Read John L. Anderson’s full bio here.
(The following interview will be published in an upcoming issue of the National Academies In Focus magazine.)
When John L. Anderson, president emeritus and distinguished professor of chemical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, was first elected to the National Academy of Engineering almost 30 years ago, he remembers being deeply honored and excited about how the recognition would help his career. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when he got more directly involved in the work of the NAE and the National Academies, that he began to appreciate that his membership could be something much more meaningful.
“As I went along, I got opportunities to be involved in activities at the national level,” says Anderson, who — in addition to serving on the NAE Council and many NAE committees — also chaired National Academies’ panels on research needs for countering improvised explosive devices and on techniques to identify and respond to potential terrorist attacks that involve chemical explosives. “That is when I realized that this is much more than being a member of an honorific society. I might actually be able to do some good for the nation.”
Anderson, who began his six-year term as the 12th president of the NAE on July 1, says that the NAE and the Academies' ability to convene the best available expertise in engineering, science, and medicine is “our No. 1 strength.” He believes that maintaining the Academies’ reputation as nonpartisan, independent advisers to the nation is critical — especially at a time when Washington, D.C., and the nation are often bitterly divided along partisan lines.
Fortunately, says Anderson, many issues related to science and technology tend to unite, rather than divide, most Americans. “What I’ve seen as a member of the National Science Board, and as a university president and educator, is that when it comes to science and engineering, there isn’t very much partisanship. That is the result of an appreciation — by the country and by the taxpayers — that science and engineering education, research and innovation are really important to society.”
As NAE president, one of Anderson’s top priorities will be to find ways for the institution to engage the business community in more of its work and benefit from its unique perspective on issues. In addition, Anderson says, NAE could also help bridge gaps between entrepreneurs and big companies. “Entrepreneurs produce the new [inventions and products] and big companies are the ones that make them better and more widely available,” he says. “Innovation often begins with entrepreneurs, and connecting them with big companies is a challenge of the engineering profession.”
“What I’ve seen … is that when it comes to science and engineering, there isn’t very much partisanship. That is the result of an appreciation — by the country and by the taxpayers — that science and engineering education, research and innovation are really important to society.”
The NAE will also continue to focus on helping the engineering profession bring more women and underrepresented minorities to engineering. Progress has been made in some fields, such as environmental engineering, chemical engineering, and biomedical engineering, but not in others. “We need to work on that as a profession, and NAE can help,” Anderson says. He intends to build on impactful NAE programs such as the Global Grand Challenges Scholars Program, EngineerGirl, and Frontiers of Engineering.
In his new role, Anderson plans to draw on his long and distinguished background as administrator and educator. He served as the president of Illinois Tech from 2007 to 2015, and is currently a distinguished professor of chemical engineering at Illinois Tech’s Armour College of Engineering. His past academic leadership positions include chair of biomedical engineering, department head of chemical engineering, and dean of engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as provost and executive vice president at Case Western Reserve University.
He is also the recipient of numerous awards and honors. He was a presidential appointment to the National Science Board in 2014 [his term expires next year], and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was awarded the Andreas Acrivos Award for Professional Progress in Chemical Engineering (1989) and the National Engineering Award by the American Association of Engineering Societies (2012). He held a Guggenheim Fellowship at MIT in 1982-83.
“Education is the reason I'm here,” says Anderson, who proudly notes that from elementary school through university, his entire education was obtained at public institutions. “I really value education and the importance of mentoring. I think that’s my most trusted philosophical guideline.”