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LAST WORD - Opinion by John Robertson

Engineering’s Interlinked Challenges: Innovation and Diversity

U.S. leadership can’t be sustained without a wider talent pool.

By Thomas W. Peterson

In my professional lifetime, I cannot recall a time when more attention was focused on innovation than right now. It is touted as the key to our economic growth, the solution to our jobs crisis, and one of the dominant characteristics that distinguish the United States from the rest of the world. But four years as assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation have persuaded me that America’s advantage in innovation can’t be maintained without both enlightened government policies and a greater, more imaginative effort by the engineering community and educators.

The key ingredients of innovation are a talented, diverse workforce capable of stimulating creative ideas; a good idea, most often the fruit of basic research; and a process to turn that idea into a product or process of societal benefit that can reach the marketplace.

The effort must begin with the identification, recruitment, and retention of enough talented people to keep the U.S. engineering workforce in a leadership position. This is a daunting challenge when fewer than a half million of the 12 million students at four-year universities study engineering, when just 70,000 a year eventually leave with a degree in engineering, and when only 150,000 out of 2.7 million graduate students are engineers. Our colleges’ graduation of engineers places us statistically below just about any other economically developed country, and frankly, below many countries that aren’t so developed.

Further, the population studying engineering is not representative of the country. While we saw a slow but steady increase in the percentage of women in engineering from the mid-1970s until 2000, the percentage of women graduating in engineering hasn’t changed in the past 10 years. Similarly, the percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics gaining engineering degrees is well below their proportion of the population and shows little sign of improving. To exclude half the population based on gender, and a large number of the remaining half on the basis of ethnic background, is to deny the profession the diversity of thought so necessary for solving our world’s grand challenges.

Together with our sister agencies and industrial partners concerned with our future workforce, NSF has invested millions of dollars to address these challenges. Yet our progress has slowed. Clearly, we need to bring to bear all our problem-solving skills on this critically important issue. NSF can play a leadership role, again in concert with other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) funding agencies. We must also more fully engage the Department of Education in order to scale the best practices of K-12 STEM education, often developed with NSF support.

Many students leave engineering after stumbling in their first college math course.

Translational Research

Strategic federal investments can encourage and support innovation within the academic community. NSF’s $7 billion research budget represents about 10 percent of nondefense research and development, and about 20 percent of all investments in basic research throughout the federal government. Of this, the Engineering Directorate’s share is about 10 percent. What can one reasonably expect to accomplish with this relatively small amount of money? The answer is, quite a bit. NSF’s support for basic research is well known. Less recognized is our long-standing support for translational research, primarily in the Engineering Directorate. Such research is fundamentally what engineering is: taking an idea, iterating it to meet a societal need, and in the process spinning off new ideas for basic research and identifying new needs for society.

This support for the entire innovation ecosystem, not simply the front end, is intrinsic to the DNA of NSF, and has been since its founding in 1950. A portion of the basic research we fund has the potential for eventual translation to products and processes of societal benefit. Sometimes we invest in basic research with a clear, visible pathway to translation. But not all brilliant commercial ideas result from a purposeful focus on a particular marketable concept. Often, the opportunities for translation of basic research results into benefits for society are not clearly evident a priori. Our funding portfolio must therefore support both pathways. This calls for thoughtful, strategic investments across a broad range of basic research areas and spanning all disciplines supported by the Foundation. Of the wide range of programs that capitalize on partnerships among faculty, business, and industry, at the top of the list are the many “Centers” programs, particularly the Engineering Research Centers and the Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers.

The genealogy of many successful commercial enterprises traces directly back to NSF support. For example, a Small Business Innovation Research grant to Andrew Viterbi and Irwin Jacobs in 1985 helped them develop a single chip implementation of the so-called Viterbi decoder and launch Qualcomm, now an almost $15 billion enterprise with global reach. NSF-backed research led to the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR technique, which made DNA fingerprinting possible. Support for the synthetic biology Engineering Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley has led to the development of an artificial pathway for the antimalarial drug artemisinin. Support for the Science and Technology Center at Illinois led to the development of magnetic resonance technology by Paul Lauterbur, who received the Nobel Prize for his discoveries. NSF also funds prolific inventor Chad Mirkin, at Northwestern University, who has spun off companies based on nanotechnology.

Sometimes serendipity plays a role. An intriguing case in point is that of Hector Garcia-Molina, a computer science and electrical engineering professor at Stanford University, and his 1990s “digital library project.” The project’s final report to NSF mentioned that one of Garcia-Molina’s graduate students, Larry Page, had developed a search engine able to link among Web pages. It went on to say that more information could be found at

More Is Required

The United States cannot rest on these successes. We have to find ways of stimulating and supporting the entrepreneurial spirit within our students and faculty, particularly within engineering colleges. NSF has programs pursuing this objective: The Engineering and the Education and Human Resources Directorates are jointly supporting a national center, led by Stanford University, focused on entrepreneurship within undergraduate engineering curricula. The year-old Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, identifies university faculty (not just engineers) whose NSF-funded research has led to interesting technical ideas, and helps educate them on how to translate those ideas to the marketplace. In financial partnership with Intel and GE (and hopefully others), NSF is investing in undergraduate programs aligned with the objective of the President’s Jobs Council to increase by 10,000 the number of graduating engineers and computer scientists. The program will focus specifically on improving first- and second-year retention rates.

While it has been a privilege to have been part of these activities, my NSF colleagues and I also recognize that addressing the challenges of stimulating innovation and of diversity in the future workforce can’t be separated. In fact, diversity is critical to innovation. So in returning to academe, I look forward to seeing NSF programs that integrate research and education become more evident. This empowerment to create, to explore, to exact fundamental benefit to human life, and to become an agent for real and lasting positive change in the world defines what it means to be an engineer.

Thomas W. Peterson is completing his term as assistant director for engineering at the National Science Foundation. He will become provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California, Merced. The opinions expressed are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

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