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

Chapter: Why Is Academic Engineering Research at Risk and Why Should Its Health Be Preserved?

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Suggested Citation:"Why Is Academic Engineering Research at Risk and Why Should Its Health Be Preserved?." 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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intelligence, neural networks, and several other advancements in computer architecture and software. Some recent developments such as RISC were the result of university-industry collaboration (Tien, this volume).

Universities continue to play a role in the systematic organization, extension, and explication of engineering knowledge. Through the involvement of graduates and faculty, and via the influence of published research, universities will remain important in many industrial sectors long after early-stage academic research has found its way into an industrial product. Armstrong also cites the general utility of graduate education in scientific and engineering fields, which goes beyond the specific technical content included. It imparts to graduates ways of approaching and solving problems using powerful and fundamental principles. These attributes qualify Ph.D.'s for many positions in the socioeconomic system outside of traditional R&D. With the growing importance of technology in every field of human activity, the opportunities for engineering Ph.D.'s in these nontraditional positions will grow, even if the number of traditional R&D positions declines.

To summarize, the value of engineering research is its capacity to solve real-world problems. Engineering research has provided the systematic underpinnings for the design, analysis, production, and operation of products and systems. Academic engineering research has been academic only in its setting and time frame; first-rank academic engineering research is focused by goals of synthesis, design, analysis, production, and operation but may be too risky, too hard, too general, or too far ahead in time from market application to interest engineering researchers working for private industry. Also, academic engineering research provides the setting for advanced training and education of our nation's most able technical specialists. It is from this reservoir of talent that the most creative technical ideas which underpin industrial progress and economic growth have emerged.

WHY IS ACADEMIC ENGINEERING RESEARCH AT RISK AND WHY SHOULD ITS HEALTH BE PRESERVED?

Academic engineering research has been funded primarily by the federal government. All research universities have benefited from the support of industry, and in some instances, states have funded projects aimed at transportation, environmental concerns, or other local issues. But it is federal agencies, often branches of the Department of Defense, that contribute the largest share—57 percent in 19921—of the total spent on academic engineering research. (See Dickens' Table 5 this volume for closely similar data for 219 engineering research universities.) The federal government also pays a considerable portion of the support for graduate students' education.

Most graduates of Ph.D. programs in engineering enter the industrial sector upon completion of their studies. However, because their support derives

Suggested Citation:"Why Is Academic Engineering Research at Risk and Why Should Its Health Be Preserved?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
×

mainly from government funding and the subject of their research is the result of a compact between their faculty adviser and a government agency, the stake of industry has been indirect. On the one hand, industry receives a government subsidy in the form of educational and research support provided to the graduate. Graduate research itself often adds significantly to the fundamental knowledge base, enabling industry to extend its own research and development. On the other hand, industry often has little influence on the direction taken by academic research, and university-trained students often have no appreciation of the constraints and drivers affecting the conduct of research by industry, or indeed of why industry should even have a stake in research. Simply put, there has been in many fields a fundamental disconnect between industry's needs and government's support for academic engineering research. This is by no means the state of affairs for all academic engineering research. Nevertheless, the picture described above has been, at the very least, not unusual in some of the nation's most renowned research universities.

These issues could be tolerated in an era when federal and corporate budgets were ample and engineers had a wide choice of jobs in defense- or civilian-related industries. But the pressure of global competition and, more recently, the threat of major reductions in defense-related R&D funding have driven much of corporate America into a survival mode. One of the segments of corporate activity most vulnerable to such pressures is research. Lofty expressions of the need for a corporation to invest in its future, to nurture long-range thinking, and to hire the best minds of today's new engineering talent pool will rarely, in a boardroom discussion, hold sway over the requirement to keep the company solvent for the next quarter.

The result, still hidden from much of the general public and policymakers but becoming painfully clear to the best and brightest of America's entry-level advanced-degree engineers, is a phenomenon resembling the pileup at the end of a down escalator when those emerging from advanced engineering education do not keep moving into the corporate world. The pileup should be temporary, however, as the forces of a free-market economy cause those intellectually qualified to ride the escalator to turn to other pursuits. There are three aspects of this natural consequence of supply and demand that are unsettling: the time required to adapt to future increased demand (engineers require more than 5 years, on average, to obtain a Ph.D. after earning a bachelor's degree); reduced creative contributions to the nation's welfare; and an impending dearth of contributions to the fundamental engineering knowledge base currently fed, in large measure, by the research conducted in universities by graduate students.

Part of the rationale for the post-World War II compact between Congress, government agencies, and universities was that it maintained the ''engine of knowledge creation.'' The output of the engine was not only new knowledge available to all through scholarly literature and technical meetings,

Suggested Citation:"Why Is Academic Engineering Research at Risk and Why Should Its Health Be Preserved?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
×

but also knowledgeable persons ready to enter the spectrum of technological endeavor with a proven capacity for formulating and solving complex technical problems at the limits of the existing state of human understanding.

No nation expecting to use the world's storehouse of fundamental knowledge to its competitive advantage can, over the long term, afford not to contribute to that storehouse. In particular, nations at the forefront of technological development are always in the position of being caught by other nations and so must aggressively exploit technological advances to stay ahead. Moreover, if the storehouse of fundamental knowledge is not being resupplied, the young minds best able to contribute to engineering creativity will never be attracted to engineering research in the first place. Clearly, it is in the nation's interest to preserve a reasonable pipeline of knowledge and intellect of the types described above. Because of the forces disrupting the traditional ways of supporting such a pipeline, the academic engineering research community and the government and private clients dependent upon this community are asking the obvious questions: What is a "reasonable" pipeline? and Who should pay for its maintenance?

In the diverse system of education that exists in the United States, quantitative answers to these important questions neither can be nor should be determined by a committee. However, a knowledgeable committee may suggest approaches for offsetting some of the negative factors and trends now being faced by the academic engineering community.

The role of academic research is multifaceted. It serves to expand the engineering knowledge base; contributes to the exploration and application of specific areas of technology; provides systematic contexts and infrastructure for the diffusion and transfer of engineering and technological information; and provides training for most of the future leaders in engineering across the spectrum of research, development, design, and other engineering functions. Because of this varied role, leading engineers have long believed that academic engineering research (and in many instances engineering research in general) is underappreciated and undersupported. Over the past decade, several groups of leading U.S. engineers have recommended that the level of funding for engineering research be substantially increased in the interests of U.S. technological leadership, international competitiveness, and economic growth. These recommendations have been put forward by the Committee to Evaluate the Programs of the National Science Foundation Directorate for Engineering, the National Research Council Engineering Research Board, and the National Science Board Committee on Industrial Support for R&D, among others (see References). Although often accepted in principle by government, university, and industry sponsors of research, fiscal exigencies in each of these sectors have tended to limit the implementation of these recommendations. This committee, too, believes it is a matter of high national priority to enhance funding for engineering research.

Suggested Citation:"Why Is Academic Engineering Research at Risk and Why Should Its Health Be Preserved?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
×
Page 7
Suggested Citation:"Why Is Academic Engineering Research at Risk and Why Should Its Health Be Preserved?." National Academy of Engineering. 1995. Forces Shaping the U.S. Academic Engineering Research Enterprise. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/4933.
×
Page 8
Suggested Citation:"Why Is Academic Engineering Research at Risk and Why Should Its Health Be Preserved?." 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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