National Academy of Engineering President Charles M. Vest
NAE Annual Meeting
October 5 ,2008




It is a great pleasure to participate in this 44th induction ceremony of the National Academy of Engineering


And it is a special privilege to welcome the families, friends, and guests of those who are being inducted today as members and foreign associates of the NAE.


Your election to the National Academy of Engineering signals that our members, through a very rigorous process, have concluded that you are among the most brilliantly accomplished and distinguished members of your profession.


We are proud to welcome you as colleagues in the Academy.


And we all hope that this is a deeply meaningful event in your professional lives.


Election to NAE is a rare and singular honor. 


But membership carries additional significance.  It is an opportunity for national service. 


Indeed it is a call to national service.


We are chartered by the U.S. Congress, together with the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, and our joint operating arm, the National Research Council to provide independent, objective advice to the federal government on matters of science, technology, and medicine.


We are not a government organization.  We are not part of the federal government.  We are an independent, non-profit organization. 


But in return for providing objective analyses and experience-based advice of the nation’s most accomplished engineers, through studies conducted in an objective, nonpolitical manner, we are granted a special, respected role as advisors to the nation.


We perform this function largely by conducting rigorous studies of specific issues, either when requested by the Government, or, from time to time, when we ourselves choose to examine an issue we believe to be particularly important. 


Of course we call on our members to provide leadership of these studies. The National Academies can be thought of as an unparalleled think tank centered on engineering, science, and medicine.  This is the primary service we will expect of you.


In other words, as NAE members, we are participants in the world’s most formidable think tank.  As an independent organization of nearly 2,000 of the nation’s most accomplished engineers, we can play an important role in securing our nation’s future.


When I was elected to the NAE in 1993, I received a note from John Armstrong, the former vice president for research of IBM.  John’s note said “Congratulations on your election to the NAE.  I just can’t wait to put you on a committee!


You can see that John is less subtle in these matters than I am, but the message is identical.


Part of the core mission of the NAE is to promote the technological welfare of the nation.


Engineering is critical to meeting the fundamental challenges facing the U.S. economy, environment, health, security, and way of life in the 21st century. 


Although industries are well aware of the centrality of engineering to the production of competitive products and the delivery of services in the world marketplace, governments at both the federal and state levels are struggling to understand and incorporate scientific and technological knowledge into policies that are, literally, matters of life and death. 


In his New York Times column last Sunday, Tom Friedman, who will be with us tomorrow, made this point very clearly while discussing the Wall Street bailout and the need for a green future.  He wrote, “… we don’t just need a bailout.  We need a buildup.  We need to get back to making stuff based on real engineering not just financial engineering.






In case you haven’t noticed, we in the United States are in the midst of a presidential election.  Blissfully, it will soon be over.  Then our nation will have a new president who will set about the tasks of assembling an administration, refining his vision, establishing goals and strategies, and preparing a budget.


These are no ordinary times.  We are facing tectonic shifts in the world order:  Global economies are increasingly intertwined; levels of education and knowledge development are rising everywhere; U.S. popularity around the world is at an all-time low; our addiction to oil has driven an unstable situation in which we send about $400 billion each year to other countries to purchase it; we are awakening to the need to mitigate global climate disruption and the need to adapt to it; huge swaths of public primary and secondary education are disaster zones, especially in science and math; North America, Europe, and Asia now each fund about one-third of the world’s R&D, i.e. the U.S no longer strongly dominates in this investment; the complexity of our financial systems has grown beyond our ability to fully understand it, and, coupled with some of our baser human tendencies, brought us close to the brink of collapse; we face insidious security threats that are entirely unlike those posed by nation states for most of our lifetimes; and inadequate supply of water is an  imminent threat not only in the developing world, but here at home. 


There is much more we could add to this list, but the point is that the 21st century is very different than the 20th century and brings with it enormous challenges – challenges whose scale and difficulty are huge and frequently global.


During my first year as president of the National Academy of Engineering, I have had the opportunity to travel a lot, think about these issues, consult with leaders of various sectors and countries, be inspired by the amazing young participants in our Frontiers of Engineering programs, sit on interesting committees, and learn from my colleagues here at the National Academies.  From this, I have arrived at a few conclusions:


  1. Globalization and our other major challenges bring with them extraordinary opportunities – opportunities for human advancement and opportunities for business and commerce.

  2. Science and engineering are at the core of the solution to most of our challenges and problems.  This certainly is not only about technology, but science, engineering, and systems thinking are at the core of most solutions.

  3. Our political process and popular worldview are largely oblivious to this.


In this context, many in our engineering, science, and medical communities are advising, or attempting to advise, whatever new administration will be installed in January.  Various organizations and publications are presenting reports or letters to the next president.  The National Academies are no exception.  My colleagues Ralph Cicerone of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvey Fineberg of the Institute of Medicine, and I sent correspondence to the two presidential candidates, and a National Research Council committee was convened to produce a document identifying the most critical posts to which the next administration must appoint leaders with science and engineering backgrounds.


In this same spirit, a magazine asked me to draft a brief letter ostensibly to our new president.  Here it is:



Dear Mr. President:


Your ability to govern effectively and provide world leadership will depend profoundly on advancing and utilizing the knowledge and tools of science, engineering, and medicine.



In the 20th century, U.S. science, engineering, and medicine nearly doubled our life span, protected our nation’s security, fueled most of our economic growth, sent us to the moon, fed the planet, brought world events into our living rooms, gave us freedom of travel by air, sea, and land, established instant worldwide communications, enabled ubiquitous new forms of art and entertainment, and uncovered the workings of our natural world.  It was a century of speed, power, and new horizons.  We have come to take all this for granted.


The 21st century will be very different.  And nothing can be taken for granted.  To grasp the great opportunities of our times and to meet our challenges – from economic competition to energy, from healthcare to education, from security to infrastructure – federal policy and action must be informed and enabled by a vibrant science and engineering enterprise.  Indeed our national comparative advantage is a strong S&T base coupled to a free market economy and a diverse, democratic society. We will soon feel the full force of global competition.  Jobs will follow innovation wherever in the world it is found, and innovation will follow basic research wherever it is conducted.  All our children must be inspired and educated for productive, well-paying jobs in this knowledge economy.


The bipartisan America COMPETES Act was passed and signed into law in August 2007, but has not been funded.  It would jump-start improvement in K-12 science and math education, strengthen and sustain long-term basic research, make the U.S. the best place in the world to study and do research, and help ensure that we remain the most innovative nation on the planet.  Its cost is about 0.14 percent of the Wall Street bail out, 0.8 percent of this year’s economic stimulus, or 1.8 percent of annual farm subsidies.


American science and higher education are admired throughout the world and are wellsprings of badly needed good will toward our nation. By fully exploiting our capacity in science, technology, and medicine, you can project U.S. leadership abroad, enhance the quality of life at home, and better prepare us for the uncertain challenges of a rapidly changing world.


Mr. President, the federal government must invest in our future through education, research, and innovation.  I therefore believe you should take six immediate actions:


  1. Use your bully pulpit constantly to establish a public vision of an America that will lead and prosper in the 21st century through knowledge and innovation.


  1. Appoint an outstanding science and technology advisor prior to your inauguration and include him or her at the highest tables of counsel and decision-making in a manner parallel to the national security advisor.

  2. Make full finding of the bipartisan America COMPETES Act a non-negotiable first-term priority.

  3. Establish a bold national initiative engaging the private sector, academia, and government to meet our energy challenge and mitigate the advance of global climate disruption.

  4. Restore strong DOD basic research budgets and grow the NIH budget in excess of inflation.

  5. Work with Congress to eliminate academic earmarking.

My colleagues in industry, academia and government stand ready to support your new administration with fact-based advice, and to provide the knowledge and innovation required for U.S. prosperity and improved life around the world.




Charles M. Vest



I hope that this message is consistent with the views of most of the members of the NAE.  It certainly is reflective of the National Academies report Rising Above the Gathering Storm:  Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future that was drafted by a committee ably led by Norm Augustine.  This influential report is the primary basis of the America COMPETES legislation.  The letter also draws in large measure from what our three academy presidents sent to the candidates.  It succinctly lays out an agenda that you hopefully can support.





Niccolo Machiavelli said many things, most of which I won’t repeat today because you might fear that just one year in Washington has already corrupted my psyche and distorted my values.  But there is one very important thing that Machiavelli famously said, “Make no small plans because they have no power to stir the soul.”


[Repeat]  Make no small plans because they have no power to stir the soul.


This is very good advice for us as we think about the relationship of engineering to society, promote a broad public understanding of what we do and why it is important, and especially as we seek to inspire young men and women to become engineers.


Whether or not Machiavelli inspired him, during Bill Wulf’s presidency, the NAE formed a committee of extraordinarily innovative, successful, and diverse engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and a medical doctor.  Former U.S. defense secretary and NAE member Bill Perry chaired the committee, and it was ably organized by Randy Atkins.  The committee’s charge was to develop a list of a modest number of grand challenges for engineering.  These were not to be outrageously distant challenges.  Rather, they were to be challenges of great importance that the committee believed could actually be met in the next few decades if we set our minds and resources to doing so.


The committee also established an interactive website that enabled a wide public to suggest challenges and join in the project.


Ultimately the committee established 14 grand challenges:

  1. Make solar energy economical
  2. Provide energy from fusion
  3. Develop carbon sequestration methods
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle
  5. Provide access to clean water
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  7. Advance health informatics
  8. Engineer better medicines
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain
  10. Prevent nuclear terror
  11. Secure cyberspace
  12. Enhance virtual reality
  13. Advance personalized learning
  14. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery.


These challenges basically fit into three categories:


  1. Energy, Sustainability, and Global Climate Change;
  2. Medicine, Health Informatics and Healthcare Delivery Systems;
  3. Reducing our Vulnerability to Natural and Human Threats; and
  4. Advancing the Human Spirit and Capabilities.


Think about these challenges. Meeting some of them is imperative for human survival.  Meeting others will make us more secure against natural and human threats.  Meeting any of them will improve quality of life.


These Engineering Grand Challenges were announced last February.  In the following day or two only a few small paragraphs appeared in mainstream U.S. print media.  But in Europe and Asia, they received very substantial coverage. This is an all-too-familiar syndrome:  complacency at home and enthusiasm elsewhere in the world.  They were posted on the interactive website where visitors can help prioritize them. The website has had about 170,000 visitors from 40 countries.  More recently, they were published by the NAE in a booklet with an essay on each.


I’m pleased to report that this project has created a good bit of stir in the blogosphere, and a brief video about the project can be found on YouTube as well as on our own website.  This is good news, because it is reaching and engaging young people.  The Challenges will also play a central role in a documentary movie titled Imagine It2!  It is a robust, fast-paced film that deals with a new generation, global challenges, and the power of imagination.


Several engineering schools and departments have let us know that they have mounted project courses based on the Grand Challenges for Engineering.  Next March, Duke University, in partnership with the University of Southern California, and Olin College, will hold a Summit, drawing leading engineering, science, humanities and social science scholars from across the nation to articulate the challenges and opportunities of the science, technology, and policy related to each National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge and proposed solutions.  They intend to stimulate conversations on the importance of engineering and science in maintaining and enhancing our quality of life.


At our symposium tomorrow afternoon, we will tie together the themes of political realities of 2008 with the far-reaching Grand Challenges through conversation by some of the committee members with a distinguished group of journalists and representatives of the McCain and Obama campaigns.  Committee members Lord Alec Broers, Bernadine Healey and Ray Kurzweil will be joined by author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Daniel Sieberg of CBS News, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina  representing the McCain Campaign, and Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Paul Kaminiski representing the Obama Campaign.  Aaron Brown, former ABC and CNN news anchor, will moderate the conversation and audience participation.


It should be a fascinating symposium, and we hope that all of you will join us.





To conclude:


Congratulations on your election to the National Academy of Engineering.  I hope that this is a deeply meaningful event for each of you.


The NAE asks that you also recognize your membership as an opportunity to serve your nation and world through developing well-informed, objective and independent advice on important issues involving technology.


Developing and transmitting such advice is an important form of Engineering Leadership.


You come to this task at a moment in history when there is a great urgency to sustaining and enhancing the technological welfare of the nation so that we can both compete in the global, knowledge-based economy and maintain our prosperity.


You also come to this task at a time when the frontiers of engineering, at both the small and large scale are enormously exciting, and of critical importance to meeting the great challenges of energy, environment, productivity, health care, food, water, and security.


Thank you for your attention.




Anniversary Members


I would like to make a special announcement to welcome our “anniversary” classes of 25, 30, 35 and 40 years. This is the sixth year the NAE has recognized an anniversary class, and we plan to continue to recognize them each year at the annual meeting.


Five members of the anniversary classes are here today, and each has received a special commemorative NAE pin that marks 25, 30, 35, and 40 years of membership.  Marking 25 years with NAE are Arden L. Bement and    David A. Hodges.       


James L. Flanagan and Herwig Kogelnik have been members for 30 years.  And last night we congratulated, Bob White, former NAE President, for having been a member for 40 years.