PRISM Magazine Online - May-June 2000
Frivolous Lawsuits Take Their Toll

  Liability fears are never far from the thoughts of engineers because current tort law tends to make them soft targets. For example, a Midwestern firm was recently hit by a frivolous, $50,000 suit by a man in a small town whose basement was flooded by the type of deluge that happens once every 100 years. Why? Because the firm had been contracted by the city to carry out civil engineering duties, including the approval of development plans. When the claimant decided it was too hard to sue the home builder, he went after the engineers. In the end, the firm settled for less than half of the sum--an option cheaper than successfully fighting the claim.

Nuisance suits can also have a chilling effect on innovation. An annual survey of the American Consulting Engineers Council's membership found that two thirds say their ability to innovate is at least somewhat restricted by litigation concerns. And more than 40 percent of engineering firms surveyed are turning down work because of some threat of liability and frivolous lawsuits.

ACEC President Leo E. Peters questions whether America would have put a man on the moon had NASA's engineers been legally liable for failures. "If our country is to remain in the number one competitive position, we must allow the engineering industry to put into practice cutting-edge ideas . . . without having to constantly look over [its] shoulder at the threat of litigation."

America's Newest Champions

  It may be an Olympic year, but outstanding U.S. scientists and technologists got their medals months ahead of their athletic counterparts.

In a White House ceremony in March, President Clinton conferred the nation's highest awards for science and technology on 17 individuals and one company. From new applications of Darwinian evolutionary principles, to groundbreaking work on the precursor to the "modern" Internet, to insights into the Antarctic ozone hole, the 1999 National Medal of Science and Technology Laureates have expanded the boundaries of their respective fields, "thereby enhancing our ability to shape and improve our nation's future," Clinton said.

Part of that future will include computers and other gadgets that are increasingly efficient at reproducing, recognizing, or responding to human speech. Much of that technology can be traced to Kenneth Stevens, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical engineering professor who won the National Medal of Science for his research on the acoustics of speech--including unraveling part of the mystery of how people move their lips and tongue fast enough to produce speech.

Another pioneer who received the National Medal of Technology for his visionary work with a start-up company got the award posthumously. Robert A. Swanson, a venture capitalist and co-founder of pioneering biotechnology firm Genentech, Inc., died last December. Swanson was selected for his "foresight and leadership" in recognizing the promise of recombinant DNA technology.

The National Medals of Science, established by Congress in 1959, are administered by the National Science Foundation. The Department of Commerce oversees the National Medals of Technology, which were established in 1980.

See  for a list of winners.

The Science of Cheating

By a number of measures, engineering students are at or near the top compared with other majors. They tend to have the highest SAT scores in math, they command top salaries upon graduation, and they are among the most likely to cheat in college. Cheat?

That's the conclusion reached in a recent report by the Center for Academic Integrity--a consortium of 200 schools, headquartered at Duke University, that promotes academic honesty.

The study included 2,000 students from 21 schools and covered all the major disciplines. Respondents answered questions about what types of behavior they considered cheating and how often they had participated in such activities, including using unauthorized crib notes, plagiarism, and helping someone else cheat on a test. Overall, 60 percent of students admitted to at least one instance of serious cheating. That number shot up to 69 for engineering students, narrowly edging out business students--at 68 percent--as the worst offenders. The natural sciences, by contrast, came in at 54 percent.

CAI's Donald McCabe, who conducted the study, speculates that engineering students may cheat more often because they are solving problems with definite correct answers, as opposed to students with more essay-oriented exams. Another possibility is that engineering students feel that they have too much work to do, and take shortcuts.

Whatever the reason, the study also confirmed earlier work by McCabe that honor codes are an effective deterrent to cheating, regardless of major. "An honor code doesn't stop cheating, but it helps," McCabe says, adding that by forcing students to think about the issue--and by tying in privileges such as unproctored exams and student review boards--schools with honor codes can create an environment in which cheating is socially unacceptable. About 68 percent of students at the nine schools in the survey with no honor code admitted to serious cheating; that number drops to 58 percent at the three schools with limited honor codes, and to 53 percent at the nine schools with full-fledged honor codes.

For more information on the report, see

— Ray Bert

Stanford's New President

  Stanford University picked its first president with an engineering background when it named John Hennessy, the current provost, to the top post. The appointment of the former engineering dean underscores the importance of the school's relationship with Silicon Valley. In addition to a long and distinguished career at the university, Hennessy began his own company--MIPS Computer Systems, which builds RISC microprocessors--in 1984, and he remains actively involved.

As president, Hennessy's top priority will be encouraging collaboration between Stanford's high-profile and highly competitive departments. Currently, faculty members in engineering and the medical school are working on using computers to better perform cardiovascular surgery. Professors in the computer science department are working on scanning three-dimensional objects so that art students can study art techniques from around the world. The 47-year-old Hennessy--who was named provost just last year (see "Man in Motion," Prism, January 2000)--also faces the task of strengthening the humanities departments amid concerns that Stanford is focusing more on science and technology. "I think there are a lot of very interesting opportunities for bringing the humanities and technology together," he says.

Accomplishing these goals won't be easy, in part because of the difficulty of keeping his star faculty members and best students from pursuing lucrative opportunities in the hot Silicon Valley tech market not far beyond Stanford's walls.

Has Venture Capital Peaked?

Entrepreneurs poured $35.6 billion into business ventures last year, more money than ever before. Investments rose by 150 percent, with much of the funding going to Internet and technology-based companies, according to accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Technology-based companies, including Internet-related businesses, accounted for more than 90 percent of all investments in 1999. Dollar investments tripled from $10.8 billion in 1998 to $32.4 billion in 1999. "For the first time in the five-year history of the survey, annual investments in nontechnology companies actually declined in terms of raw dollars," said Paul Weaver, chairman of the Global Technology Industry Group, which sponsored the survey.

The year of unprecedented growth was capped by a new record in the fourth quarter with nearly $15 billion invested, more than was invested during all of 1998.

"The fourth quarter was truly phenomenal," says Weaver. "Every day during the quarter, including weekends, over $160 million in capital was pumped into entrepreneurial ventures."

Silicon Valley, which topped the list in regional funding, was flooded with more than $5.68 billion in the fourth quarter alone. New England came in second with $1.6 billion. The Southeast, Los Angeles/Orange County, and the New York metropolitan area all garnered approximately $1 billion in the last quarter of 1999.

But with interest rates on the rise and technology stocks gyrating, 1999 could well be the high point for venture capital in the near future.

Rising Faculty Salaries

First, the good news. Faculty salaries rose 3.7 percent on average last year, the third straight increase, according to a new study by the American Association of University Professors. The not-so-good news is that the pace of the increases has slowed.

The amount of compensation varies greatly depending on the type of institution. Full professors at doctoral universities averaged $87,022 with lecturers getting $43,357. The gap between private and public institutions continues to widen, particularly at research universities where full professors receive salaries 20 percent higher than their public-university counterparts.

Another disturbing gap is the disparity between what faculty members earn in comparison with other highly educated professionals. In 1997, faculty paychecks were 24 percent less than other professionals with equal or less education. "Many of our best students will invariably turn away from the academic profession because they are unwilling to make the kind of financial sacrifice it requires,"says Linda Bell, professor of economics at Haverford College and author of the report. "And I worry about the implications for the quality of higher education in the future."

Average salaries for full professors at selected universities:

Harvard University


Stanford University


Yale University


Cal Tech




Georgia Tech


University of Michigan


Carnegie Mellon University


Rutgers University


Texas A&M University


Basic data: Prism--American Association of University Professors

Focus On
Japan's New Hybrids

Manufacturers are rolling out two cars in the U.S. that have gasoline-powered engines and electric motors.

  The last time the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries orchestrated an oil squeeze was in the late 1970s. The resulting high pump prices paved the way for Japanese automakers to make deep inroads in the U.S. market. Japanese cars then were everything American cars were not: small, fuel-efficient, and well made.

Fast-forward to today. OPEC, after years of disarray and low prices, has again managed to boost oil prices stratospherically. And once again, the beneficiaries could be the Japanese. Through sheer coincidence, both Toyota and Honda are introducing super-efficient cars in the U.S.--which should be on the road by this summer--that not only get 60 to 70 miles to the gallon, but cut emissions by around 85 percent. Moreover, American auto companies (as well as European ones) have once more been caught asleep at the wheel.

The new cars are called hybrids. They have gasoline-powered engines capable of speeds of 100 mph, but they also have small electric motors that kick in whenever the cars accelerate or need a boost of power. The batteries for the electric motors are recharged as the car operates. Toyota's 1.5-liter, five-seater is called the Prius. And Honda's Insight is a small, 1-liter, two-door model. At press time, the cars were meant to be priced around $23,000--costly for cars that size.

But, Detroit isn't too far behind. Ford, General Motors, and Dodge should all have hybrids available within the next two years. Clay Ford, chairman of Ford, says he expects 20 percent of sales will come from hybrids by 2010.  

Environmentalists and engineers are praising the cars. The Insight has won awards from the Sierra Club and Popular Mechanics.  Keith Pulland, an automotive engineer specializing in fuels at London's Imperial College, says hybrids use relatively conventional technology, but require impressive engineering to synchronize the dual power plants. The ancillary components needed to operate the cars are major design achievements, he says.

As for fuel economy and cleanliness, hybrids are "definitely a step in the right direction," Pulland maintains. But Garel Rhys, head of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School in Wales, calls hybrid technology "stopgap." "This is not what the market is waiting for," he claims. And since hybrids are expensive, Rhys doubts whether the public will buy them, saying they will likely wait instead for fuel-cell-powered cars or hydrogen-fueled cars, which promise zero emissions and even better mileage. Rhys also dismisses the OPEC effect. The cartel's ability to keep oil prices high won't stick, he says. "It's an artificial price hike."

But Pulland disagrees. Hybrid vehicles are pricey, he admits, but prices will quickly tumble once they are sold in greater volume.  And he's not so sure that fuel cells or hydrogen will be the technology of the future. A fuel-cell/electric hybrid may turn out to be what we will all be driving in 10 or 15 years, he says. Regardless of how popular the hybrids become, Rhys and Pulland agree that the Japanese have certainly stolen a march on their American and European rivals by being first to market. But while Rhys is uncertain how much Toyota and Honda will benefit, Pulland is in no doubt: "The Japanese have decided to go for it and they've gotten it just right. It will pay dividends for them eventually."

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