it's the right thing to make? How often do we spend the time in our designs to consider the linkages among seemingly disparate things?

Today I want to focus on the role and responsibility of engineers in the continuing progress of society. I am honored to be among the participants in the Herman Schneider Lecture Series that has brought together some of the leading thinkers in engineering.

As the last speaker in this year's series, I see this as an opportunity to make some comments that are overarching. And so, I have titled my remarks, Engineers: Leading Civilization into a New Era.

Commentators and writers often use the term "new era" as a catch-all to mean the vagueness of the future - therefore escaping more specific definition. I hope to put some meat on the "bare bone" of "new era."

Our nation was conceived in revolution - it is part of our heritage. Our nation's revolution was in large part an intellectual one, given the considerable talents of our founders in creating a nation from a benevolent idea. Today's intellectual revolutionaries are perhaps the engineers, who hopefully, are benevolently transforming society with technology.

In the early 1950s, Jacob Bronowski, the historian of science and technology and author of the acclaimed work "The Ascent of Man," wrote, "Every animal leaves traces of what it was. Only man leaves traces of what he created."

Much of our knowledge of early societies has been culled from the tools, structures, and art that outlived them. Today, as we survey our own society and try to imagine what will remain for the inhabitants of future centuries to ponder, we realize that much of what remains will be the work of engineers.

Engineers reflect their society and their culture. Engineers turn ideas into reality; new ideas, like all revolutions, alter the fabric of society. Of our particular time in history, we can make several comprehensive statements about today's fabric.

The most obvious: science and engineering have created the society and civilization in which we live.

Another obvious observation is that the planetary population is burgeoning; much of this is taking place in regions of extreme poverty. We are now at six billion and still climbing. (The year 2000 is well known as the year of Y2K; history will record the year 2001 as the year of Y2B.)

Despite political differences, we know that the planet's atmosphere, water, soil, plant and wildlife are showing the stresses of population growth, industrialization, and the mass accumulations of a throw-away society.

Yet another emblem of our time: Global marketplace competition among industrial nations is becoming more intense and the number of nations participating grows apace.

The global competition for high skilled technical workers and visionary science and engineering professionals will continue to escalate.

Within these realities, we must ask what we expect from current and future engineers?

Although common discourse has a way of interchanging the terms science and engineering, we know that scientists and engineers perform different roles. And each role is consistently enhanced and advanced by developments of the other's expertise.

For centuries, an intricate dance has taken place by the development of new tools, which help uncover deeper knowledge, which in turn necessitate ever more sophisticated and complex tools, which spur new ways to see and understand. The more complex society becomes, the more integrated the work of scientists and engineers will become to answer questions and continue to create advances.

And, complexity eventually brings us to the place where all things have connection - the place where knowledge in one field often answers the questions in another.

Despite these connections and interrelationships, engineers have a unique role.

In a speech several years ago at the centennial celebration of the Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City, William McDonough, then Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia said, " is the manifestation of human intent."

The concept of design in an engineer's tool kit is the emblem of engineering knowledge and creativity. Thus it follows that our designs should indeed be reflective of society's fundamental intentions and values. We know, however, that events and inventions have not necessarily followed that path.

The social philosopher, Lewis Mumford, repeatedly took our society to task on this subject. To paraphrase, he reminded us that Western society has accepted, without questioning, a technological imperative that is so arbitrary that we have embraced as inherently worthwhile and productive, anything that has been invented. In other words, he accused us of accepting and embracing anything we learned to create.

Harsh "lessons-learned" from centuries of this pattern have slowly brought us to a more educated place. We recognize that the biological and technological complexity of our society, while for the most part enabling a better life for many, can also trigger unintended results, and long-term, or even irrevocable, consequences. The role of engineers in this more enlightened place must be both broader and more influential.

I say this not just because the pace of technological development continues to accelerate. But also as Marshall McCluhan suggested, "We shape our tools and then our tools shape us." If the shaper does not understand where society might be headed, then tools will randomly determine our destiny. If the shaper has vision and understands the future implications of the tools, and the values of the society, the tools will be a reflection of that knowledge.

In essence, engineers need to sit at the decision-making table, or even, at times, at the head of the table because they are so integral to the process of societal change and progress. We are the shapers.

However, the move from just lab responsibility to shared leadership will require some changes in the way we currently see things. Engineers will need a much more comprehensive education. Today, even though there has been visible successful change in the engineering curriculum toward this end, for the most part, engineering education lacks a robust integration across human and technical boundaries. Engineers need a full 360-degree education that can reflect the present and anticipate the future.

In the 1990s, one of the science and engineering community's best friends in Congress, the late-Congressman George Brown of California, would remind us that most of society's problems are not technical but human and thus societal.

Engineers, as society's designers and builders, must have a holistic education that enlightens them to the larger context in which their work shapes our future.

Engineers will be the core by which we can progress towards global sustainable development - a term, I might add, surrounded by many myths. It is useful first to say what it is not. It does not signify antigrowth, but rather smarter growth. It does not mean preserving the planet at the cost of economic enrichment and prosperity. Rather, it means protecting the planet with appropriate forms of development and expansion. It means many new ways to see things.

In a broad sense, engineers will be required to design much of this societal change. They will envision artifacts, systems, networks, infrastructures, and tools for a new way of living and prospering on the planet.

To do this they will need to know something about the history of science and technology, and how creativity and innovation are used in other fields, such as art where imagination and risk-taking are central to propelling the artist toward something entirely new.

They will need to understand urban development, political philosophy, and mass communication. They will need broad exposure to the social sciences where the long-term studies of human behavior and group dynamics can teach us a great deal.

And they will definitely need the full spectrum of communication skills - clear and concise writing, accessible and engaging oral presentation, and the broad fundamentals of leadership. Without these they will not be able to influence investment in their ideas and thus lose their capacity to contribute.

I am not suggesting that engineering programs should develop courses that are branded, "political philosophy for engineers," or "sociology for engineers." This would defeat the purpose of what needs to be learned from broad exposure and the perspective of others.

Rather, engineers need to be exposed to dialogue with people who are not learning to be engineers. We are learning that you can't afford to educate experts in a vacuum.

Society's problems and potential are stirred into a wonderful "pot pourri" of activity and interaction, and also carry the baggage of the past. This makes for a virtual "stew" with no boundaries or borders but rather overlapping influences. Today's engineers will be required to make balanced judgments that can help eliminate the problems and enhance the potential. They can't do that with a rarified education.

If we are preparing engineers for genuine leadership, they need a comprehensive education and an attitude of life-long learning. Much of what they will learn in formal engineering courses must provide them with the capability to embrace new tools, new materials, and different societal intentions as the years pass.

Integral to our responsibility for these challenges, there is also a significant opportunity to bring breadth of knowledge and perspective into our midst from the rich untapped reservoir of our own underrepresented minority populations. We must actively enlist these fellow citizens into our ranks!

For decades the science and engineering (S&E) professions have relied heavily on foreign-born talent that came to the U.S. to be educated, and then stayed. This global embracing of intellectual talent has served the nation extraordinarily well. But that situation is changing in two respects.

Many new nations have joined the traditional family of industrial nations. They are competing for the global pool of S&E talent and are creating tough competition for the U.S. As these nations continue to build their own strong technical infrastructure and economies, fewer of their citizens are likely to emigrate to the United States.

Concurrently, their own citizens, trained in our system, have reason and opportunity to return home. They take with them American technological innovation which, while healthy for global wealth creation and societal stability, depletes America's capacity to compete.

The old wisdom that technology transfer is a "contact" sport not only applies to the positive transfer in our own S&E enterprise to hasten getting new technology to market. It can also work to move that know-how beyond our borders, not in marketable products but in transferred expertise. This is but one aspect of the issue.

The second part is even more compelling. There has been a dramatic change in our nation's demographics over the last three decades. We are fast becoming a majority of minorities. We see this not only in urban areas but also in communities of every size and in every geographical region. We are making much greater strides to incorporate women and minorities into the general workforce than we are in recruiting them into the S&E workforce.

The young people in our growing number of minority families are our nation's untapped human capital. They are our competitive edge. We must reach them when they are young enough to get the early requisite educational background. We must engage and excite them about careers in engineering and science.

We must be forthright in explaining that U.S. progress and prosperity cannot continue without a comprehensively educated workforce and that this is service to the nation. And upon attracting them, we must be proactive about recruiting them into the many engineering programs across the nation.

Let's really mean it when we advocate 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 underrepresented minorities. The Statue of Liberty's torch must light the way for those within our borders as well as those from our border's other side.

If we don't do this we risk being vulnerable. We will not have an educated and competitive workforce to rely on within our borders.

Foreign-born students should always find a welcome here but so must our growing number of underrepresented minorities. Among them will be many of our future leaders.

In closing . . . as we look to the near future, our engineers will confront a vastly accelerated technological horizon. The nanoscale revolution will transform every aspect of our society. Engineers will be primary developers of this revolution. It was a brief twenty odd years ago, with the invention of the scanning/tunneling electron microscope, that we could first observe molecules on a surface. Now our micro world is becoming a nano world.

Nanotechnology gives engineers the ability to manipulate matter one atom or molecule at a time. They will be able to make a wish-list of qualities and characteristics to build into a new material or machine. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. We are now at the point of being able to connect machines to individual living cells.

This capability will transform engineering, manufacturing, and society itself. Three hundred years from now, historians may refer to the 21st century as the nano century.

Add to this, the potent future of terascale computing - computing technology that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities - and we will literally remake what we know as engineering.

When we combine the speed and breadth of terascale computing and the minute dexterity of manipulating the world at the nanoscale, we get a glimpse of fiction that becomes our future.

This is more than exciting, it's fantastic! This new world will require not only a different education for engineers, and for engineers as leaders, but also for engineering educators.

I am reminded here of the wisdom of longshoreman and social philosopher Eric Hoffer. He wrote, "In times of change, learners will inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves well equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

We will all have an aggressive learning curve for the time ahead. And if engineers are posited with the task of reflecting human intention, and if they do their task well, we will move steadily into a genuine sustainable future.

In fact, we cannot make the long journey to a sustainable future for the planet and its inhabitants without the help of engineers. Without engineers, the world stops.

Thank you.



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