PRISM Magazine - Exploring the future of engineering education

Can't We All Just Get Along?

I wish to challenge assertions made in the "Survival of the Fittest" article by Thomas Grose (May-June 1999, p. 12).May-June 1999 Cover

  1. There is no global battle for R&D supremacy because there is no global market for R&D. Market competition is for the goods and services that R&D efforts might help produce. Not all companies that excel in the global market are excellent in R&D. Prior to WWII, U.S. firms excelled in the marketplace without R&D excellence. Recently, IBM and AT&T have reduced R&D and become much more competitive.
  2. The argument for public funding of basic research is based in part on the assumption that basic research is not exclusively retainable by those who perform it. If this assumption is valid, the United States should celebrate other nations' investment in basic research and make use of that research to introduce new products and services into the global marketplace. If this assumption is not valid, there is no market failure and less need for public investment in R&D.
  3. Nations' investment in R&D or basic research as a fraction of their GDP is a poor gauge of competitiveness. Companies that wish to compete in the manufacturing sector must generally invest a much larger fraction of their sales in R&D than do companies that wish to compete in the services sector. Because the U.S. economy depends upon services more than Japan's economy does, it is logical and necessary that Japan will invest a larger fraction of its GDP on R&D than will the United States.
  4. There is wide variation in the R&D investment required to be competitive within different manufacturing sectors. When one compares the U.S. R&D investment on a manufacturing sector-by-manufacturing sector basis, the U.S. investment is generally higher.
  5. The U.S. economy leads the world and it will grow even more when Japan and much of Asia recover from their recessions. Economic growth in Asia is a boon to the U.S. economy rather than a threat. We should encourage, rather than fear, Asia's economic growth.

Finally, when seeking experts on R&D and R&D management, I suggest Prism look "outside the Beltway." Although often disguised, most of the "inside the Beltway" crowd are located there because they are on the dole. Their positions serve their best interests, not the best interests of the public.

    James E. Grover
    Kettering University

Thomas Grose responds:

It makes little sense to compare today's global markets with those of the first half of this century. And while there are probably many good examples of companies that have cut back on R&D and remained competitive, there are many more examples of companies that have become competitive only after increasing their R&D budgets. As my story indicated, it isn't a lack of corporate R&D spending that's worrying, it's the slowdown in public spending on basic research—an area so necessary and potentially rewarding that it would be pennywise and pound-foolish to leave its funding to other nations.

Gauging a nation's R&D investment as a percentage of its GDP is an accepted measurement used by such groups as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Mr. Grover implies that I indicated that U.S. corporate investment is lagging that of the rest of the world, but I wrote about the "big boosts" in American private sector spending. I didn't write that the U.S. is losing the battle for R&D dominance, only that world competition is getting stronger at a time when federal spending is falling—a trend many experts find worrying.

Finally, of the myriad sources I talked to for my story, only one would qualify for membership in the "inside the Beltway crowd."

"Regendering" Engineering

Thank you very much for your coverage of the recent report on gender bias in the treatment of faculty in the MIT School of Science ("MIT Admits Gender Bias," May-June 1999, p. 11). I especially appreciated, and want to second, your question regarding the implications for female engineering educators at MIT—and elsewhere.

While the percentage of female students and faculty at all levels of higher education has increased, progress has been very slow. The more years I spend as a female engineering professor, the more I am aware of subtle and not-so-subtle issues female students and faculty live with. In my life, the gender issues range from questioning why I am sometimes addressed as Ms. in a list of male Dr. colleagues, to questioning the greater emphasis higher education places on research over teaching and service.

I no longer believe that progress will best be accomplished by persuading young women that they can fit into engineering and engineering education; we need to seriously change engineering and engineering education to fit them. Engineering is still perceived as strongly masculine; as being about controlling, not about adapting to and working with; as mechanical, not organic; and as about things, not people. Engineering education is still perceived as a long, hard series of irrelevant hurdles; as requiring the relinquishing of family and other pursuits; as opening one to ridicule from other students; and as controlled by faculty members who do not care about students as individuals. These perceptions reflect some realities.

We are, of course, making changes that respond to some of these educational issues; but we are not moving on changes to engineering itself. I believe we need to move more rapidly and more fundamentally to succeed in our attempts to regender—and recolor—engineering and engineering education at all levels.

    Jane M. Fraser
    University of Southern Colorado


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