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BY HENRY PETROSKI

THINKING SCIENCE

Policymakers lose sight of engineering's importance.


HENRY PETROSKI - Competing ship owners most likely would have wanted to emulate the Titanic’s success, but they also would have wanted to make what they believed to be improvements. ''Science, science, science, and science." That is how Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi described her global-warming legislative agenda on the eve of the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Weeks earlier, when the president-elect had introduced his choices to take on leadership roles in the areas of energy and the environment, again the word science was prominent - but engineering was not. In his inauguration speech, in which he spoke of harnessing "the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories," once more the word science was used freely, but not engineering.

Now, it is true that the concept of engineering is often implied by the word science. But when politicians repeatedly utter the one word without seeming to mention the other, we can only wonder if engineering is even in their vocabularies.

Some engineers, at least, may have felt left out of the conversation in Washington that shone the spotlight on science, when talking about rebuilding our infrastructure, developing new sources of energy, and reinvigorating the economy. Those are, strictly speaking, engineering and not scientific activities. Science is mainly about understanding the world as it is, about knowing how things work; engineering, by contrast, is about changing the world, about designing and making new things that work.

But to say that science and engineering have different goals is not to say they have opposing goals, for in the best of circumstances, scientists and engineers work cooperatively, the better to understand a problem and the better to solve it. Scientists and engineers also cooperate in the pursuit known as research and development. It may not always be fully clear which side of the ampersand drives R&D, but the outcome should be more important than the individual players.

There was considerable joy among scientists when the new administration announced that the R&D budget would be substantially increased in coming years. This can be expected to lead to innovation and thereby ultimately benefit the economy, but only if it is understood that basic scientific research is just part of an R&D effort and not an end in itself.

It was during an address to the National Academy of Sciences last spring that President Obama announced a goal of devoting more than 3 percent of the country's gross domestic product to R&D. Unfortunately, once again he found himself stingy in uttering the word engineering. He did acknowledge the leadership of the National Academy of Engineering in attendance, but he used terminology like "science and technology," "science and research," "basic science and applied research" and "scientific research and innovation" much more than "science and engineering."

It was thus reassuring that in an interview on the future of the economy that appeared in the New York Times Magazine shortly after the National Academy speech, Obama spoke in a manner indicating he does appreciate that science and engineering are distinct pursuits. In response to a question about college education, he emphasized the importance of being "competitive and productive in a modern, technological society." He called for more math and science graduates but added, "I specifically want to see more folks in engineering."

Unfortunately, far too many politicians, speechwriters, and members of the media in America seem unaware of the role that engineering plays in creating and maintaining an innovative society. If we give them the benefit of the doubt, at best they are choosing to refer to science alone when they really mean science and engineering. At worst, they really may think that we owe it all to science.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.

 

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