Ours is a technology-driven society, and if citizens are to play an informed role in shaping policy decisions that will affect them and their quality of life, they need to have a basic grasp of what technology is, how engineering work is done, and what sorts of considerations and constraints shape the development of various technologies. In other words, they need to be technologically literate (NAE and NRC 2002). The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) publication Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering explained it this way:
A number of important public policy issues, from climate change to the marketing of genetically modified foods, involve scientific and technical issues. Decision making on these and other topics will involve trade-offs, as we attempt to simultaneously manage limited resources while sustaining quality of life. Public discourse and the democratic process could be enhanced if citizens understood more about how engineers are trained and what the practice of engineering entails. (NAE 2008, p. 19)
In addition to helping create citizens who are better able to take part in the democratic decision-making process, technological literacy helps people make better decisions in their own lives. As consumers, individuals must regularly assess the value and usefulness of various technologies—everything from smart phones to electric automobiles—and decide whether they are worth the investment. Understanding something of the engineering process—for example, the role of trade-offs in designing new products—better equips people to make informed choices.
For the United States to maintain its economic competitiveness, it must maintain the capacity for technological innovation (Council on Competitiveness 2004; NAS/NAE/IOM 2007; PCAST 2004). Two of the most important contributors to this capacity are the graduation of qualified engineers from engineering programs (NAE 2005a) and investment in engineering research (NAE 2005b). Both depend in part on the technological literacy of the nation’s citizens and policymakers: to the extent that they understand the contributions of engineers and their importance to innovation and competitiveness, the nation is likely to allocate attention and resources to both engineering education and engineering research.