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Page 11 1 Introduction It is tempting to view any occupational grouping, whether engineers, lawyers, or teachersor, for that matter, plumbers or policeas a distinct entity, separate from the society in which it develops and functions. Yet such distinctions, inevitable as they may be, are always artificial. The hard dichotomy thus established is in many ways inadequate for describing the complex, dynamic interactions through which society molds professions and professions shape society. Moreover, the habit of dichotomizing can do damage to the popular conception of a profession and its role within the larger society. This may be especially true in the case of an occupation such as engineering, which is subject to rapid change, much diversity in its makeup, and a considerable degree of mystery (from the standpoint of the general public) regarding the nature of its activities. Under such conditions, it is all too easy for an ''us and them'' point of view to take root. With these thoughts in mind, the panel that was formed to examine the broad questions of engineering's functioning within the societal context decided to entitle its report "Engineering in Society." This title is meant to set a prevailing tone appropriate to the symbiosis that exists between the profession and the surrounding culture. It is hoped that, by this means, the discussion will be better able to stress the degree to which the health of the engineering profession and the health of the American economy and society are intertwined.
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Page 12 Engineers and Engineering in the Cultural Context Traditional Views of Engineering The popular conceptions of engineering in America have their roots in the founding of the country, in its astonishingly rapid progression from an isolated colonial upstart at the edge of the civilized world to a leading economic power. Those conceptions are interwoven with the tradition of American inventivenessof "Yankee ingenuity"and with our popular reverence for such figures as Ben Franklin, Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and other practical-minded inventors whose achievements helped to shape the nation. The "can-do" attitude remains an essential part of the American self-image, whether it is applied to landing on the moon or to finding new medical treatments and cures. Over time, the commonplace view of the engineer has acquired a certain range of definition. On the one hand, he (although the situation is now changing rapidly, the traditional image of the engineer has been distinctly male) is the facilitator of "progress," of economic strengtha builder of bridges, dams, and cities; an expander of transportation, communication, and energy systems. It is largely from this notion that the concept of the "heroic engineer" is derived: the rugged tamer of the wilderness, in his mackinaw and laced boots. On the other hand, the engineer is also the purveyor of technologyof the labor-saving device that shapes home life and the workplace as well as the machine that powers industry. In this incarnation, the engineer feeds America's fascination with the clever gadget, the technically impressive. Here, he is the "wizard," closely allied with the scientist in the popular view. These laudatory conceptions are by no means universal. In other countriesGreat Britain, for examplethe engineer is traditionally held in considerably lower esteem, as something more akin to a mechanic or other tradesman (Secretary of State for Industry, 1980). And in the United States, the image of the engineer has proven not to be an immutable one. Changing demographics of engineers may be one reason. Early engineers came from the dominant WASP social sector; but in this century, at least until recently, entering engineers have come to a large extent from immigrant groups struggling to acculturate and achieve status (Noble, 1977). However, a more fundamental reason for the changing view of engineers is that mistrust of technology and dissatisfaction with its fruitseven fear of its consequenceshas become a significant new element in American society, one that is kept ever
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Page 13 near the forefront of national attention by a vocal minority of Americans. Thus, in modern times a troubling duality has developed. On the one hand, the engineer is admired for his ingenuity, competence, and practicality. But on the other, he has come to be viewed in many respects as an amoral creature, a corporate "yes-man" of conservative views and little social conscience or consciousnessthe calm builder of devastating weapons, the untroubled maker of every kind of environmental contaminant. The panel believes that much of this new duality in the contemporary view of engineers derives from a general confusion of their perceived traditional role with their actual contemporary role in society and the workplace. The Reality: Diversity in a Complex World The "heroic" image of the engineer belongs to an era in which the frontiers were physical ones, and daily life often hard; the image itself is specifically that of the civil engineer, in an era in which civil engineering works, whether public or private, predominated. Similarly, the "wizard" concept relates to the early mechanical engineer and (especially) electrical engineer. In both roles, the individual actor was often paramountor is at least seen today as having been so. Yet, as we shall see in later sections, these roles are effectively obsolete. The era of the lone surveyor or inventor has long since passed. Engineering has become a collective endeavor, with the engineer most often occupying a place in the organizational hierarchy as a team member. Thus, the traditional view of the engineer's role is complicated by divergent conceptions of military versus civilian engineering, the corporate engineer versus the private consultant, the engineering-school professor versus the industry research engineer, and so on. The picture is further confused by the great variety of disciplines that today comprise the engineering profession. To civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering have been added chemical engineering, industrial engineering, bioengineering, electronics, environmental, systems, petroleum, transportation, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, along with a host of other disciplines and subdisciplines and a variety of analytical and technical fields that are considered a part of engineering. If the engineer has disappointed, if his halo has dimmed or disappeared, it is because he now lives and works in the same complex and highly stratified world that everyone else in the developed countries inhabits. Most engineers (about 73 percent) today work for corpora-
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Page 14 tions. Corporate structures, and the practice of modern scientific business management, have relegated many of these engineers to the role of workermuch like the production workers whose role in the workplace they initially envisioned, established, organized, and managed. This is not to say that the engineer does not still perform those functions; in many ways that is the essence of the engineer's role with respect to people, machines, and systems. But the context has changed enormously. There is much more pluralism in the activities of engineers and engineering; the engineer is no longer the individualistic "heroic" figure of American legend. His role (and thus his image) changes as the "product" demanded of him by society changes over time. Whether what is expected of the engineer is invention and development, or efficient production of goods, or improvement of the social milieu, the profession as well as the individual engineer must respond and serve those needs. Significance of Societal Perceptions We may well ask whether it is actually important how society views engineers and the practice of engineering. How are engineers and their profession affected by these perceptions, and, conversely, how is society itself affected by its view of engineers and engineering? If there is little effect in either case, then the issue becomes an academic one, of little relevance to a study of the status and future of engineering education and employment, of which this report is a part. The answer is that these are important issues. Perhaps the simplest way to formulate their importance is to point out that the basic functioning of our society depends on our modern technology; technology in all its forms is by now the indispensable mechanism by which developed nations carry on their economic and social lives. Engineers are, more than any other group, the nurturers and purveyors of this mechanism, this essential product. How society views that product is, in a basic sense, irrelevant; it must and will continue to be delivered. But the perceptions surrounding the product (is it good or evil, necessary or dispensable?) andby extensionits purveyors, the engineers, can significantly affect the product development process. For example, it can influence the degree and type of support that government gives to engineering education. It affects the numbers and types of students entering engineering studies, and their choice of courses and careers. It alters the direction of research and development by both government and industry, and can result in the curbing of individual lines of technology development through regulation and boycott.
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Page 15 These effects not only have an impact on engineers, they also have strong repercussions throughout our society. The frequent clashing of opposing forces over technological matters is a draining, expensive, and divisive phenomenon. Our trust or mistrust of our governing and corporate institutions often seems to revolve around these matters. To a certain extent, our society's view of itself continues to be partly tied to its viewwhether good or illof technology and of our special national talent for pursuing it. Therefore, it is important to try to understand how these perceptions evolve and what effect they have. Accordingly, the "image of the engineer" is an underlying theme of this report. Calculating the Vector of Change: Where Do We Go From Here? This report will first look back at earlier periods in the engineering story. In so doing it will track the development of various components of the engineering communitynot only the disciplines, but the educational institutions and professional societies as wellin terms of the societal interests to which they responded. The object will be to determine how functional the engineering community has been relative to those competing interests and demands: how well the "system" has worked. The next section of the report will examine the present era, the period since the 1950s, in which many of the previous social, economic, and technological trends and pressures have become intensified. The object here will be to examine the impact of those great changes in scope and scale on the various components of the engineering community, to gain some idea of how well the system is working at the present time. Based on those assessments of past and present, the next section will construct a generalized, informal model of the dynamic relationship between the engineering profession and the larger society of which it is a part. Finally, the results of this analysis will be applied to an examination of present and potential weak points in the system, focusing especially on a summary of several scenarios that were developed by the panel to project how the engineering system would respond to new stresses. The report will thus have asked the following questions about the engineering profession and community: Where have we been? Where are we now? Where do we go from here? It seems to the panel that this is a usefulindeed, obviousway to formulate an inquiry into the way in which engineers and their institutions have functioned and may be
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Page 16 expected to function, relative to their social role. It makes it possible to ask whether the engineering institutions are flexible enough, the profession adaptable enough, to function adequately in the modern world. Much has been made in recent years of the "crisis" in engineering. The term refers variously to shortages of engineering school faculty and laboratory equipment, excessive student populations, inadequate numbers of graduates/practitioners in certain disciplines, the high rate of obsolescence of technical knowledge and technical professionals, and our declining international competitive posture in certain areas. In any of these cases there is room for argument about whether a "crisis" does in fact exist. It is partly a question of semantics: What is a crisis? Is it a situation in which irremediable harm will result unless immediate action is taken? If so, what kinds of action? To avoid oversimplifying the issues (and falling into dogmatic traps), this report will address such questions directly whenever they arisenot in terms of "crisis," but in terms of the circumstances and the specific requirements for action. In this connection it may be instructive to read the opening pages of the well-known 1968 report Goals of Engineering Education (American Society for Engineering Education), which predicts the technology of "The World of 1984." It is interesting to observe how many of those expectations have not come to pass. One may be led to the conclusion that broad technological change will seldom be as rapid as our imaginations suggest, and, further, that our society and its professional systems may be better able to adapt to change than we might expect. The important thing is, not to maintain a crisis-response posture, but to be aware of the mechanisms and limits of change so that informed choices can be made in a timely fashion.
Representative terms from entire chapter: