Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,246th Meeting

President Kenneth Haapala called the 2,246th meeting to order at 8:16 pm December 12, 2008 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The minutes of the 2,245th meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Haapala introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Charles Vest of the National Academy of Engineering. Mr. Vest spoke on “A Note to the New President.”

The ability of the new president to govern and lead effectively, Mr. Vest said, will depend profoundly on advancing and utilizing the tools of science, engineering, and medicine. In the 20th century, U.S. science, engineering and medicine:

The 21st century will be very different. Nothing can be taken for granted, although we have a great advantage in a strong science and technology base coupled to a free market. We will soon feel the full force of global competition.

The recent election was apparently a tectonic shift. It was apparently a generational thing. The new generation does not think, act or work as we do. It’s probably a good thing. Mr. Vest always tries to be optimistic.

Thriving in the knowledge age requires knowledge. Where will it be found? If the central concepts of scientific, engineering, and medical knowledge are to be here in the United States, we must invest more in education and in basic research. This will happen only when our new president establishes a public vision of an America that will lead and prosper in the 21st century through knowledge and innovation.

There are reasons to be optimistic. We hear actual, serious use of the term, “real economy.” There appears to be recognition of the need to do something about climate disruption and energy. Job creation is recognized as a real problem. We know better the importance of technical, mathematical risk evaluation. Green is a good word in business, and green action will follow. Leaders are arguing about what the right balance between R&D investment and shareholder return would have been at General Motors. The ethanol disappointment has spurred a real example of systems thinking. Steve Chu, the first scientist since Glenn Seaborg, has been named secretary of energy. Perhaps it is as Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” Maybe we’ve reached a tipping point.

But ths isn’t just about us. This is the age of globalization, actually has been for at least 20 years. This an age in which individuals, institutions, nations, NGOs, and social networkds must all simultaneously compete and cooperate. Meanwhile, the U.S. “market share” of science and technology has been dropping, partly because we are slipping and partly because others are gaining. China graduates five times as many engineers as we do. Engineers account for 4.5%, and declining, of undergraduate degrees. In Europe it is about 12%, in Asia 20%. Minorities and women are few in engineering, and as they gain, engineering may decline further.

As innovation becomes more global, we need to be able to evaluate and integrate ideas and technologies from around the globe. This requires deep expertise. Mr. Vest quoted Floyd Kvamme, who said, “Venture capital is the search for smart engineers.”

Some argue that the numbers are not of real concern. The market doesn’t show shortage of engineers. Engineers in the IT industry advise their children not to go into it. It was a great ride, but it’s over, they say. The international statistics show we are not so bad, we are actually about average. The problem is mostly in inner cities and minority communities.

To these arguments, Mr. Vest replies: That’s the point! It was the availability of people educated in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that enabled our wealth. The reduction of that supply is foreboding. Also, he is not comforted by the idea that we can import them. Indeed, statistics now indicate that many we have already imported are going back. While he is proud of the openness of American society and hopes it continues, he doesn’t believe we can rely on it to keep bringing talent here. The talent came for the unique opportunity; that opportunity is no longer found here exclusively.

He finds the state of K-12 education alarming. He described a study that showed how American students see themselves compared with students of other nations. They see themselves at the top in math. Tests show them at the bottom. He doubts there is a simple answer, but he described two studies that indicate that there is only one variable that generally correlates with the success of high school students after high school. It is how well their junior high and high school teachers were educated in the subjects they taught. It makes the point that something can be done.

Mr. Vest answered questions from the audience.

Mr. Haapala presented a plaque commemorating the occasion to the speaker. He announced the next meeting. He made a parking announcement.

Finally, at 9:42 pm, he adjourned the 2,246th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 48
The weather: Hazy and cool
The temperature: -4°C

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala,
Recording secretary

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