In “Streamlining the Visa Immigration Systems for Scientists and Engineers” (Issues, Fall 2014), Albert H. Teich articulates very well many of the arguments for making the U.S. visa system work better for visitors and the scientific enterprise, and then offers a sound plan of action to carry out this task. As the author points out, the country has benefitted tremendously in the past from its visitors and the immigration of foreign scientists. It is clearly in the national interest of the United States to keep a steady stream of foreign students and visitors coming to and working in this country.
A variety of intersecting factors adds urgency to dealing with this issue. First, as more and more countries invest in science and build their own science infrastructure, scientists around the world will have many more options for where they can conduct their research with first-class facilities and support. Unless the United States changes its visa system to lower the bureaucratic barriers to coming to this country, more of the top students and practicing scientists in other countries will simply choose to go to other places for high-quality training and facilities in which to do their work.
The likelihood of scientists going elsewhere is compounded by the overall reduction in research and development (R&D) funding in the United States that has occurred over the past decade. It has become much more difficult to have a productive research career in this country than it used to be. Funding for science, and then the likelihood of gaining research support, has decreased in the past decade, and this is occurring at the same time that funding in other countries is on the increase. Overall, U.S. R&D spending has fallen 16% in inflation-adjusted dollars from FY 2010 to the FY 2015 budget request. The federal government’s investment in science and technology now stands at roughly 0.78% of the economy, the lowest point in 50 years. Why would foreign scientists choose the United States when funding has become so constrained, and when it is both difficult and risky to try to settle there?
U.S. visa policies also make it much more difficult for U.S. and foreign scientists to share ideas and to collaborate. As the scientific enterprise has become much more global in character over the past decades, multinational discussion forums and then actual collaborations are now the norm for most disciplines. As one data point, more than 50% of the papers published in Science include authors from more than one country. Importantly, in spite of the advent of effective electronic communication, face-to-face interactions still greatly benefit collaboration. The current prolonged and unreliable U.S. visa system makes it not only difficult, but extremely unattractive to even try to come to the United States for either purpose.
The issue of the U.S. visa and immigration system for science visitors, students, and researchers has been a discussion point for decades. It is in the United States’ interest to act now and make the system work much more reliably and efficiently. Let’s get to it!
Albert Teich does a masterful job of describing the human, political, and economic costs of the United States’ broken immigration and visa systems. He also reaffirms recommendations that have been advanced previously by NAFSA: Association of International Educators and other groups familiar with the nation’s schizophrenic immigration and visa systems. For many decades, the United States has derived many educational, economic, and social benefits from the mobility of global academic talent and immigrant entrepreneurs. NAFSA’s annual economic analysis shows that during the 2012-13 academic year, the presence of international students and their families has supported 313,000 jobs and contributed $24 billion to the U.S. economy. This means that for every seven international students enrolled, three U.S. jobs were created or supported. New data, disaggregated by state and congressional district, will be released during International Education Week and can be accessed at www.nafsa.org/econvalue.
In addition to the economic benefits of international education, the foreign- policy contributions of international students and scholars around the world should never be underestimated. U.S. policymakers have taken for granted this rich human and political capital: they erroneously assume that the best and brightest students, researchers, and entrepreneurs will continue to embrace the United States as the destination of choice for study, research, and business. Lost in the politicization of the issue is the fact that many countries recognize the value of international education and are upgrading their immigration policies to facilitate student and scholar mobility with the goal of attracting and retaining this global talent.
Indeed, the United States is not the sole country of “pull” for global talent. As the number of internationally mobile students has doubled, the U.S. share of this group has decreased by 10%. In making the decision to study or conduct research, students and scholars take into account the immigration policies of destination countries. The combination of an outdated U.S. immigration law (written in 1952) with post-9/11 regulations has had a chilling effect on this country’s ability to attract and retain much-needed human capital. Immigration laws have not kept pace with the emergence of new global economies. The failure of the immigration system poses a real threat to U.S. global economic competitiveness.
The United States cannot afford to lose in the global competition for talent. To remain competitive, it must remove unnecessary barriers and pass comprehensive immigration fit for a 21st century world. In doing so, the United States will send a strong message to international students, researchers, and entrepreneurs that it is a welcoming nation. Since it is impossible to accurately determine the sectors that will innovate and their demands for human capital in the United States, we need to consider comprehensive immigration reform for all international students and scholars, not just those in science and engineering.
The United States must remain true to its values and resist the politics of fear that undermine its economic competitiveness as well as weaken public-cultural diplomacy efforts.
Albert Teich’s thorough and thoughtful article lays out the very real obstacles that still remain for foreign scientists and engineers who wish to study and work in the United States. I say “still” because the U.S. government has, in fact, tried very hard to fix the many mistakes that were made in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—mistakes that led, as Teich notes, to serious problems for foreign students and visiting scientists and disrupted significant scientific research. In recent years, the State Department has made it a priority to process foreign student visa applications in a timely fashion; has significantly reduced the long wait times in embassies in places such as China, India, and Brazil; and has streamlined the security review process. Those efforts have produced results. The United States issued more than 9 million non-immigrant visas last year, a near doubling since 2003, and a record 820,000 international students are now studying in the United States.
The problems that remain are largely a result of two things: the inability of Congress to reform outdated U.S. immigration laws, and the tendency of any large government organization to treat its clients with a certain disregard. When those clients are top students and scientists who are increasingly sought out by many countries, the loss to the United States can be significant. One recent example of that disregard: the latest Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which runs U.S. visa operations around the world, stated flatly that the U.S. government “does not respond adequately to public inquiries about the status of visa cases.” If you’re a foreign scientist waiting in frustration for a visa to attend a scientific conference in Boston, for example, you have virtually no chance of learning when the U.S. government might make its decision. The OIG team discovered a queue of 50,000 emails awaiting a response, and when the team twice tried to call the service help line, the callers never reached a live human being.
Teich offers a sensible list of fixes to makes the visa process more friendly for foreign students and scientists. Unfortunately, President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration, which asserts an expansive interpretation of executive authority to help undocumented immigrants, does too little for scientists and engineers coming to the United States through the proper legal channels. It promises some helpful changes to after-graduation work rules for foreign science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students, and opens new doors for immigrant entrepreneurs. But several of Teich’s recommendations are similarly administrative fixes that could be implemented without congressional action, yet they were not part of the president’s package. This was an unfortunate missed opportunity. If Congress continues to block more comprehensive immigration reform, the administration would be well advised to take a careful look at these proposals and include them in another round of executive-led reforms.
What education can’t do
In “21st Century Inequality: The Declining Significance of Discrimination” (Issues, Fall 2014), Roland Fryer seems to believe that he has disproved the necessity for “more education for teachers, increased funding, and smaller class size.” These are not solutions, he says, but the conventional wisdom that we have tried for decades without success. He offers as examples of success the charter schools of the Harlem Children’s Zone and his own work in Houston, which involves longer hours in schools and intensive tutoring by low-wage tutors.
I found this a contradictory assertion, because the charter schools of the Harlem Children’s Zone spend substantially more than the neighborhood public schools. One of the features of these two schools is small classes. In addition, they offer wraparound services, including one-on-one tutoring, after-school programs, medical and dental care, and access to social workers. According to a report on the Harlem Children’s Zone in the October 12, 2010, New York Times, “the average class size is under 15, generally with two licensed teachers in every room.” We can only wonder how well the neighborhood public schools would do with similar resources.
Other scholars have questioned Fryer’s contention that school reform can be obtained with minimal additional costs. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University wrote in a January 26, 2012, blog post called “School of Finance” that each of Fryer’s studies “suffers from poorly documented and often ill-conceived comparisons of costs and/or marginal expenditures.” Baker briefly reviewed these studies and concluded: “setting aside the exceptionally poor documentation behind any of the marginal expenditure or cost estimates provided in each and every one of these studies, throughout his various attempts to downplay the importance of financial resources for improving student outcomes, Roland Fryer and colleagues have made a compelling case for spending between 20 and 60% more on public schooling in poor urban contexts, including New York City and Houston, TX.”
I am persuaded that Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, has a good model. It costs far more than our society is willing to pay, except in experimental situations. Children growing up in poverty need medical services, small classes, and extensive support services for themselves and their families. This is not cheap. But it is not enough.
Society has a far larger problem. Why is it that the United States has a larger proportion of children growing up in poverty than any other advanced nation? Why isn’t the federal government planning a massive infrastructure redevelopment program, as Bob Herbert proposes in his brilliant new book, Losing Our Way, which would lift millions of families out of poverty while rebuilding the nation’s crumbling bridges, tunnels, sewer lines, gas lines, levees, and other essential physical aspects? Expecting school programs to solve the extensive and deep problem of poverty, without massive federal intervention to create jobs and reduce poverty, is nonsensical.
DOD’s role in energy innovation
Eugene Ghotz, a leading scholar of the innovation system within the Department of Defense (DOD), presents a cautionary tale in “Military Innovation and Prospects for Defense-Led Energy Innovation” (Issues, Fall 2014).
When cap-and-trade legislation to impose a price on carbon emissions failed to pass the U.S. Senate in 2010, a 15-year-old assumption about how the United States was going to transition to a lower carbon economy went down with it. Cap and trade had been the almost exclusive policy focus of the climate change community ever since such an approach for acid rain was first passed, and then successfully implemented as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. When cap and trade for carbon dioxide failed in the Senate, there was a policy vacuum—no substitute approach was readily at hand or thought-through.
One of the problems with cap and trade was that it was a pricing strategy, not a technology strategy, and it was hard to adopt a pricing strategy without more progress on a technology strategy. Although pricing can sometimes force technology, it assumes a degree of technology readiness that was still missing in a number of key energy innovation sectors. So if the pricing strategy was on political hold, why not pursue a technology-push strategy, which was needed anyway? And why not enlist the DOD innovation system, which, after all, played a critical role in most of the technology revolutions of the 20th century—aviation, nuclear power, space, computing, and the Internet? Unlike the Department of Energy, which can take a technology from research to development and perhaps to prototype and early-stage demonstration, DOD operates at all of the implementation stages, funding research, development, prototype, demonstration, testbed, and often initial market creation and initial production. Why not enlist this connected innovation system in the cause of energy technology?
Ghotz points out that the military, particularly in an era of budget cutbacks, will focus only on their system of critical defense priorities vital to warfighters. To ask the military to go outside their mission space, he demonstrates, will produce much friction in the system. It simply won’t work; it’s hard enough for DOD to deliver technology advances for its core missions without taking on external causes, he illustrates. So DOD, for example, is not going to develop carbon capture and sequestration technology—that’s not its problem. And it is not going to develop or support massive energy technology procurement programs.
But, realistically, is there is a range of energy technology challenges within its reach? Ghotz does a service by pointing toward that track. DOD does face tactical as well as strategic problems because of energy. Two Middle East wars made clear the vulnerability of its massive fuel supply lines and forced it into defending fixed points, jeopardizing its mobility and exposing its forces to relentless losses. The department needs to restore the operational flexibility of its mobile forces, and solar and storage technologies are important in this context. Recent events in the Middle East suggest that the United States will not walk away from this theater anytime soon. For forces laden with the electronics of network-centric warfare, long-lasting, lightweight batteries are critical. These are two examples of the role that DOD can pursue: certain critical niche technologies, modest initial niche market creation, and the application of its strong testbed capabilities. And DOD is doing exactly this, filling some important gaps in the energy innovation system.
There is another area where DOD can play a role. As the nation’s largest owner of buildings, it needs to improve the efficiency and cut the cost of its facilities. Its bases are also exposed to the insecurity of the grid, so it has a strong interest in off-grid technologies, including renewables and perhaps even small modular reactors. Where it cannot get off the grid, it has a major interest in grid security and efficiency. All this turns out to be an important menu of operational and facility energy technologies with some important dual-use opportunities. That’s why the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) at the Department of Energy are collaborating with DOD.
Ghotz brings us a splash of realism about DOD’s role. But some vital energy opportunities remain if, and only if, they fit the DOD mission.
The work of Arizona State University students on PHX 2050, described by Rider W. Foley, Darren Petrucci, and Arnim Wiek in “Imagining the Future City” (Issues, Fall 2014), is the perfect embodiment of the Albert Einstein quote, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Indeed, the article provides provocative thinking, but it is the video cited that offers the real substance. For those who didn’t follow the link and are interested in the urban design aspects of the project, visit http://vimeo.com/88092568.
As a practicing professional in architecture and urban design, I believe that there are some issues that need more discussion as implementation of the project’s concepts are considered. The first is equity. The project does touch on the divide between the haves and have-nots. But as this is already a societal problem, it should not be propagated into the future—especially with technology becoming a segregating device. From an urban design perspective, think about the effects of the High Line in New York City for a moment. Although the park is a terrific amenity for the city, and surrounding real estate prices have increased, the ground-level issues of marginalized and shady streets still persist. The economics of technology will also need to be considered at the varied design scales: rural, suburban, and urban. Infrastructure investment is inevitably easier to justify in urban settings as the population served will be higher. However, is there greater opportunity to also incorporate solutions to sprawl retrofit rather than adding additional services to an already well-served urban population?
The concept of “placemaking” should be carefully folded into all design details. Walkability has been discussed but should be moved to the “public” street rather than the alley. Having eyes on the street instead of technology in the front yards would increase a perception of safety as well as provide more visual interest for pedestrians and cyclists. However, the use of canopies over rear alleys or mid-block service areas for rainwater collection and solar energy generation should definitely be explored further. The occupants of upper floors would never have to see parked cars, but would there be greater heat island effects due to reflectivity that may hamper green infrastructure?
The last, but should probably be the first, issue to consider is humanity. Humans will never be tidy machines that all serve the greater good that a fully technological society would need. People strive to be unique, and nowhere is this clearer than in the United States. Our culture of individual property rights is a hurdle to true, full collaboration, especially where public funding alone cannot pick up the tab. As the proposal acknowledges, public-private partnerships will need to be considered in greater depth and for more infrastructure than is currently the case. Creativity can be chaotic and change is difficult, so how do cultures adapt and what could be the method, beyond education, by which the change happens more quickly?
In summary, I’d like to share a quote from Donna Harris, the entrepreneur who started 1776, a Washington, DC-based incubator: “Our educational system has not historically been set up to teach the kinds of skills that make someone entrepreneurial—in fact, the opposite is true. We learn to follow directions, not to question the directions. But that’s exactly what you have to do if you are taking an entrepreneurial approach. You have to look at things and question them, be confident enough to assume that maybe you might have a better way. But we often punish people who think this way. I think it’s actually one of our biggest challenges as a nation as we think about the future global economy.”
By starting the debates in academia, design thinking can be encouraged throughout society. Just as we start to understand the new economy of reduced public funding, these conversations about systemic change are critical. Please keep up the good work.
As a faculty colleague of Alan Porter at Georgia Tech, I was interested to read his article, “Retire to Boost Research Productivity” (Issues, Fall 2014), in which he provides an “N=1 Case Study” of how his research productivity has increased significantly since he retired in December 2001.
This case study is presented to address an important issue for research universities: with faculty members 60 years of age or older holding onto their positions, “shielded” by the lack of an age for mandatory retirement, younger people may be “kept off the academic ladder.” Porter uses his own “retirement career” to ask whether there might be “win-win” semi-retirement options that would free up opportunities for the recruitment of young faculty while at the same time enabling senior faculty to remain productive and engaged. His personal case study demonstrates one way to do this, focusing on his research and the enhanced publication rate he has had in his retirement years.
In my own case, I retired in 2010 and I am Institute Professor Emeritus in the School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. After being retired for a month, I was appointed to a half-time position with half of my salary coming from my research grants. This of course means that half of my salary is being paid by institutional funds. My research productivity has continued at my pre-retirement level, and there is no doubt that availability of facilities, including office space and a research laboratory, as well as the infrastructure and administrative support provided to me were essential to my continued productivity.
In my “N=1 Case Study,” I have not only continued to be involved in research, but there are other ways in which I have been engaged and contributed. These include the mentoring of young faculty, assistance in the preparation of proposals, outreach to the community, and national leadership activities. Whereas in the context of research there are quantifiable outputs such as the number of publications and grant dollars, the value of non-research activities are perhaps not so readily assessed, even though most of us would consider these as value added.
The basic issue, then, is how does an institution create these win-win situations and appointments? Are these truly important to an institution in the 21st century, where there is no mandatory retirement age and where 60 is the new 50, and 80 may be the new 70? How does an institution evaluate the activities of a retired faculty member in attempting to achieve win-win situations? In my own case, even though a significant amount of my pre-retirement salary has been freed up and can be used, it would be hoped, to pay the salary of a young academic, because of my other activities that are beyond simply doing research, how does an institution evaluate me and justify the use of institutional funds to pay part of my salary? The answers to these questions obviously are important to me personally; however, these are questions that every institution should address.
Casting light on fracking
In “Exposing Fracking to Sunlight” (Issues, Fall 2014), Andrew A. Rosenberg, Pallavi Phartiyal, Gretchen Goldman, and Lewis Branscomb note the rapid rise of unconventional oil and gas production in the United States, but not what sparked the innovations needed to develop these previously inaccessible reserves.
In the past decade, while U.S. shale gas production grew 10-fold, conventional natural gas production dropped 37%. Conventionals accounted for 16% of the nation’s natural gas production in 2012; by 2040, that share will shrink to 4%. This won’t be by choice. Conventional reserves are shrinking; in short, we’ve recovered all the easy stuff. Future fossil fuel extraction will take us deeper underground and below the ocean floor, to more remote corners of the globe, and into less permeable formations.
Whereas the focus of the “fracking debate” has centered on what’s different about unconventional production, the bigger story may be how little techniques have changed in these new, tougher extraction environments. Despite advances in directional drilling and cement chemistry, as well as impressive developments in other pertinent areas, the basic steps for well construction and production are much as they were decades ago. When applied to unconventional development, these steps demand more energy and industrial inputs. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory have found that Marcellus shale gas wells require three times more steel, twice as much cement, and up to 47 times more water than a conventional natural gas well. The greater scale and intensity of unconventional development may be the key driver of risk to public health, the environment, and community character.
The authors are exactly right that the way to identify and respond to this risk is through data collection, scientific research, and public disclosure. The question is how to advance in this effort. The situation is somewhat more complex than the article implies, and thus it may be more hopeful than warranted for several reasons.
First, the article posits that “concerted actions by industry severely limit regulation and disclosure.” However, this sector is incredibly diverse, comprised of hundreds if not thousands of companies ranging from mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 500 companies. The industry can’t even agree on a single trade group to represent its interests. The multiplicity of diverse actors poses a serious governance challenge but also affords an opportunity to find support for risk-based regulation. Companies may find that a greener position on regulation could win them social license, price premiums, or contracts with distribution companies sensitive to consumer environmental concerns.
Second, the article advocates federal regulation of unconventional oil and gas production. Under current law, federal agencies could regulate more aspects and outcomes of this activity. (Despite the exemptions noted, federal authority exists or could be triggered by agency action in each environmental statute listed.) However, in the past five years we’ve seen a more robust regulatory response from states. State agencies house much of the nation’s oil and gas regulatory expertise, and at least in some cases they boast strong sunshine and public participation laws (while sometimes exempting oil and gas).
Federal regulation is not a yes or no question. It can be used to lead, nudge, complement, or supplant state action, depending on the issue and the context. In data collection and research, federal agencies could set harmonized data collection standards, compile and share risk data, and fund research to change how we extract unconventionals and how we reduce our dependence on these fossil fuels.
Grand challenge for engineers
The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering posits a list of far-reaching technical problems that, if solved, will have a momentous impact on humanity’s future prosperity. In “The True Grand Challenge for Engineering: Self-Knowledge” (Issues, Fall 2014), Carl Mitcham proposes an additional challenge of educating engineers capable not only of attacking the technical challenges, but also of tackling the questions presupposed by the list: What does a prosperous human future entail? What kind of world should we strive for? What role should the engineer play in achieving such ends?
Mitcham argues that engineers need to learn to think critically about what it means to be human and calls for engineering education to embrace the humanities for their intrinsic value (rather than as a service provider for communications skills). So how grand a challenge is the author’s proposal? I believe there is good reason for pessimism, but also for optimism.
I’m pessimistic when I take a high-level view. Much has been written about the contemporary trend in higher education toward commoditization, with its economically instrumental view of academic programs, and even the specter of institutions outsourcing the humanities to online providers. None of that augurs well for a more reflective education for anyone, much less engineers. As for engineering, radically reformulating engineering education in any overarching way has proved difficult. For example, some years ago, the American Society of Civil Engineers gamely advocated for a master’s degree as the first professional degree, in part to produce “more broadly trained engineers with an education that more closely parallels the liberal arts experience.” The society subsequently softened its stance due to inertia in the system, and a mandated liberal arts-like experience for engineers has certainly not materialized.
Yet, I’m optimistic when I take a grassroots view. Consider this recent Forbes headline: “Millennials Work for Purpose, Not Paycheck.” Seemingly against the instrumental trajectory of higher education, the current college generation appears to place a premium on meaningful work that contributes to the well-being of global society, suggesting a potential market for the type of education Mitcham champions. And if the educational system isn’t responsive to that demand from the top down, perhaps it can be from the bottom up. For example, Mitcham mentions humanitarian engineering programs, which his institution helped pioneer and which are increasingly popping up at schools across the United States, including my own.
Similarly, new programs in sustainable engineering or sustainable development engineering have recently arisen on many campuses. These types of programs didn’t exist just a few years ago. They have developed organically, rather than in response to any broad policy, and they tend to value engineers learning about the human condition. Another recent phenomenon has been the rise of 3-2 duel engineering programs involving liberal arts colleges, with students earning both B.A. and B.S. degrees. Granted, such paths still represent a small slice of the engineering education pie, but I’m hopeful they will grow and spread, perhaps nucleating Mitcham’s desired change from the inside out.
There is reason to believe that Carl Mitcham’s goal can be achieved. With the adoption by ABET (a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that accredits college and university programs in the disciplines of applied science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology) of Engineering Criteria 2000, engineers are expected to develop personal and professional responsibility and understand the broader effects of engineering projects, which provides a solid departure point for seeking “self-knowledge.” And although several emerging obstacles may prevent the chasm between the two cultures of the humanities and engineering from being easily bridged, they may also reveal creative opportunities.
The first obstacle is fragmentation of the university. Institutional separation of colleges and departments, necessary for many reasons, is made materially manifest in the creation of science and research parks formed in collaboration with commercial entities. Given the steep decline in public funding, private funding for research may seem like pure good fortune. Yet creation of such parks may introduce physical barriers that can prevent interdisciplinary work and collegiality among faculty and students in engineering and those in the humanities. Moreover, the proprietary nature of much research done in such collaborations is contrary to the goal of democratizing knowledge, an important justification for the public funding universities still receive.
The second obstacle is the exponential growth of technical knowledge that must be mastered to do engineering work. The “Raise the Bar” initiative, supported by the National Society of Professional Engineers and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, has responded to the increased demands on engineers by changing professional licensure to require either a master’s degree or equivalent in the near future. Andrew W. Herrmann, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, characterized the changes as similar to what other “learned professions” had done to cope with increasing demands on their members and as a move that would raise the stature of the engineering profession.
Although an initial response may be to assign additional educational requirements to technical courses, more innovative departments should consider repositioning an engineering education to generate as many opportunities as possible for its students to interact with the humanities and social sciences. To do this will require financial support for engineering students who are interested in earning minors (or even second majors) in those areas, perhaps by devoting a small share of the resources dedicated to collaborative private/public research projects to this end. Such support may attract interest from underrepresented groups by showing that engineering education means development of the whole person, not just their technical skills. It would also provide tangible proof to the public that its financial support is more than subsidized job training for favored industries, while also demonstrating to ABET that an engineering department is committed to excellence for all learning outcomes, not just those related to engineering sciences.
Repositioning engineering education should also provide an opportunity for engineering departments to do their part in bridging the two-culture divide by promoting minors in engineering disciplines to humanities and social sciences majors. In a world in which technology is ubiquitous, increasing the quality and quantity of public knowledge about engineering should increase the quality of public discourse on technological projects.
I applaud Carl Mitcham’s call to recognize engineering education as one of the Grand Challenges for engineering in the 21st century. Engineers will continue to play a pivotal role in solving the enormous problems facing the world, but the education at most engineering schools is not preparing their students for the sociotechnical complexity or the global scale of the problems. The narrowness of engineering education has long been recognized, and although a few institutions have made serious efforts to change, engineering education remains narrow. The curriculum provides few opportunities for students to develop substantive nontechnical perspectives; few opportunities to see engineering in the broad social and political context in which it operates and has consequences; and few opportunities to develop the personal attributes and understanding that might lead to more socially responsive and responsible solutions.
Engineers are, in Mitcham’s words, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” insofar as they create technologies that order and regulate how we live. Of course, engineers are not alone in doing this. The organizations that employ them, regulatory agencies, markets, and media all have a role. If engineers are to play an effective role, they must understand their relationships with these other actors and they must understand the broader context of their work (not just the workplace). In short, they must understand engineering as a sociotechnical enterprise.
Engineering education is appropriately a Grand Challenge because it is not a small or easy problem. A dose of humanities—a few required humanities and social science courses—won’t do the job. In part, this is because many of the humanities and social sciences don’t address the technological character of the world we live in. They may allow students to consider the meaning of life, but without acknowledging the powerful role technology plays shaping our lives. So the Grand Challenge involves changing humanities and social science education as well as engineering education.
The Grand Challenge has another component that is rarely recognized. Understanding how technology and society are intertwined is not just important for engineers. Non-engineers need to understand how technology regulates everyone’s lives. Thus, part of the challenge of engineering education is to figure out what citizens need to know about technology and engineering. Again, it is not a small or easy problem. Citizens can’t become experts in engineering, so we need to figure out what kinds of information and skills they do need. Most colleges and universities require liberal arts students simply to take a certain number of science courses. This is woefully inadequate to prepare students for living in this science- and technology-dependent world.
In my own experience, bringing insights, theories, and concepts from the field of science, technology, and society studies has been enormously helpful in engaging engineering students in thinking more broadly about the implications of their work and seeing ways to design things that solve broader problems. For example, focusing on how Facebook and Google algorithms determine the information that users see, and the significance of this for democracy, may change the way engineering students think about writing computer code. Similarly, focusing on the politics of decisions about where to site bridges frames engineering as implicitly a sociotechnical enterprise. Notice that this approach might work as well for liberal arts students. Indeed, it might stimulate them to enroll in science and engineering fields.
Carl Mitcham proposes that because engineering fundamentally transforms the human condition, engineering schools have a duty to educate students who will be able to think reflectively and critically on the transformed world that they will help create. What should students learn and then reflect on as they move through their professional careers? Mitcham refers to the National Academy of Engineering’s Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century and Grand Challenges for Engineering as being insufficient in how they critically explore the achievements and challenges that have or will transform the world. Perhaps the National Academies should develop a follow-on project, Engineering: Transforming the Human Condition and Civilization.
The project could serve as source for curriculum across engineering education as well as for other fields and for continuing education. The overarching theme would be not only the triumphs, but also the tragedies in the transformation of civilization from the hunter-gather societies symbolized in cave paintings of over 30,000 years ago, to agrarian societies, to industrialization, and now to a techno-info-scientific society.
The challenge is to organize our knowledge so that the big picture—the fantastic story of human civilization; who we are and what we are becoming as beings on this watery planet—is coherent and accessible. One strategy would be to organize the knowledge as the evolution of technological systems and the increasing interactions of such systems. One thread through time is the nexus of food, water, and energy. One can learn how these systems changed over time, including the connections with transportation, materials, and the built environment, for example. From the moldboard plow pulled with horses planting open-pollinated crops to autonomous self-driving tractors and genetically engineered crops that are robotically harvested, how is one system better than the other—or is it? Then there is the issue of our increasing reliance on space systems for weather and climate information, and perhaps for attempting to engineer the climate in a way we desire.
These systems are not just technical, but sociotechnical, reflecting the interests, values, costs and benefits, winners and losers in the distribution of benefits and costs, the power to influence what happens, and the adjudication in some cases of what systems become realized in the world. It is messy. These are the details that matter and influence the evolution of sociotechnical systems and who we become.
Addressing the Grand Challenge formulated by Carl Mitcham, when done well, could lead to revolutionary changes in the way society innovates. But who will initiate and execute self-reflection among engineers? Within universities, three groups can be identified: the administration, technical faculty, and liberal arts faculty. Change is most effective when it is driven both top-down and bottom-up, which means the involvement of administration and faculty.
But in reality, the administration is often loath to take on this role, in part because of financial reasons. Technical faculty are often wrapped up in their research and teaching, and as a result may not pay much attention to the broader impact of their work. That leaves the liberal arts faculty. But since at technical universities this group is often seen as providers of service courses, they alone may not have the clout to realize institution-wide change. So again the question: who will be the agent of change?
What is needed is a movement among faculty, students, and, preferably, individuals in the administration. This movement will be most effective when it includes technical faculty who are seen as role models. Inclusion of liberal arts faculty is essential because of their societal insight and critical thinking skills. Because of their complementary expertise, technical faculty and liberal arts faculty may need to educate each other. Faculty organizations, such as a faculty senate, research council, research centers, or individual departments, could play a key role. Other initiatives, such as reading groups, high-profile speakers, and thought-provoking contributions to campus publications, may also contribute.
Funding agencies also have an opportunity to be agents of change. The National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, requires that the students and postdoctoral fellows it funds receive ethics training. Requiring that grant applicants address the Grand Challenge outlined by Mitcham would naturally fit under the Broader Impact criterion used by the NSF.
So members of the campus communities, stand up—and in the words of Gandhi, “be the change you want to see in the world!”
I cannot but wholeheartedly subscribe to Carl Mitcham’s wake-up call to all of us, but to engineers in particular, to face the “challenge of thinking about what we are doing as we turn the world into an artifact and the appropriate limitations of this engineering power.” Critical thinking is the pivotal notion of his wake-up call. But what are the tools of critical thinking, and where are engineers to turn for support in developing and applying these tools? Mitcham advises engineers to turn to the humanities.
But are the humanities up to this task? What kinds of tools for critical thinking have they to offer, and are they appropriate for the problems we are facing in our technological age? Take philosophy. In the 20th century, philosophy has developed into a discipline of its own, with philosophers writing mainly for philosophers. There is no shortage of critical thinking going on in philosophy, but is it the kind of critical thinking that engineers need? I have serious doubts, given that reflection on science and technology plays only a marginal role in philosophy.
What is true of philosophy is also true, I fear, for many of the other humanities. Here lies a grand challenge for the humanities: to turn their analytical and critical powers to the single most characteristic feature of the modern human condition, technology, and to engage in a fruitful dialogue with engineers, who play a crucial role in developing this technology. If they face up to this challenge, they may be the appropriate place for engineers to turn for guidance in dealing with their quest for self-knowledge.