The way in which academic engineering research is financed is changing at an unprecedented rate. So, too, are public expectations for the outcomes of such research. One can relate these changes to the overlap of two unrelated occurrences: the end of the Cold War—expected to cause a drop in support for defense-related research in universities and an immediate loss of appetite for highly trained engineers in the defense industry; and a realization in corporate America, over a more extended time period, that many major U.S. producers of technological products were not competitive in a global economy. Both of these factors have affected greatly the nation's economy. Nowhere are these effects taken more seriously than in the advanced education of engineers and scientists, and not without good reason. For example, while senior officials at the Department of Defense (DOD) have declared their intention to maintain DOD support for university basic research in spite of large reductions in the overall defense budget (Adams, this volume), the U.S. House of Representatives cut almost $1 billion in DOD funds for university research in its version of the 1995 appropriations bill. Fortunately, most of this money was restored by House-Senate conference committee.
Because research universities are neither listed on stock exchanges nor subjected to the scrutiny of financial analysts, the general public and policymakers have been largely unaware of the shock wave of apprehension currently traveling through academia. Although the full impact of these changes has not yet been felt, there are some significant indicators of problems. For instance, while the award of masters and Ph.D. degrees to U.S. citizens has
been increasing, the annual number of U.S. undergraduate engineering graduates has dropped by 15 percent since its peak in 1985.
The anticipated shift away from the support of academic research is by no means limited to engineering; it extends to many fields of scientific research. However, academic engineering differs from academic science both in its intrinsic ties to socioeconomic goals and in the mechanisms and time scales by which it can respond to changes in these goals. Indeed, most engineering research is closer to application in both time and concept. The changes in attitude and policy toward academic engineering research provide an opportunity for those involved in the enterprise to reinvent its mission and reevaluate its activities. In this report, the committee takes these external changes as givens and suggests ways in which the products of academic engineering research and education can be designed to be consistent with the long-term health of the nation. The report makes several recommendations to ensure there is sufficient appropriately trained technical talent to meet national social and economic goals, to maintain a position of U.S. leadership in the global economy, and to preserve and enhance the nation's engineering knowledge base:
Some important stakeholders, including industry and government, have abandoned or reduced their stewardship of fundamental engineering research. Others appear to be retreating from their long-term commitments to the continuing viability of academic research. This could put at risk the nation's primary means for attracting talented minds to professional careers at the leading edge of technology development. The result may be a failure to maintain the knowledge base on which technological supremacy rests. Neither can be allowed to happen if the United States is to retain its technological competitiveness.
There is an intimate relationship between academic engineering research, the quality of engineering graduate education, the nation's industrial infrastructure, and economic growth. Therefore, it is critical that universities examine their processes for producing Ph.D.'s. Academic institutions need to determine whether the research portfolio and related instructional practices of engineering faculty are contributing adequately to the education of graduate students. Specifically, do these students have the skills, knowledge, and, most important, the orientation to be of direct value to potential employers in both the near and the long term?
In view of the economic value of close, effective university-industry research relationships for both education and development of the nation's engineering knowledge base, it is critical that universities and companies commit themselves to bold new efforts at collaboration. Under the leadership of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Engineering Research Centers have stimulated the development of government-industry research link-