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Risk and Reward

Mark Matthews

Through some of the darkest days of the Cold War, scientific cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union served as “an important rudder of stability,” a 2004 National Academies report concluded. In the early 1980s, Pentagon hardliners argued that the relationship “made little sense” when the Soviets were trying to gain a military edge. True, the Soviets pilfered technology where they could. But a 1982 panel found that university and scientific exchanges were seldom the source of the leaks and that closing off these channels would slow the advance of science and of U.S. innovation.

Fast-forward 30 years and we hear a similar debate over American research collaboration with China, subject of this month’s cover story. But there are big differences: Where the Soviet Union’s economy was headed toward collapse, China’s is racing forward. Beijing’s leaders are intent on grounding future growth in research-based invention and ideas, long America’s strength. And the scale of collaboration is greater this time around, bolstered by much easier communication and professional relationships forged by the many Chinese graduate students at U.S. institutions. While some officials and trade groups fear China will use these ties to gain strategic advantage, the momentum of cooperation is such that it may be impossible to reverse.

If, as many argue, the globalization of engineering and scientific research leads to faster breakthroughs, we’ll see more stories like Tom Grose’s “Light Fantastic,” about the dazzling potential of optics and photonics. Think of ultrafast computers and super-thin display screens as flexible as paper. But the rapid pace of technological change in various fields, including biotechnology and robotics, has a number of academics worried, as Art Pine describes in “Grave New World.” They say engineering schools need to broaden ethics training so students will approach potentially dangerous new technology responsibly.

On page 45, you’ll notice a new feature – Advances from AEE – an excerpt from ASEE’s online journal, Advances in Engineering Education. It will appear twice a year. In other issues, you will see the familiar JEE Selects. We hope you enjoy this month’s Prism, and we welcome your comments.

Mark Matthews


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