A Note to the New President

Charles Vest
President, National Academy of Engineering

2246th Meeting Abstract
Friday, December 12, 2008 at 8:15 PM

Charles Vest


The ability of our new president to govern effectively and provide world leadership will depend profoundly on advancing and utilizing the knowledge and tools of science, engineering, and medicine.

In the 20th century, U.S. science, engineering, and medicine nearly doubled our life span, protected our nation’s security, fueled most of our economic growth, sent us to the moon, fed the planet, brought world events into our living rooms, gave us freedom of travel by air, sea, and land, established instant worldwide communications, enabled ubiquitous new forms of art and entertainment, and uncovered the workings of our natural world. It was a century of speed, power, and new horizons. We have come to take all this for granted.

The 21st century will be very different. And nothing can be taken for granted. To grasp the great opportunities of our times and to meet our challenges – from economic competition to energy, from healthcare to education, from security to infrastructure – federal policy and action must be informed and enabled by a vibrant science and technology enterprise. Indeed our national comparative advantage is a strong S&T base coupled to a free market economy and a diverse, democratic society. We will soon feel the full force of global competition. Jobs will follow innovation wherever in the world it is found, and innovation will follow basic research wherever it is conducted. All our children must be inspired and educated for productive, well-paying jobs in this knowledge economy.

About the Author:

Charles M. Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering. He was elected to a 6-year term in July 2007. He also serves as vice chair of the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. He is also President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Before he became president of MIT in 1990, he had been provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan.

During his early career in mechanical engineering, he taught heat transfer, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics at the University of Michigan. His research focused on thermal sciences and the engineering applications of lasers and coherent optics. His work included the development of techniques to obtain 3-D holographic interferograms of refractive indices in thermal flows. He is the author of numerous papers on these subjects and one book, Holographic Interferometry. He has also written two books on higher education and research.

From 1990 to 1999, he served on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council on Economic Growth and Technology, and in 1993 and 1994 he chaired the President’s Advisory Committee on the Redesign of the Space Station. He has been a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology since 1994, and from 2002 to 2003 he chaired the U.S. Department of Energy Task Force on the Future of Science Programs. He was a member of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education (the Spellings Commission), which issued its report in September 2006. He served on the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy and the Rice-Chertoff Secure Borders and Open Doors Advisory Committee. He also served on the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. He served as vice chair of the U.S. Council on Competitiveness for eight years.

Charles Vest was elected a member of NAE in 1993 and served as an NAE councillor from 2005 to 2007. He has also been a member of several NAE, NRC, and National Academies committees, including the authoring committee of the recent influential report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. In 2000 he was awarded the NAE Arthur M. Bueche Award for “outstanding university leadership, commitment and effectiveness in helping mold government policy in support of research, and forging linkages between academia and industry.”

He holds three degrees in mechanical engineering, a B.S. from West Virginia University (1963) and an M.S.E. (1964) and Ph.D. (1967) from the University of Michigan. He is a fellow of the Optical Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Association for Women in Science. He is a member of Tau Beta Pi, Pi Tau Sigma, and Sigma Xi. Among his most recent awards are the ABET President’s Award from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology in 2002 and the Phillip Hauge Abelson Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2006. In 2008, he was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. He has also received honorary degrees from ten universities. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology.

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