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Technology Society and the National Academy of Engineering

From Opportunities
October 1, 1997

UVA's William Wulf Heads NAE
Questions of science, technology and health underlie many critical policy issues confronting the nation today. Recognizing, already 100 years ago, that our nation's leaders need analysis and advice from scientific and engineering experts to make informed decisions, Congress established the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1863. To keep pace with the growing importance and complexity of science and technology, the National Research Council (NRC) was formed in 1916, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 1970. Known collectively as the Academy Complex, all are private, independent, non-profit organizations operating under the 1863 charter. NRC is the jointly administered operating arm of the three honorific professional societies, NAS, NAE and IOM, whose members represent the best in their fields. From among the nation's most distinguished engineers, UVA's own William Wulf was elected President of NAE, a position he will hold for at least the next four years. Wulf, an internationally-known expert on computer architecture, programming languages and systems, has been a professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia since 1988.

UVA Faculty Well Represented in NAE
In recognition of significant achievement and contribution to their professions, new members are elected annually to NAS, NAE, and IOM by their respective memberships. Such recognition by ones peers is a very high honor indeed. Election to membership in NAE is the highest professional honor an engineer can receive, recognizing personal engineering achievement in business or academic management; in technical positions; as university faculty or as leaders in government and private engineering organizations. While there are two million engineers nationwide, fewer than 2,000 (0.1%) are members of NAE. At UVA among 150 engineering faculty, five (3.3%) are members of NAE and a sixth is in the Department of Environmental Sciences. That speaks very highly of the quality of engineering at UVA.

Policy Studies
To provide the nation with information and advice on matters of science, technology and medicine, NRC forms special study committees whose members represent a cross-section of the scientific and technological community. The intense work of these well-balanced study committees results in consensus reports that often produce influential recommendations that are "hard for the government to ignore," says Wulf. He advises researchers to keep abreast of these reports since they often harbinger new directions in governmental funding.

Participation on Study Committees
Because of the volume of work and because special information or experience often is required, only 10% of study committee experts are drawn from the membership of NAE, NAE, and IOM. Wulf encourages UVA faculty who wish to become involved to "contact the appropriate Board director to make it known they wish to volunteer on a committee." Wulf believes that "study committees need balance" to study complex issues requiring interdisciplinary analysis. Commitment to this study design has earned NRC its reputation for being "absolutely authoritative and unbiased."

NAE Needs Additional Endowment
While the majority of the studies are requested and funded by the federal government, each unit of the Academy Complex also undertakes self-initiated endowment-supported studies. Wulf sees NAE leading the way by "answering questions the government hasn't even thought to ask." During his presidency, Wulf hopes to increase NAE's endowment significantly so NAE can continue to study important issues, questions and problems on the edge of the future through self-initiated studies.

The Changing Nature of Engineering
Whoever has sped to distant locations by airplane, sent a FAX or enjoyed the benefits of hip replacement understands the impact of technology on society. NAE president William Wulf believes "the nature of engineering practice is changing dramatically" and points to the "explosion in the variety of materials" expanding design options. He is excited about the prospect of "smart materials," fully expecting "computer chips to be embedded in the most mundane of products" --like bridges that monitor their own stress and corrosion. One of the outcomes of the acceleration of technological change is the diminishing half-life of engineering knowledge --in the case of computers, already to as little as two years. The impact of this reality on engineering education is substantial and Wulf proposes that "life-long learning needs to be built into the culture of engineering." He believes "NAE as a body has a responsibility to understand...the implication (of technological changes) on policy, education and the engineering profession."

Technology Literacy is Essential
It is fairly well accepted that the ability to use technology will be increasingly central to effective performance in the work place, in school and at home. But beyond usage, Wulf believes that it is essential for all members of society to have an appreciation for, and a broad understanding of technology, including the underlying scientific, mathematical, design and problem-solving principles. Just imagine lawmakers of the future passing laws about air quality and power grids or juries considering ground water measurements and product failure tests without the requisite technological background to understand expert reports. NAE takes seriously its role as the nation's engineering advisor and under Wulf's leadership, is poised to play a pivotal role in promoting technology literacy.

Academy Complex Diagram

NAE Program Areas

  • Changing Nature of Engineering
  • Managing Technology Innovation
  • Technology, Trade and Economic Growth
  • Technology and the Environment
  • Technology Literacy
  • Annual Meeting and Symposium
  • International Programs
  • Public Information Outreach

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