In the second half of the forum, the six presenters responded to questions from the moderator and forum attendees on the role of talent in engineering. The conversation ranged widely, but a recurring theme was how the United States can both rectify weaknesses and build on existing strengths to optimize its use of talent in engineering.
The recruitment and retention of students to engineering education and engineering careers were prominent topics of discussion. Many students come to college with an interest in engineering, often because of the potential of engineering to solve societally important problems. But an estimated 40 percent of the students who intend to get an undergraduate degree in science or engineering abandon that intention by the end of their first year, noted Suresh, which is “a huge issue today in all universities.” The engineering curriculum tends to be inflexible, requiring that students take a particular sequence of classes. And options available in other disciplines, such as a junior semester abroad, are not easy to do in most engineering departments. “The apparent inflexibility of the curriculum, the rigidity of the curriculum, and the demands of the curriculum have turned a lot of students off,” said Suresh.
Engineering education also can impose onerous demands on students in graduate school, especially if the time required to earn a graduate degree and acquire experience is extended. As Banholzer pointed out, those who pursue an undergraduate degree, graduate degree, and one or more postdoctoral fellowships may not get their first job until
they are in their thirties, making law, medicine, finance, and other professions more attractive to many young people.
Broers agreed that students are in college and universities to get an education. Unless graduate students want to teach in a university, Broers said, “the PhD should be shortened and those people should get out and start producing things as soon as possible.”
Another factor that can stymie aspiring engineers is a focus during their education on fields where an oversupply of engineers exists. Faculty members can contribute to such oversupplies by pursuing popular research topics, Banholzer noted. Engineers who are broadly trained can shift among fields, but those who have specialized on narrow topics may find themselves in trouble.
“The PhD should be shortened and those people should get out and start producing things as soon as possible.”
past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering
Thursby agreed, observing that the large NIH budget of recent years has drawn many people to biomedical research, to the point that too many people are now in that field. Meanwhile, the physical sciences and engineering have suffered from a lack of funding and interest.
Yet the loss of students to other fields, or to nonengineering careers if they receive a degree in engineering, should not be seen as a total loss to engineering, Thursby added. People who move out of engineering into other jobs can apply the skills and discipline they learned as engineers to those jobs. As a forum attendee pointed out, engineers can work in the patent office, become public policy analysts, work on intellectual property, become national intelligence analysts, teach in elementary schools, or run for Congress. Banholzer seconded this point, and added that an engineer can become a chief technology officer, a chief financial officer, or a chief executive officer. As Montgomery observed, engineers know how to think and understand how the world works. Having people like that in any job is a good thing.
Given the importance of making connections across fields, one way to retain people in engineering is to give them a broader view of their opportunities, said Thursby. To be successful in the modern world, companies need to pull together teams of business people, scientists, engineers, and others with a mix of skills. As an example, she cited a competition involving human-computer interfaces where a technology developed for low-vision people to interface with a computer resulted
in an application to improve the productivity of people working in call centers.
“You have to map [your work] onto something that the general population is interested in. Clearly, that is a big factor in getting kids to start on difficult engineering programs.”
David Baggett, Arcode
Students can be attracted to engineering through the potential financial rewards of the field. For example, Thursby observed that patents are not necessarily a good way of protecting intellectual property but can be an incentive mechanism for inventors. High earnings are not guaranteed to engineers who enter high-risk startups, but a “lottery ticket kind of upside” can be a powerful incentive. Broers agreed that differential pay can be important in attracting outstanding engineers, which is a lesson that the financial world has learned but not engineering.
Finally, Baggett pointed to the importance of how engineering markets itself. Engineers tend to avoid marketing, but it can be critical to progress. The Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did exciting work on a wide variety of topics, but the public was most interested in robots. “You have to map [your work] onto something that the general population is interested in,” he said. “Clearly, that is a big factor in getting kids to start on difficult engineering programs—because they are difficult.”
On this point, Banholzer added that engineers have not done a good job of explaining their dreams. Engineering has been so successful that people take it for granted. Water is cheap and plentiful, energy is abundant, and cars work. But engineers are also the people who enable biomedical scientists to work on cures for cancer. Without engineering, research could not progress. The challenge is to make clean air, electric cars, and renewable energy as appealing as working to cure human diseases.
The forum occurred during the federal government shutdown of October 2013, and several presenters pointed to government dysfunction as an obstacle to the development and employment of engineering talent. The United States is the only developed country in the Western Hemisphere that does not have a multiyear budget, noted Suresh. Lately it has
CNN reporter Christine Romans and forum panelists
not had even an annual budget, instead funding the government through a series of continuing resolutions.
Budget difficulties relate directly to a question posed to Suresh during the discussion period: Should a National Engineering Foundation be established in parallel with the National Science Foundation? Several engineers have led the National Science Foundation during its history, Suresh responded, though they sometimes have encountered resistance from those who held that the foundation should always be led by a scientist. The major question is where the resources would come from for a separate foundation. The creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy in the Department of Energy came about only after considerable advocacy by a number of organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering, and its budget has remained small. Until the federal budget situation becomes clearer, he said, “even the remote possibility of the creation of a new agency, with its own standalone budget, is in my personal view very unlikely.”
The United States has other weaknesses. The K–12 education system does not produce enough students with strong skills and interest in science and technology, said Montgomery. Educational weaknesses also
limit the ability of adults to understand science and technology and the contributions of science and technology to our lives.
In colleges and universities, the engineering curriculum is so rigid and so packed with topics that it can be difficult to teach engineers the skills they need in the modern workplace, Baggett noted. For example, they may lack the training to understand the connections among fields, even though these connections are critical to success.
The United States also has great strengths on which it can build. Suresh cited the US education system, which instills in young people the right and prerogative to question authority from a young age. Other countries whose students score much higher than their US counterparts in international comparisons of science and mathematics would love to have a system where young people are as independent and questioning.
The United States also is willing to give young people senior responsibility, Broers noted. Though the United Kingdom has gotten somewhat better at this in recent years, students still shy away from engineering companies that will not take such risks. Letting young workers take risks is a way to keep them, even if they require continuing education. “My recipe is responsibility early with very bright people.”
The willingness to let people fail, learn from their mistakes, and try again is another strength of the United States. As Banholzer said, “You cannot win by playing not to lose.” Baggett agreed that the United States, in contrast to other countries, has very favorable bankruptcy laws for entrepreneurs. “In Silicon Valley, it is a badge of honor that you failed,” he said.
“You cannot win by playing not to lose.”
The United States has developed institutions and legal structures designed to spur advances in science and technology, Suresh said. Peer review, protection of intellectual property, procedures to safeguard research integrity, inspector general offices, and expectations for transparency were all developed and refined in the United States to foster the progress of science. And in recent years, other countries have been creating their own versions of the National Science Foundation to try to emulate its successes—even as, ironically, the foundation has come under attack from members of Congress.
The United States also has been willing to devote large amounts of resources to major initiatives. Learning how to put billions of transistors on a single silicon chip took thousands of engineers and a huge investment, not a single inventor, Broers observed. Every industry is different and requires a tailored approach, and politicians should not be deluded into thinking that a few geniuses can lead a country to the front of the world’s economy.
“My recipe is responsibility early with very bright people.”
past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering
A final reason mentioned by Suresh for the success of the United States is that the private and public sectors are willing to take a risk on people born elsewhere and give them an opportunity. Suresh, who was educated in India, reported a recent conversation with an Indian minister who asked him how to make India a leader in science and technology. Suresh replied that when the prime minister of India is willing to hire someone who was educated elsewhere as the head of India’s science funding agency, then India will have arrived.
The panel presentation prompted many questions.
Discussion also revolved around the strengths of the United States in bringing together the disparate talents needed to solve difficult problems. Indeed, the cross-fertilization made possible by collaboration may be one reason ten-x programmers are so valuable. They can stimulate others by exposing them to different ways of thinking about a problem, said Montgomery. These innovative individuals can create different reference frames, which is why a single way of doing business may not permit them to thrive.
“We are not trying to teach [people] how to design a radar. We are trying to make them understand fundamentally how a radar works and why they should care about it.”
Naval Research Laboratory
Engineers often work in collaborative environments, which points to the importance of being able to communicate with nonengineers. For example, most senior military officers and civilians in the Department of Defense do not have training in science or engineering, Montgomery observed. But when science and technology are explained to them in terms they can understand, the knowledge influences their decisions. When senior officials know what a science-based technology can do and why they should care about it, they can apply a different value proposition to decision making. “What we do is arcane. It is very difficult for people who are not educated in it to understand. But we are not trying to teach them how to design a radar. We are trying to make them understand fundamentally how a radar works and why they should care about it.”
Collaborative efforts can pose risks, several presenters noted. For example, said Banholzer, some members of a collaboration may overlook the fact that fundamentals still matter, such as the laws of thermodynamics. Collaborators need to be aware of the inherent problems in an industry if the collaboration is to succeed. Collaborators also may speak very different languages, said Thursby, depending on whether they have been educated in engineering, the law, or business.
Montgomery speculated whether a large multidisciplinary challenge could harness people’s imagination and creativity in the same way that
the Apollo Project did in the 1960s. Perhaps the fusion energy problem, after fifty years of work, is ready to solve? Such a challenge could draw young people into science and engineering by demonstrating that they “will really change the world and have a great time doing it.”
Challenges can spur achievements, but the process also works the other way around, said Suresh. Many of the NAE’s 14 grand challenges for the 21st century arose in part from the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century published several years earlier.1
Engineering solutions can also have unintended consequences, said Suresh, even those that are enormous successes. He suggested that one way to deal with these unintended consequences may be to enhance the interface between the natural sciences and engineering and the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. For example, federal investments have made it possible to forecast with great accuracy where a tornado will strike, but public safety officials lack the ability to predict how people will respond to warnings about tornadoes, and this problem will become greater and more important as the means of communication proliferate.
Suresh also noted that President Kennedy’s call to put a man on the moon, which drew hundreds of thousands of Americans into science and engineering, occurred before wheeled suitcases were invented. In other words, innovation still has plenty of low-hanging fruit. This is an argument, he said, for individual scholarships that allow 20-year-olds to come up with ideas that change the world. The United States has done a good job of uncovering and promoting those ideas for the past half century, and it needs to continue to do so. For example, the National Science Foundation funded two young people at Stanford to think about a method to rank pages on the World Wide Web, and that funding contributed to the founding of Google.
Long-term support may be needed to develop such ideas, Suresh continued. The National Science Foundation funded Andrew Wile for eight years while he was working on the proof of Fermat’s last theorem, and last year’s Turing Prize winner at UCLA had 24 years of continuous funding from the foundation. As Montgomery observed, hard problems can take a long time to solve, and organizations need perseverance to allow people to work long enough to solve them.
Suresh also pointed out that most of the basic research in mathematics, computer science, and engineering on which the global positioning
Members and guests paid rapt attention to the forum discussion.
system is based was funded not by the Department of Defense but by basic science agencies. Without this funding, basic technologies such as GPS and cell phones would not be available. Some topics are not “sexy” at the moment, but will be half a century from now.
The federal government is currently financing several large initiatives in science and technology, Suresh observed, including the BRAIN Initiative, the National Robotics Initiative, and major projects focused on the use of big data. While none may be as captivating as putting a man on the moon, they are all big problems that could capture the interest of young people. For example, the economic implications of finding a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease could amount to many billions of dollars.
These projects motivate practicing engineers and draw new people into the field. A forum attendee reported that surveys of students and their parents show that salaries are more important to parents than to students—students want to know how their work will benefit society.
Engineering may require a rigorous course of study, but so does medicine, and plenty of students want to become physicians. Engineering too is a global force for good, Montgomery observed, and that is its greatest asset in attracting and retaining talented people.