In “Closing the Energy-Demonstration Gap” (Issues, Winter 2015), Richard Lester and David Hart have reinvigorated the national debate about how we can fund and build large-scale energy demonstration projects. The general gridlock in Washington and the resulting problems in maintaining a reliable source of federal funds dedicated to such projects have made it clear that our traditional approach is not working. In their article, the authors describe a new and innovative way in which projects might be funded.
They propose the establishment of a network of Regional Innovation Demonstration Funds. The revenue for these funds would come primarily from surcharges on electricity imposed by states either as public benefit charges, which many states have already established, or charges implemented by states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some additional funds would come from the federal government on a matching basis. They also call for establishing a new federal agency, the Energy Innovation Board, to serve as a “gatekeeper.” To be eligible for support from the Regional Innovation Demonstration Funds, projects would have to be shown to the federal gatekeeper that they have the potential to lead to significant reductions in carbon emissions “at a declining unit cost over time.”
As the authors acknowledge, this proposal will have to overcome several hurdles to be adopted and implemented. Among them is the challenge of persuading states to raise the funds from consumers of electricity within their borders. This will be doubly difficult since these regional funds would often be supporting projects located in other states.
In spite of the recognized obstacles, this proposal is a significant addition to the debate about how to fund the technology development the nation will need to effectively address the challenge of climate change. The authors deserve thanks for their thoughtful proposal and the proposal deserves serious consideration.
Richard Lester and David Hart have made a welcome contribution to the national discussion on energy innovation. Theirs is a refreshing take on a topic that has been the subject of much debate and research.
For large-scale, capital-intensive projects with the potential to contribute to important societal goals well beyond the benefits accruing to the companies involved—e.g., through knowledge spillovers or future mitigation of environmental externalities—there is a strong case for the sharing of costs and risks between the public and private sectors. In their article, Lester and Hart build on previous suggestions from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology regarding, for example, the need to generate off-budget funding through power system charges or regional cap-and-trade programs, making the point that states already impose charges on electricity for public benefits funds. The authors propose creating regional organizations to manage such funds professionally. Its regional focus and organization is the main novelty in the proposal, which does retain some federal-level involvement through the use of a federal board to approve projects and through the use of co-financing from the Department of Energy.
The idea of creating a decentralized system of energy technology demonstrations has important merits, particularly in the current political environment, in which garnering federal appropriations for the large sums of funds needed for demonstrations is difficult. The regional focus also allows rate payers to contribute directly to developments and investments in their area. In terms of drawbacks, the decentralized approach will require time and effort to set up several new organizations mentioned by the authors. It may also increase burdens for those trying to propose projects, since they would need to get federal certification and then go through the competition process in one or more Regional Innovation Demonstration Funds (RDIFs), incurring transaction costs each time. Nonetheless, given that alternative proposals over the past decade have gone nowhere, RDIFs are worth exploring.
There are important policy principles that could guide organizations supporting technology demonstrations, or “debugging projects,” some of which go beyond those mentioned in passing in the article. These include (1) creating a long-term policy, such as some form of price on carbon, to more effectively motivate private sector investment; (2) selecting technologies with the potential to have a material impact on major policy goals; (3) absorbing risk that is difficult for the private sector to finance alone, and, in particular, providing support for unproven technologies even when there is a risk that they may not prove to be competitive; (4) facilitating the dissemination of information to others who could benefit from it, to maximize public benefit; (5) outlining a clear exit strategy, which involves setting criteria for when projects would be stopped if they do not perform, to avoid large losses; and (6) pursuing a portfolio approach to ensure a diversity of paths.
A key challenge to a demonstration effort that has yet to be discussed will be to engage the A-game of investors and technology companies, particularly in areas in which there is uncertainty regarding the future market of the technologies, such as carbon capture and storage. With all its difficulties, this is an important policy issue that needs fresh thinking such as that provided by the authors.
Abdulla and Morgan make a compelling case for new ways to enable the entry of promising technologies into the marketplace. I agree that a regional approach to demonstration projects, with vetting by state trustees, oversight by an energy innovation board, and financing with matching federal funds, would be a judicious mechanism to boost not just new energy technologies, but, indeed, many novel ideas that are in the proof-of-concept stage.
I applaud their suggestions and believe their ideas, while focused on energy, have relevance to a more general problem: namely, that of the so called “valley of death,” where many technologies languish because of the significant barriers they must overcome to get to the other side of the chasm.
Therefore, it behooves policy makers to recognize that beyond the financial resources required, there are many other “disconnects” within the innovation ecosystem needing intervention, assistance, and improved interaction. For example, one often finds that a technology that is proprietary in one field of application is not made available for other potential applications due to a lack of understanding of the intellectual property regimes that can protect a proprietary interest in one area while enabling its use in another. Also, it is not uncommon to find that a technical solution lies outside of a given company’s core area of expertise (or that a company’s focus keeps it from seeing new developments in adjacent fields). Indeed, “open innovation” and “prize-driven innovation” have now brought forward countless examples of unexpected sources of technological solutions, fruitful connections, and new applications.
Likewise, industry and universities are rarely sufficiently well-connected to make for successful exchanges. For example, industry funds about two-thirds of all research and development (R&D) in the United States, but it is telling that of all university research, only five percent is sponsored by industry. Federal incentives to encourage more investment by industry in partnership with universities would help bridge the gap between fundamental and applied research. There are good examples of how close collaborations speed the time from discovery to innovation, but imagine the additional boost to the economy if this was more common, as might happen with making permanent the R&D tax credit or markedly expanding the opportunities made possible via Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs).
Of course, collaboration also requires the kind of rapprochement that is seldom seen between companies and universities, or even among companies themselves. All too many universities remain cloistered in the “Ivory Tower,” believing that working with industry is a prohibited endeavor. And too many companies have deep misunderstandings of intellectual property and assume that what universities develop should be available without an exchange of comparable value—be it financial compensation, research collaboration, or some other recognition that acknowledges an exchange for mutual gain.
The authors have brought us a useful framework, and I would welcome their exploring these additional nuances of the innovation ecosystem.
It is disturbing to read Lester and Hart’s recommendations for “closing the energy-demonstration gap.” How can the public hold on to what works when inexplicably favored experts want to “ramp up” their better ways? Here in New Mexico, under the influence of Portfolio Standards, we have given up inexpensive, traditional daylighting with skylights and windows for expensive photovoltaic power plants connected to the grid. This has been done in silence. Other recently neglected uses of the sun are passive heating and drying clothes on clotheslines. Such traditional non-electric uses of the sun are abandoned. Read Christine Lakatos’s Green Corruption website to understand the opportunity for kickbacks and crony capitalism possible with electricity and utilities, but not with clotheslines and passive heating. She has exposed far more than Solyndra.
Case for small nukes
In “Nuclear Power for the Developing World” (Issues, Winter 2015), Ahmed Abdulla and M. Granger Morgan provide a thoughtful look at the potential of small modular reactors. As they correctly note, there would be significant advantages to be able to manufacture such reactors in a factory and transport a fueled and operable reactor to a location where power is needed. The smaller size also helps in terms of managing decay heat in the event of an unplanned shutdown or malfunction. And a small modular approach is consistent with the fact that in many developing countries, the power grid cannot easily absorb a power plant of perhaps 1,000 megawatts of electrical output, typical of large conventional nuclear power reactors, nor is the capital needed for such a plant available.
The article notes that “Estimates of the capital cost per megawatt of first-generation light water SMRs [small modular reactors] lie a factor of two or three above that of conventional reactors.” And conventional reactors are having trouble competing in the United States now. The comparative economics of small nuclear reactors versus alternative electricity sources was not discussed, and this is not easily addressed in a general article such as this, in comparison with a site-specific study. Depending on the location, solar and wind electric-generating sources, perhaps with storage, may be competitive without requiring management of nuclear power technology, liabilities and accident response capability, nuclear proliferation, and waste management.
The discussion of insurance and liabilities for accidents is clear and provides useful information about approaches used elsewhere to increase coverage above what is available from private markets or what a government can commit to cover. And as the authors note, developing a pool of liability insurance does not ensure adequate emergency response.
The discussion of proliferation is sound, but waiting for improved proliferation risk models is not likely to be a good strategy. Models reviewed in the National Research Council study cited by the authors looked only at the technical characteristics of a system; the specific interest a host country may have in proliferating or acquiring relevant expertise was not considered. A related point concerns what countries would be suitable for such reactors based on political stability and the likelihood of internal conflicts or terrorism. Just as a small reactor could be used as a source of materials for nuclear weapons proliferation or a dirty bomb, it also could be an attractive target for terrorists.
The authors do not discuss radioactive waste management at length and treat it as something that would-be modular reactor vendors should provide as an integrated service with reactor sales and replacement when refueling is needed. This misses a major point on waste management. Of the reactor suppliers, as far as I know, only Russia offers fuel take-back. The decision to lease fuel and take it back after use in a reactor is not an option a vendor in the United States or Western Europe could offer, given the policies in those countries. This is not to be confused with U.S. efforts to have spent fuel from research reactors returned to the United States; this is a nonproliferation program that addresses highly enriched uranium control and would not apply to low-enriched uranium that might be used in a small modular reactor.
As presented by Keith Kloor in “The Battle for the Soul of Conservation Science” (Issues, Winter 2015), the characterization of a “fight” between “new conservation” and “traditional conservation” regarding “whether conservation should be for nature’s sake or equally for human benefit” is inappropriate, sensationalist, and largely based on a simplistic characterization of the history and values of the conservation movement.
There is no “new conservation.” Consideration of utilitarian values of nature dates back throughout—and indeed long before—the conservation movement. Plato wrote of the negative consequences of deforestation and soil erosion, although societies through history have protected refuges to ensure the sustainable harvest of wildlife.
Similarly, even though conservation focused on the intrinsic values of nature does, indeed, date back for millennia (consider, for example, the inclusion of nature in the Chinese moral systems of Laozi and Zhuangzi, and the protection of sacred groves and species safeguarded by indigenous people around the world), it remains the major motivation for a large proportion of the conservation community to this day.
The author is right to note that founders of modern conservation such as Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold viewed both intrinsic and utilitarian perspectives as important, and did not see a contradiction in believing and promoting both. Combined values remain dominant throughout conservation. For example, both the Convention on Biological Diversity (which entered into force in 1993 and now has 194 government parties) and the 2011–2020 Strategic Plan for Biodiversity and its 20 Aichi Targets are based on both intrinsic and utilitarian values.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was established in 1948 and now has a membership of nearly 200 governments and government agencies, along with more than 1,000 nongovernmental organizations. The IUCN’s entire history is characterized by its cherishing and drawing together of the intrinsic and the utilitarian values of nature, as is well demonstrated in Martin Holdgate’s The Green Web, published in 1999.
Indeed, the IUCN’s vision of “a just world that values and conserves nature” is founded on respect for and belief in the intrinsic values of both nature and people. The chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission, Simon Stuart, writing in Biophilia, published in 2014 by the conservation foundation Synchronicity Earth, has called for “a society and a global economy which makes the rights of people and nature unnegotiable.”
As for the author’s notion of “Embracing the Anthropocene,” the IUCN sees neither the ongoing loss of global biodiversity through genetic erosion, species extinction, and ecosystem conversion, nor the homogenization of local biodiversity through the spread of invasive species, as inevitable.
With proactive biosecurity, eradication, and control, the negative impacts of invasive species can be minimized, as demanded by number nine of the Aichi Targets. The IUCN’s Invasive Species Specialist Group provides extensive resources to support such actions.
Meanwhile, number 12 of the Aichi Targets calls for the prevention of extinction of threatened species. Although the trends in extinction risk documented by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are negative, an analysis published in 2010 by Mike Hoffmann and colleagues in Science shows that the slide of bird and mammal species toward extinction would have been 20 percent faster in the absence of conservation efforts over the past three decades.
In sum: conservation works, both for people and nature—but we need much more of it. And we need to put a stop to simplistic and divisive arguments about whether conservation is designed to benefit nature or people: it has to do both.
This essay touches on many aspects of the current conservation debate, but my response addresses a single important fault line between the camps. It concerns the relationship between humanity and the natural world: Are humans part of, or separate from, nature? The new conservation perspective (represented by Peter Kareiva and advocated by a broader platform calling itself post-environmentalism or eco-pragmatism) claims that humans are part of the natural world and that their interventions are natural. According to wilderness defenders (represented by Michael Soulé and the rewilding movement more widely), human beings have separated themselves from the natural world and treat it primarily as a resource base. This difference is so fundamental as to inform most of the particulars of the “battle.”
New conservationists argue that like other species, human beings alter and disturb their environments; in response to disturbance, life adapts, rebounds, or markedly changes. Nothing in nature is ever static anyway, and human-driven modification is an expression of such perennial change. This idea that humanity is simply authoring another chapter of Earth’s environmental history naturalizes human activities as well as the human impact overall. Wilderness defenders, on the other hand, do not tend to see the human impact as “natural,” but as undergirded by an anthropocentric worldview that frames our perception of nature and guides our activities. Were humanity to create an alternative civilization of restraint, respect, and inclusiveness toward nonhuman nature, then our relationship with Earth would be entirely different. Far from naturalizing the human juggernaut, the pro-wilderness platform politicizes it. Humans approach nature equipped with the ideologies, language, and tools of a colonizer; although humanity has come to reject such a colonial stance with respect to people, the same stance toward nature continues to appear normal.
The mistake of naturalizing humanity’s activities is illustrated by the article’s implicit comparison of a volcanic and human-driven disturbance. Peter Kareiva reportedly saw the environs of Mount St. Helens burst with life in a handful of years after the eruption. The lesson he drew is that nature is not fragile, as environmentalists so often intone. It is undoubtedly true that life is powerful, proliferative, and rebounds after natural disturbances. Life has also recovered from mass extinction episodes, proving to be resilient in the long haul and wondrously creative on time scales of millions of years.
But the human impact should not be conflated with natural disturbances that have episodic, intermittent, and (barring catastrophic events) regional effects. In contrast, the effects of humanity are cumulative, mounting, and global. The dominant social pattern exhibited by civilized humanity is to invade natural areas; extinguish or displace native species; convert entire biomes for human purposes; fragment continental landscapes with settlements, agricultural monocultures, roads, and other developments; and use and manage most remaining natural places. Compared with a volcanic eruption, human-driven disturbance is relentless and relatively permanent. It is also intentional and driven by an attitude of dominion and entitlement. On a positive note, though, this adversarial-to-nature human identity is not inborn. Humans can change: We can choose to scale down the human enterprise instead of accepting or trying to “green” its expansionism.
Looking on the bright side today has value, but not at the price of one-sided information. The author cites Kareiva’s optimism regarding the reshuffling of ecologies: “If you live to be 50,” he is quoted as saying, “one out of two species you saw in your back woodlot will have been swapped out for a different species—but the number of species would not have declined.” In a world headed toward 10 billion people who all want prosperity, if you live to be 50, your back woodlot may well no longer be there. In many places, if you do have a back woodlot, it would have been a forest when you first saw it. Should business as usual prevail, if you live to be 50, the planet’s overall diversity of species will be far lower than when you first played in the woodlot. And the species in that woodlot are likely to overlap a good deal with those in other woodlots around the world. If instead of changing itself, humanity continues changing the world, a toddler today who lives to be 50 will be alive in a world well on the way to the Homogocene, as some prefer to call the coming age of Man.
The new conservation (and eco-pragmatist) platform seeks to adjust to civilization’s expansionist trends rather than confront them. It does not challenge the concurrent rise of the global population and overconsumption, or what this twined tide bodes for the planet. It appears willing to concede the option of geoengineering the climate and to accept that “the price of progress” could be a mass extinction. Importantly, it refuses to consider that humanity’s wiping out wild species, subspecies, and populations—and potentially causing a mass extinction—poses profound ethical ramifications.
Given our predicament, the other major player cited in the article, Michael Soulé, is glum about conservation prospects—an understandable position. But the author says that Kareiva is “neither pessimist nor sunny about the state of the world. To him, it just is what it is.” Would we say “it just is what it is” about injustice or genocide perpetrated against fellow humans? That would be unthinkable. And yet, regarding what poet Robert Frost called “the general mowing” of nonhuman nature, such an attitude appears okay. But for many conservationists and for the rewilding movement, “it is what it is” amounts to a nonstarter. We can agitate and act for the natural world’s ecological restoration and for awakening the human desire for a different way of being within the biosphere.
By using “conservation science” rather than “conservation biology,” Kloor’s article demonstrates one way that perspectives on conservation have changed in the three or four decades since it emerged as a field of scientific study. Proponents and practitioners came to realize that efforts at conservation could not rely solely on biology to provide solutions, and that fields such as economics, policy, and other social sciences had to be incorporated to craft successful programs.
Among other differences between biological sciences in general and conservation science in particular, there is often a sense of urgency as species of conservation concern decline or disappear, controlled experimental studies are often impossible, and researchers are often called on to help guide policy decisions before they have collected information they might want for an informed decision. Conservation is also unique because there is so much room for one’s philosophical biases and idiosyncrasies to influence conclusions about whether and how to conserve biodiversity. Personal experiences that contribute to one’s weltanschauung are likely to affect conclusions about how best to solve the dilemmas raised by the synergistic confluence of the growing human population, growing expectations about standards of living, and the increased demand on natural resources they generate. There is no single best way to pursue conservation.
Given the philosophical nature of such issues, it is not surprising that there is a spectrum of conclusions about the best approach to such difficult problems. Ecology contrasts with other sciences in the lack of absolutes, and conservation science is a prime example of this. In one ecosystem, removal of predators is seen as the solution, while in another, it is the re-introduction of predators. Invasive species cause extinctions in some ecosystems, and seem benign in others.
The differing perspectives of Soulé and Kareiva, highlighted in the article, are an inevitable outcome of the growth of a relatively young field of science that incorporates so much from the realm of philosophy. What remains to be seen is how the broader, and in particular the younger, community of conservation scientists and practitioners responds and develops after having these ends of a spectrum of perspectives highlighted. It will also be interesting to see how nongovernmental organizations and their donors respond. One possibility is that the differences among existing organizations (e.g., The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlands Network) that result from their having different focuses and philosophies will continue to diversify, perhaps opening up niches for groups with new emphases.
I think the current debate will continue, perhaps concluding with an agreement to disagree, but with the potential to continue growth and change in the maturation of the science. It is valuable to have the discussion, and I hope all of the participants will recognize the value of continuing it, rather than refusing to communicate.
In “Has NIH Lost Its Halo? (Issues, Winter 2015), Robert Cook-Deegan has cogently described the crosscurrents affecting the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This venerable institution can rarely satisfy its patrons on the congressional left or right, nor can it move quickly enough to meet expectations of groups that advocate for patients with serious illness or disease. For the basic scientist, NIH is too clinical; while for the clinician, its priorities neglect pressing diseases. Industry believes that NIH is distant from the most effective means to find new drugs and devices. Those in the physical sciences and engineering believe they are the preferred routes to the country’s economic development, security, and competitive strength. Universities fault it for failing to assure sustained, predictable investment in programs and people. Above all, to many, NIH seems unlikely to make the most of scientific knowledge that is potentially valuable to medicine and public health. The undercurrent is a growing belief that more money—by itself—will be inadequate for the task.
Three additional factors account for NIH’s predicament:
First, dramatic successes in medicine of earlier decades (such as polio vaccines in the 1950s or AIDS therapies in the 1990s) have been few in recent years, especially for diseases of increasing prevalence, such as Alzheimer’s, autism, or adult diabetes. The pace of discovery is slowing, and the interval to application at the bedside is lengthening. To put this another way, productivity has declined. The drop is due primarily to the intrinsic difficulty of the science relevant to these diseases.
Second, the NIH mission is ambiguous. Is NIH a science agency or a public health agency? The diffusion of responsibility among the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Surgeon General and Public Health Service, the military, and NIH creates this ambiguity. Inconsistent responses to emerging infections (such as coronavirus or Ebola) are emblematic, since even within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees NIH, rapid trials of vaccines and antivirals are stymied. Similarly, is NIH expected to find new, effective educational, behavioral, and social interventions (such as for drug addiction or obesity), which are rather distant from biology yet have important roles in disease prevention and treatment? In an era when suicide claims more lives of the young than cancer, such criticisms become persuasive.
Third, NIH’s current organization and funding priorities may not reflect the way biomedical science might best be conducted. Basic mechanisms, such as those in cell signaling, biological networks, the cell-cycle, and protein-protein interactions, have wide potential utility against many diseases. Within NIH, the right mix of basic, clinical, “big science,” and individual laboratory investigations has been elusive. Successive NIH directors have sought remedies to these shortcomings, through such efforts as the National Centers for Advancing Translational Sciences, the Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSAs), and the Advancing Medicines Partnership. These have been incremental and not (yet) unambiguously successful in boosting productivity. Therefore, the continued Balkanization of basic studies within disease-defined institutes makes diminishing scientific sense.
What changes might improve NIH’s effectiveness?
Create an Institute of Basic Biomedical Science. The institute would have responsibility for laboratory-based studies, and would function much as do the freestanding Howard Hughes, Broad, or Whitehead institutes, with a focus on biological mechanisms and platform technologies applicable to many diseases.
Reorganize the Clinical Center as a Translational Institute. The institute would conduct rapid proof-of-principle and high-risk/high-reward studies in humans, using NIH and the university-based CTSAs, which would operate with one another seamlessly.
Bring NIH closer to universities, companies, and investigators. Mobility between external institutions and all NIH divisions should be the rule, not the exception. Similarly, interchange of biological material, intellectual property, clinical and scientific databases, informed consent procedures, and clinical trial participants should be effortless, with speed and efficiency rewarded. The primary measure of effectiveness should be the speed with which an answer to a particular scientific or clinical question is found: Yes it works, or No it doesn’t, but here is how it can be modified and tried again.
Clarify within HHS responsibility for devising educational and behavioral interventions. NIH’s natural role is in the science relevant to particular conditions and early trials, a role parallel to that in biomedical studies.
Of course, such changes will not be undertaken easily. Yet, we must remember that the stakes are high. In an era when the nation’s population is aging, the cost of care is growing (albeit at a slower rate), and human need is obvious, we must become much more effective in applying the stock of scientific knowledge that is close at hand. This is a moment when radical change is warranted.
Free genetics innovation
The article by Henry Miller and Drew Kershen, “Give Genetic Engineering Some Breathing Room” (Issues, Winter 2015), accurately captures the dismal history of U.S. regulators of genetically modified plants and animals. Their scholarly and dispassionate essay describes the history of the science and how the various federal agencies involved managed to place politically based policy considerations above science and law to delay or deny applications that offer alternatives and improvements to conventional agricultural and animal products.
Although the authors do not address the dichotomy or logical contradiction, the same technology has been welcomed and adopted widely in the production of novel biologicals for medical use. The first example of this was, of course, Henry Miller’s leadership in the review and approval of the first recombinant human health product, called Humulin, in 1982. The authors do highlight the burdensome and sometimes irrational policies that have been pursued during the past 30 years, and the failure of regulatory agencies to demonstrate leadership in informing societal concerns for new products based on modern molecular genetics. In my own experience, the role of economically vested opposition groups have had enormous political and regulatory impacts on administrations and regulators, misleading the public regarding the safety and value of new technologies. Such a corruption of a science-based regulatory policy introduces arbitrary and subjective regulation, stifling innovation and discouraging investment in and development of new products.
The authors are absolutely correct when they observe: “We need and deserve better from governmental regulatory agencies and from their congressional overseers.” In my view, we must make science-based regulation a reality, not a slogan.
As Monica Gaughan and Barry Bozeman document in “Daring to Lead” (Issues, Winter 2015), critical issues for the nation’s science and engineering infrastructure remain unsettled. Among them, the nation faces a demographic challenge with regard to its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce: underrepresented minority groups comprised 31.5 percent of the national population in 2013, yet during the same period they earned less than 15 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees. Although the case has been made for increasing the domestic talent pool by increasing opportunities for native-born students to prepare for study in STEM disciplines, there are still many individuals who are not likely to have these opportunities available to them.
Since 1974, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering Inc. (NACME) has developed partnerships at 160 colleges and universities, providing $142 million to over 24,000 underrepresented minority engineering students. NACME has had a long history of supporting the engineering pathway for African American, Latino, and American Indian women and men. Although the primary delivery model has been through scholarships supported by a preeminent group of Fortune 500 companies, NACME has learned that achieving success in increasing underrepresented minority participation in engineering study requires a multifaceted strategy to address the continuum from middle school to workforce entry. Our multifaceted strategy integrates:
Scholarships and university relations. NACME currently partners with a national network of 51 leading colleges and universities to recruit, enroll, educate, retain, and graduate increasing numbers of underrepresented minority students. We are responsible for more than 1,000 scholarships awarded annually to these students. Through the NACME Scholars Program, we provide block grants to colleges and universities that, in turn, award funding as part of financial packages to qualified students enrolled in engineering programs.
Pre-engineering. NACME’s pre-engineering strategy directly addresses the lack of “dually disadvantaged” students in the STEM pipeline. As founding partners, NACME, Project Lead the Way, and the National Academy Foundation launched the Academies of Engineering (AOE), a network of career-themed academies. Through open enrollment, the high schools provide students with a strong science and math education to assure college readiness for engineering study. Scholarships are awarded to AOE high school graduating seniors, and NACME’s corporate and university partners participate on AOE advisory boards. In addition, NACME provides a suite of awareness materials to middle schools and high schools across the country to inform students about the possibilities of an engineering career.
Research and program evaluation. Since 1974, NACME and its partners have fostered research-based changes in policies and practices that guarantee equal opportunities for the preparation and participation of all U.S. students in STEM. With the support of corporations, foundations, government agencies, and individuals who share our vision, NACME has conducted research and analyzed trends in education, engineering enrollment, degree completion, and workforce participation for underrepresented minorities. We have raised awareness and promoted the discussion of equity and engineering education issues throughout our history.
Engineering public policy. To further address the institutional barriers that contribute to the deficit of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM, we provide research-based recommendations on federal policy in our Research and Policy Brief series and our new Policy Statement series.
The achievement gap between underrepresented minorities and their peers in the STEM subjects is substantial, especially for those who are dually disadvantaged. To improve STEM achievement for all students, multifaceted pathway strategies that include financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds must be funded and replicated.
It is good to know that Alan Porter has not let any grass grow under his feet since his early official retirement from Georgia Tech. He has obviously put together an absorbing, rewarding, and productive post-retirement career through his continued affiliation with Tech and his leadership engagement at Search Technology, Inc.
Abstracting from his positive personal experience, however, brings at least two questions to mind. First, Porter suggests that regularizing opportunities for retired faculty to engage in research could help open faculty positions for new PhDs by incentivizing earlier retirements. Yet, his own experience, if typical, would suggest that freeing experienced faculty members from teaching and administrative duties so they can focus on research might have the opposite effect if those “retired but active” faculty were thus able to claim an even larger share of federal research dollars than they already do. This is part of the societal dilemma caused by the current simultaneous rapid growth of both life expectancy and worker productivity. That dilemma is whether it is better to (A) keep older workers working and contributing longer, thus blocking opportunities for younger workers, but freeing them of some of the burden of supporting the elderly, or it is better to (B) encourage older workers to retire sooner, thus opening opportunities for younger workers, but adding to their burden of elderly support. This is a larger question than Porter raises, but his proposal is a good illustration of the conundrum.
Second, Porter also suggests, but does not fully explore, the implications for universities of extending privileges to conduct research under the university’s umbrella to persons who are no longer employed by the institution. As a former Vice Provost for Research, I am aware that research performance, funded or not, is subject to increasing numbers and levels of regulations intended to protect research subjects, avoid conflicts of interest, protect health and the environment, guard against sharing classified and sensitive information with potential enemies, and so on. Although much of this regulation directly affects the activities of faculty members, its enforcement is largely through the institution. The fact that the faculty member is employed by the institution provides the mechanism through which regulations are imposed and enforced. Porter is right—institutions need to reexamine the implications for regulatory compliance of continued participation by retired faculty members in university research. So far as I have been able to determine, my own former employer, George Mason University, has no provisions for governance of such relationships. An inquiry of one of the principal organizations responsible for representing university interests in federal regulatory agencies turned up no systematic attention to this question. A few universities have adopted their own policies on such matters. If Porter’s encouragement to “retire to boost research productivity” is acted on by very many of our colleagues, addressing its implications for responsible conduct of research will become a pressing matter on their campuses.
To say that Carl Mitcham in “The True Grand Challenge for Engineering: Self-Knowledge” (Issues, Fall 2014) offers a strong critique of the current state of engineering in the United States would be an understatement. He presents a richly insightful and powerful indictment of the dominant paradigm of engineering education, culture, and professional practices. At the foundation of his indictment lies the idea that engineers need to do much more to connect the dots between the work they do and overall human well-being. And this cannot happen, he argues, unless engineers engage in humanities-informed critical reflection about what it means to engineer itself.
I wonder if Mitcham both underestimates the urgency for engineers to engage in such reflection, and overestimates what humanities faculty might want to or be able to do to help spark and inform this engagement.
Although the second Axial Age he mentions demands attention to techno-human relations, a third Axial Age is already looming on the horizon. In it, as Luciano Floridi observed in The Fourth Revolution, techno-techno relations will replace techno-human ones. Humans will become “redundant,” “outside the loop.” The large body of social science research underscoring how poor we are at decision-making helps bring this age ever closer. The intense race among automobile manufacturers to perfect self-driving cars is part of this general phenomenon of innovation cum self-distrust. But the more engineering effort contributes to the Internet of Things, the more pressing it becomes for engineers to think not only about sustainability—a difficult-enough responsibility already—but also about what kind of world this effort would create and the prospects for well-being within it. Would it be a world, to put it bluntly, worth living in?
Engineering in the United States is arguably resource-poor when it comes to reflecting on the grand challenge of self-knowledge. But the same can be said for the humanities with respect to thinking seriously and critically about technological innovation. For example, it is possible to get an undergraduate degree in philosophy without having to think deeply, if at all, about the engineered world. Even the most highly regarded ethics textbooks seem written solely for issues connected to the first Axial Age; it is the trolley problem that is the focus of ethical consideration, not the trolleys themselves. What numerous observers have noted about the average U.S. citizen also holds true of most philosophy students and faculty members: they are ill-prepared to address the difficult questions about value and well-being connected to technological design.
Amidst these sobering facts there is still some good news. More venues exist now than a decade ago for engineers, engineering educators, and those in the humanities to come into contact and have frame-of-reference-expanding conversations with one another. These include the Engineering and Liberal Education Symposium at Union College, now in its eighth year, and the Forum on Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology, of which Mitcham was a co-founder. Consciousness of the need for beginning engineering students to be able to frame problems as technical-social in nature—and not merely technical—is spreading, as are efforts to radically revamp introductory engineering design courses. Such changes are indeed at the margins, but one can imagine a “halo effect” coming from them that would contribute to accelerating change in entrenched practices and attitudes in engineering.
But it is still important to bear in mind that the percentage of women in both professional engineering and professional philosophy in the United States is roughly the same: 22 percent. For this accelerating change to happen, engineering and philosophy need to get their own houses in order with regard to increasing this percentage and that of other underrepresented minorities. For both of these professions, this is another Grand Challenge.
Carl Mitcham offers a thought-provoking and much-needed discussion of the true grand challenge for engineering. I look at this from a European perspective and find that the issues raised regarding engineering education are virtually no different. Mitcham raises a number of issues, one of which is related to C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” argument. I agree with him when he differentiates between the cultures of “science and the humanities” and “engineering and the humanities.” I agree with him when he argues that all engineers need to become critical thinkers, become critically reflective, and become more than technological problem solvers. As elucidated by Andrew Feenberg: “engineers tend to be more at home with ‘function’ but have no place for meaning.”
I would suggest, however, that there are also important issues to be considered relating to the concept of perception: of what is an engineer and what it is to be one. These perceptions can serve not only to shape the expectations of those attending engineering schools; they can and do affect the various curricula on offer. These perceptions about engineering tend to orientate toward a technical model denoting the concept of engineering and engineering education that, as Mitcham rightly points out, are distinctly lacking any education directed toward the humanities.
In schools across Europe, science education is perceived by the public, politicians, and students as an important subject for study. A good examination result in this subject in high school is, for the most part, considered to be a prerequisite for entry into an engineering degree. Moreover, science education—and physics, in particular—is considered to be an area that will help to drive economic growth. For this reason, a lot of taxpayers’ money is invested in research not just in science and engineering, but into ways and means for encouraging young people, and particularly females, to take up science and engineering careers.
Significantly, the same perceptions do not seem to apply to technology education, or “industrial arts,” as it sometimes has been called, in the United States. This is a subject area that openly aligns itself with engineering education. The International Technology Education Association in the United States recently changed its name to become the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. In Europe and elsewhere in the world, technology education tends to hang on to its industrial past. Even though a great deal of research is being done to change this emphasis, classroom practice tends to remain grounded in technical education, a curriculum having an emphasis on the development of workshop-based practical skills related to trades-based occupations. These perceptions—about school-based technology education being related to industry and science education being related to science and engineering—tend, in my view, to emphasize, perceptually at least, the science and humanities paradigm over the more important engineering and humanities paradigm offered by Mitcham.
Since the National Academy of Engineering publicly articulated its “14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century,” many engineering educators have used its ideas to motivate their work. Prominent among them is a reflective response from a social justice perspective by Donna Riley, presented in an article titled “We’ve Been Framed! Ends, Means, and the Ethics of the Grand(iose) Challenges,” published in the Fall 2012 issue of the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace. Riley was concerned with the process surrounding the framing of the Grand Challenges, and also with the series of ethical questions it generated about the specifics of the challenges and the processes that gave rise to them.
For the sake of precision, the apparent “Grand(iose) Challenge” hyperbole put forward seems in need of epistemological clarification. The notion of “challenge” suggests that a particular phenomenon is or rather must be perceived by someone (epistemologically speaking) to constitute a challenge. Without a perceiving mind, there would be no “challenge.” Hence, it would be more appropriate to speak of “challenge perception(s).” This is a main point made by Riley. She asks: Who chose the challenges? What were their underlying assumptions? Should the grand challenges be undertaken, and if so, for which ends? How should they be defined and pursued, and through use of which means?
Taken at face value, Mitcham’s labeling of the “True Grand Challenge” seems fraught with the same epistemological imprecision as the “14 Grand Challenges.” On closer inspection, however, such suspicion vanishes as Mitcham’s main line of argument is of an axiological nature implicitly in line with Riley’s questions. But more pointedly, he argues that “Engineers, like all of us, should be able to think about what it means to be human. Indeed, critical reflection on the meaning of life in a progressively engineered world is a new form of humanism appropriate to our time—a humanities activity in which engineers could lead the way.” The author devotes substantial attention to a penetrating analysis of why such an endeavor has so frequently failed, and even worse, why it was programmed to fail due to the dominant epistemological core-periphery distinction in engineering education.
Mitcham shows how humanities faculty working in engineering schools struggle to justify their courses. He also shows how many of the opportunities for humanities provided by ABET’s Engineering Criteria 2000 have been “lost in translation,” leading to three ideal typical approaches to justify the value of the humanities: namely, an instrumental, an enhanced instrumental, and an intrinsic-value approach. Only the latter provides a conversation space for critical thinking and questioning circumscribed by the Socratic maxims “(Engineer) know thyself” and “The unexamined (engineering) life is not worth living.” In sum, both the Mitcham and Riley articles provide a richness of material and original insights that supplement each other very well. They will no doubt stimulate further research on the “Grand Challenges” in the United States and elsewhere, both of an instrumental and a critical reflective nature.
In the end, there is hope that they might also be able to serve in pushing through a political agenda aiming at changing our unsustainable way of life related to what I consider to be the three Greatest Challenges of Humanity: climate change; the population bomb; and social injustice locally, nationally, and globally.
I completely agree with Carl Mitcham that self-knowledge for engineering students and engineers is quite important. Engineering education in Japan, unfortunately, faces difficulties similar to those the author so ably explained. The technical community is concerned about the image of engineering in the public sphere and its limited attractiveness to students, but engineering programs, even if accredited by the Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering Education, almost never give us any tools to reflect on what it means to be an engineer. As graduate attributes and professional competency have been defined more strictly, engineering students and teachers are forced to accomplish many tasks to achieve these requirements in an overloaded curriculum. There is not enough room for integrating humanities and social sciences into the engineering curriculum.
Besides that, engineering students and faculty have a tendency to look on these courses as extra work. An imaginary dichotomy, known as humanities course and science course, created for convenience sake, has a certain influence among us. We are still subject to C. P. Snow’s two cultures argument. Various improvements are required in the present situation.
These difficulties deserve to be overcome, because their settlement may finally lead us to a new point of view that encompasses the happiness and existential pleasure of engineers. Engineering institutes stress that all engineers have to give the highest priority to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. That is undoubtedly true. Then, who treats and realizes engineers’ well-being? Usually, the public hardly pays attention to the happiness and existential pleasures of engineers. In some textbooks on engineering ethics, engineers sometimes seem to be regarded as if they may contribute to criminal negligence. This view is simply wrong, but suggestive. To be more precise, we might excessively consider engineers as special. All of us have to return to and draw attention to the simple fact that engineers are human as well as members of the general public. Humanities and social sciences will help us have this kind of self-knowledge.
However, I am a bit pessimistic of our current strategy. Depending on the enrichment of engineering education for engineering students may soon encounter some new difficulties, because all of us, including engineers, live in an already well-engineered world. Amid the enormous amount of engineering products and artifacts, how could anyone continue to be a bystander? We all ought to know about engineers and engineering activity, and about the sociocultural context associated with them more strongly than ever before.
Therefore, I think that engineering education for nonengineering students may be needed in the near future. As a matter of course, this is not a critically examined hypothesis. But there is no doubt that contemporary society has been designed and constructed by engineering activities, and because of this, both engineers and nonengineers should have self-knowledge and also should keep trying to increase mutual understanding through engineering education.
Mitcham proposes that engineers need to examine what it means to be an engineer, and, further, that the humanities may offer the educational means to such self-knowledge. Although others have examined what should be done on the engineering side, I’d like to look at the role that humanities can play in enhancing this process of reflective engineering.
Take the case of philosophy, a privileged domain for reflective practice. Why is engineering wholly untouched by philosophy? The blame is not just with engineers and other professionals. For many years, philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, has failed to consider public issues. As a result of its own increasing professionalization, philosophy has become a form of scholasticism in which philosophers discuss with great sophistication of detail, issues that are not necessarily relevant to the fundamental questions of being human. Philosophy has often been socially and epistemologically ineffective. As Bertrand Russell put it in “The Place of Science in A Liberal Education,” philosophy lived in a “certain self-absorption.” Thus it was not surprising that professionals found it uninteresting.
Fortunately in the last three decades or so, philosophers have begun to work to break philosophy out of its academic isolation. But more must be done for philosophy to become more than a technique of logical and conceptual analysis.
From my observations in a developing country, I agree with Mitchum that interdisciplinary approaches to engineering and engineering education are lacking. Fortunately, the negative effects of economic crisis are forcing some changes, including mental changes. More and more broad-minded philosophers, sociologists, and engineers are turning to interdisciplinary research to improve the situation. They use websites to communicate with others, and they are contributing to fundamental change. They work to influence the model and practice of education, even from the elementary school, to introduce more integrity between knowledge on nature and culture. When the critical mass is achieved, the transformation will be effective.