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Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise (1995)

Chapter: What Has Engineering Research Done?

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Suggested Citation:"What Has Engineering Research Done?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
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WHAT HAS ENGINEERING RESEARCH DONE?

Engineering education and academic engineering research have played important roles in shaping this nation's industrial capabilities. They are doing so to an increasing degree as more technically advanced and complex products and systems are emerging in the marketplace and in the social and economic infrastructure. As new knowledge and more powerful analytical and experimental methods expand the power of engineering in practice, problems of design and development once considered too complex to be dealt with other than empirically, intuitively, or by trial and error have become solvable.

As Simon Ostrach points out (this volume), in many instances, industry lagged in its awareness of this new problem-solving capacity and in its readiness to adopt new methods. Engineers engaged in academic research, industrial research, or product and system design, development, and innovation were needed to assemble, evaluate, and exploit the full range of available scientific and engineering knowledge and methods in their work. This was true whether their work was directed toward the near or long term.

In a number of cases, at relatively long intervals and usually at a relatively slow rate, entirely new technologies leading to new products and services have emerged from basic scientific research. Thus, the development of modern broadcast radio and TV evolved over many decades from the early work of Maxwell and Hertz in the nineteenth century. To achieve economic and societal utility from these elements of fundamental scientific knowledge required research interspersed with inventions relating to circuit design, amplifiers, vacuum tubes, feedback and circuit stability, antennae, and amplitude and frequency modulation, among other things. Edison, Marconi, DeForrest, Armstrong, Fessenden, Nyquist, and Bode all contributed to the variety of achievements that led ultimately to the modern attributes of broadcast radio. Their basic research and invention were clearly aimed at achieving applications in communications technology and come under the mantle of engineering rather than science. However, there is a close coupling between scientific and engineering research. Refinements in the quality and performance of such things as microwave tubes and devices, electronic instrumentation, and computers, which come out of engineering, nourish the progress of scientific research. The resulting new scientific principles can in turn facilitate engineering research and development on new processes, devices, and instruments.

Knowledge derived from research does not necessarily or uniformly flow from science to engineering. Engineering progress based on empirical, experimental, and heuristic methods often anticipates underlying scientific principles. Thus, the development of the airplane by the Wright brothers preceded fundamental aerodynamic theories and principles adequate for the

Suggested Citation:"What Has Engineering Research Done?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
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design of either airplane wings or propellers. Nevertheless, engineering development techniques, including the use of wind tunnels and flight tests (of gliders), enabled the Wright brothers to design a flyable, controllable machine. Subsequent research, largely in engineering but also in some of the basic sciences, has made possible the tremendous growth in global air transportation over the past century. Engineering research aimed at achieving technical and economic progress of this sort must go well beyond the limited knowledge on which invention or demonstration of technical feasibility of a new device, machine, or system is based. It must produce more in-depth and usually more quantitative information that will allow for continuing improvements in the performance, economics, and range of application of the original invention or technical demonstration. Progress in the development of prime movers and power plants—from steam engines to internal combustion engines and gas turbines—was mainly the result of engineering research and development, although advances in engine and turbine materials benefited from scientific research in physics and chemistry. Recent advances in high-strength, high-stiffness fiber composite materials flowed initially from engineering research.

The development of practical electronic computers was also aided by engineering research, along with mathematics (programming concepts and software development) and solid-state physics (transistors). The most significant recent advances in computers have followed from the development of integrated circuits and microprocessors, both products of engineering research. The sequence was: transistor, 1948; integrated circuit, 1959; microprocessor, 1972. Transistors, integrated circuits, and microprocessors have not only had a profound influence on computers but, through engineering application as components, have also brought about major advances in a broad spectrum of products and services, from telecommunications to transportation and industrial manufacturing and process control.

Computers themselves, of course, have affected the course of scientific research in fields as diverse as astronomy and solid-state physics. The work that led to the invention of the electronic computer was university based. On the other hand, the invention of the integrated circuit took place in industry. In both cases, their subsequent development and widespread application in industrial products and infrastructure owe much to the emergence and diffusion of systematic, rationally based methods of analysis and design for both hardware and software. University research and education played indispensable roles in this process.

Armstrong (this volume) points out that university-based hardware research no longer is the major contributor to computer development that it was in the early days of the computer industry. This is to some degree typical of new technologies that originate mainly from university research and then mature in industry. A similar scenario has played out in the fields of artificial

Suggested Citation:"What Has Engineering Research Done?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
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Page 5
Suggested Citation:"What Has Engineering Research Done?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
×
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The way in which academic engineering research is financed and public expectations for the outcomes from such research are changing at an unprecedented rate. The decrease in support of defense-related research, coupled with the realization that many U.S. technological products are no longer competitive in the global market, has sent a shock wave through research universities that train engineers. This book argues for several concrete actions on the part of universities, government, and industry to ensure the flow and relevance of technical talent to meet national social and economic goals, to maintain a position of leadership in the global economy, and to preserve and enhance the nation's engineering knowledge base.

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