National Academy of Engineering
Blog post by Ben Jervey
If you were trying to peg the most overlooked, under appreciated profession out there, you couldn’t do any better than engineers.
If the world were fair, engineers would be held up in as high esteem as doctors and designers and architects and athletes and all those other “sexy” professions. But the world isn’t fair, and so these noble designers of our entire technological world are shrugged off as geeks carrying graphic calculators, toiling away on the back ends of the world’s systems.
You might not think of engineers when you think of so many conveniences that we take for granted in modern life — the electric grid, air travel, safe food and water supplies or the internet — but you certainly should. Without engineers, we’d be stuck (quite literally) in the Stone Ages. Next time you flip on your light or start your car or swipe your credit card at the supermarket or post a picture to Facebook, thank an engineer. In reality, engineers aren’t “just” number crunching, systems-balancing dorks, they’re the true explorers and artists, inventors and changemakers of the 21st nCentury. Explorers like Graham Hawke, badass who has designed and built a new generation of underwater vessels that have absolutely changed the way that man experiences the deep seas (None other than James Cameron tapped Hawke to help with his 3-D Imax film, “Aliens of the Deep.”) Artists like Ed Catmull, who founded a fun little movie company you may have heard of — Pixar. Inventors and changemakers like Frances Arnold, who has figured out how to control evolution to create advanced biological systems that can be used for all kinds of good things, like sustainable carbon-free transportation fuels.
There’s a bigger problem plaguing engineering than just bad branding. America isn’t producing nearly enough of these crucial engines of societal progress.
Let’s travel back for a moment to 1957. If America had responded to the Soviet launch of Sputnik with the science and engineering ambivalence that we have today, we would not only have lost the space race, but also would’ve lagged behind in all the technologies and industries that fueled the past half century of economic growth.
The National Academy of Engineering just launched a program that will hopefully give give American engineering a much-needed shot in the arm. The Grand Challenges for Engineering is a group of 14 big challenges that need to be solved to ensure a safe, secure, prosperous future.
- Make solar energy economical
- Provide energy from fusion
- Develop carbon sequestration methods
- Manage the nitrogen cycle
- Provide access to clean water
- Restore and improve urban infrastructure
- Advance health informatics
- Engineer better medicines
- Reverse-engineer the brain
- Prevent nuclear terror
- Secure cyberspace
- Enhance virtual reality
- Advance personalized learning
- Engineer the tools of scientific discovery
Wow. I’m not sure “Grand” is strong enough a term. Solve any of these, and the world is a heck of a better place. Solve them all, and we’re halfway to Utopia.
In the meantime, engineers are just going to have to accept that the American public isn’t going to fetishize them like, say, the Tom Bradys and Kayne Wests and Kim Kardashians of the world. Until America gets its priorities straight, I guess they’ll have to content themselves with secure, in demand, high paying jobs that fundamentally change our reality and improve our world every day.