RESPONDING TO THE CHANGED ENVIRONMENT FOR ACADEMIC ENGINEERING RESEARCH
Many of the current pressures on universities relate to the management of the university enterprise, the strength and character of ties to the industrial community, and the character of undergraduate education. With regard to academic engineering research, the touchstone issue is the education-research nexus in graduate engineering education and its relation to industry needs in the global economy. Does the focus on academic research contribute effectively to graduate engineering education? What are the strengths and weaknesses of current academic engineering research programs? How do we overcome the disconnect between academic engineering research and its relevance to careers in industry? Given the changing nature and potential lessening of federal support for fundamental engineering research, is it realistic to expect industry to exert more control over such research by investing more in its support? If industry does this, how can the long-term interests of the nation best be served?
Research and Graduate Education in Engineering
In evaluating the contributions of academic engineering research to national goals, a major question is the degree to which such research helps those individuals who will, whether they join academia, industry, or government, enhance and apply the knowledge base relevant (in either the long or short term) to the technical problems facing the country. In recent years, the academic research enterprise has often been judged by engineers and managers outside academia to be too narrow and detached from application and practice. The concern over the relevance of academic engineering research is especially strong because the enterprise is being asked both to move closer to short-term problems and to justify itself mainly on the basis of near-term contributions.
There was considerable agreement among workshop participants that the nation's engineering schools should be challenged to construct their curricula in ways that address real-world problems. One workshop breakout group proposed three guiding principles for engineering faculty:
Connect practice to teaching;
Connect research both to current and likely future real-world problems; and
Connect teaching to research.
Although simply expressed the concept is sound: The character of engineering and engineering research demands that real problems be important
elements in academic research and the training of engineers. This trilogy of precepts should not be interpreted to imply that all engineering research, much less all engineering knowledge of practice, should flow entirely from within universities or from university faculties. The consensus of the workshop was that stronger and better interactions with industry are essential. (This point is not unique to the field of engineering; medical research, education, and practice are somewhat similar.) Here again, we come to the pervasive influence of motivation that distinguishes academic engineering from academic science and instills in advanced engineering students a mindset and problem-solving methodology oriented to the creative innovation process for new products and services—a mindset noticeably different from that of their counterparts in science.
Therefore, the committee recommends that engineering schools examine their processes for producing Ph.D.'s and determine whether the research portfolio and related instructional practices of the engineering faculty are contributing adequately to graduate students' skills and knowledge. Most important, academic institutions must turn out engineers who are of value to potential employers in both the near and long term.
The hallmark of well-educated graduate engineers should not be restricted to narrow technical or research competence. More important is the ability to solve tough technical problems requiring the application of a broad range of research skills and experience along with an understanding and appreciation of design, development, and creative innovation, which contribute to the solutions of these problems. Do graduates have adequate focus-knowledge of process? Are they narrow specialists able primarily to make contributions to the development of the discipline, or are they broadly educated problem solvers who have acquired deep research competence through their graduate education? What can be done by the university and the faculty to ensure that the research agendas of the engineering faculty are in concert with the needs of the educational process for Ph.D.'s who will join industry, government, or academia?
New and Newly Formulated University-Industry Collaborative Activities
Engineering research serves private for-profit institutions as well as the public interest in such areas as economic development, environmental protection, national defense, and health care delivery. In engineering, perhaps more than any other technical discipline in a university, there can be great value in joint university-industry activities on a long-term basis, Indeed, historically, engineering colleges and industries have evolved together as technology changed. Collaboration between industry and academia in engineering research, education, and practice has been rich and varied. Now, as national challenges shift with the end of the Cold War and the globalization of industry, the relative
responsibilities of industry, academia, and government for the engineering knowledge base must also shift. That shift (or steady evolution) will be worked out in thousands of new and altered relationships among academic engineering researchers, industry, and government. What direction should such changes take? If left entirely to the motivations of individual researchers, universities, companies, and government agencies, will the system evolve in a direction that can serve the national interest effectively? What should be the character of university-industry relationships, and what should be the role of government in academic engineering research?
Weak links between industry and universities in areas in which industry could benefit from the knowledge generated by academic engineering research are evidence of failure on the part of both sectors. No single model of collaboration will work for every situation. What must be recognized is that industry and universities, working together, need to evolve bold new joint ventures to fill the void left by withdrawal of a mainly government-fueled system. New models of collaboration cannot be spelled out in detail here; however, it is clear that among their necessary conditions are long-term commitment, personnel exchange, and recognition that academic engineering research is a component of the education of the nation's technical talent pool for the next generation. Tien (this volume) calls attention to the need for academic researchers not only to carry out work in collaboration with industry, but also to take part in "missionary work to convince people to use the ideas."
Therefore, the committee recommends that universities and companies commit themselves to relationships that couple industrial technology and practices with the leading edge of research and advanced education in engineering.
Workshop participants recognized that the transition to a new (or perhaps previous historical) relationship between academia and industry is not something that can occur in the absence of substantial change in the structure of institutions. It is clear that tenure and promotion policies in universities need to be reassessed with respect to the degree to which they give balanced weight to research, teaching, and linkages to industry and public policy. There is a need for industrial commitments that transcend but do not undercut short-term competitive advantage. That is done today in many industry sectors, such as safety and the environment. No one questions the importance of these issues to the nation's social well-being or to a company's long-term self-interest. The same considerations apply to maintaining the quality of the technical talent pool to ensure the nation's industrial and economic health.
Academic engineering research is at a point of evolutionary change that will determine its character and its intensity for the next several decades.
In contemporary business terms, changes in its customer base have left the enterprise without a sufficient set of stakeholders. It is time for those who wish to be stakeholders to come forward and to claim ownership. Because the long-term technical health of the nation is clearly dependent on the future health and direction of academic engineering research, the government must continue to be an important stakeholder, albeit with a role different from the one practiced during the last half-century. The time has arrived for government, industry, and universities to make collective and conscious decisions tailored to the strengths and needs of today's technology-dependent society and economy.
Finally, the workshop discussion confirmed the complexity of articulating the difference between academic engineering research and its scientific counterpart. Participants became firmly convinced of the need to explain these differences to those responsible for policies that affect both sectors.
Therefore, the committee recommends that the engineering community coordinate and focus more effectively the many voices speaking for engineering. Government leaders in Washington and the public at large must understand the important differences between scientific and engineering research. Only then will the special character of engineering research and education in meeting the needs of the national industrial economy, societal infrastructure, and public health and safety be fully appreciated.
The average share of academic engineering research supported by federal agencies is 57 percent, and the spread is quite wide: 43 percent of civil engineering and 76 percent of aeronautical engineering research in academia is supported by federal agencies. National Science Foundation. 1992. Selected Data on Academic Science and Engineering R&D Expenditures: 1992 (Tables 5 and 6). Surveys of Science Resources Series. Washington, D.C.
Committee to Evaluate the Programs of the National Science Foundation Directorate for Engineering. 1985. New Directions for Engineering in the National Science Foundation. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Engineering.
National Research Council. 1987. Directions in Engineering Research. Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems, Engineering Research Board. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
National Science Board. 1992. The Competitive Strength of U.S. Industrial Sciences and Technology: Strategic Issues. Committee on Industrial Support for R&D. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation.