CEE New Millennium Colloquium
March 20-21, 2000
Wong Auditorium, Tang Center, MIT Building E51
Thoughts on the Profession and National Research and Education Policy: Excerpts from the CEE Newsletter
RAFAEL L. BRAS
Head, MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
1. Newsletter 8(2)- Winter 93
Second to None
Some days ago I had the pleasure of conversing with an outstanding CEO of a large foreign multinational construction firm. In the midst of discussing advanced concepts and technologies, our friend added that the key to success in the market place was to always be a very close second. The implication was that innovation is often too risky, and it is best to learn from others' mistakes, but not to lead. There is some logic to this strategy in the business world. Taking this theme too far, though, will lead to professional stagnation.
As in most other professions, innovation and leadership must pay in civil engineering. Freshness of approaches must be the trademark of success. I would argue that successful CEE enterprises are in fact innovating, yet undervaluing their contributions. If they are not doing this, something is very wrong with the marketplace and the profession.
As educators, our goal is to attract the best and brightest young minds by presenting a vibrant and exciting profession, full of challenges and opportunities. From our perspective we will be second to none, and our education should encourage innovation and bold leadership. I doubt you would accept anything else.
Environmental and Civil Engineering
ASCE has been toying with the resolutions implying that all environmental engineers must be civil engineers. The goal would be to require all environmental engineers to be licensed as a subgroup of civil engineering.
I have always argued that civil and environmental engineering is a natural partnership, but to call them the same profession is to ignore the realities of the times. Nowadays environmental engineering is a well defined profession with its own body of knowledge which is significantly different than that of civil engineering. That is why the Department offers two distinct undergraduate programs.
Civil engineering professional associations should indeed open their doors to environmental engineers, but they should do so by deeds and offerings that gain the respect of the environmental engineers, not by legislation. Similarly, civil engineering departments should strive for leadership in environmental engineering. But this must be done by offering sound, demanding and relevant programs.
The environment has always been the concern of civil engineers, but we must earn the right to educate and nurture what is truly a new and growing profession.
2. Newsletter, 10(1) Autumn 95
Academia and ASCE
"The Civil and Environmental Engineering Chairs of the Northeast move to create a new national coalition of Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Chairs to address effectively critically important educational issues. The move comes from unanimous concern with present professional organization mechanisms to deal with those issues. We seek more effective and direct influence within our academic institutions and within the profession on the education provided to our students at this time of exciting changes."
The above resolution was unanimously approved by the Northeast Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Heads in their October 1995 meeting at Cornell University.
A particular concern of the group was an ASCE resolution calling for mandatory licensing for civil engineering faculties. This had been approved by ASCE's Professional Activities Committee and the Committee on Policy Review. (I understand it was just voted down at higher levels.) Although most, if not all, of those present were licensed, we interpreted this action as a serious misunderstanding and misconception of the educational enterprise. We encourage licensing but do not consider it an absolute requirement for being an excellent educator. Sadly, this action struck most of us as protectionist and defensive. It reinforces the myth that civil engineering academics live in isolation from the real world and practice. The ivory tower collapsed long ago!
3. Newsletter 11(1) Autumn 96
Changing to Survive
Nowadays there is lots of talk about how academia and engineering, in particular, have to change. The paradigm on which research universities are based has been shaken. The days of largesse by the Federal government are indeed gone. Engineering research must be more responsive to industry and more relevant. It is said that even our PhD education will have to change since the traditional academic and research jobs will not be there. It is said that many professions are mature, that some fields lack excitement.
Indeed I agree with many of the previous statements. Our education and operating principles must evolve with the times. I refuse, nevertheless, to take the fatalistic position of many, and I do not believe that revolution is necessary. Progressive and energetic evolution is.
Our colleague Henry Kendall (Nobel Laureate in Physics) recently said, referring to federal support for research: "I don't think these cuts will be sustained as long or as deep. The need for science and technology will surface quickly, so students do not need to worry that their careers in science and technology will be withdrawn. This should not be a cause for deep dismay or gloom at a university like MIT."
I agree. I believe we will emerge more efficient, and industry and government will continue to invest in the only differentiating commodity these days: Education.
MIT, and we, must have increasing links with industry. I believe, though, that industry will continue to want innovation from us. We are to push the frontiers of knowledge. Being overtaken by the short-term vision of modern-day business would be catastrophic for us and for them. We would lose our uniqueness, and industry their future.
Science and technology drive modern-day economies. Yet, somehow our society continues to devalue the engineers and scientists. I share the opinion of another colleague and Nobel Laureate in Economics. Robert Solow says, "...business education in the US has adopted an incorrect belief that business management is a skill that can be taught independently of the type of business to be managed. I think this is a mistake. If I am right, we need more scientists and fewer managers. We need people who have learned something about the technology of a particular industry and about management."
Our biggest challenge is to promote this type of cultural change. If that happens, many of our science and engineering problems will disappear.
When I first came to MIT, I was taken by the excitement and bustling activity of this institution. In 28 years I have yet to find a more exciting, intellectually invigorating place. In fact, the only thing that has not changed over all that time is the sense of being where innovation and ideas rule.
4. Newsletter 12(4) Summer 98
Armed with a bachelor's degree from MIT, the young woman signs with a software company: $55,000 plus signing bonus. A master's degree meant over $120,000 to another MIT graduate entering the management consulting arena. A doctoral candidate gets a break from ongoing studies with an $85,000-a-year job (plus signing bonus and stock options) with a data base and software company. A PhD and some experience landed over $160,000 in salary to another MIT student; not bad for a first job with a management consulting company. Another PhD had to settle for a $85,000 offer from Wall Street.
The above are real (except for changes to protect confidentiality) examples of some of the opportunities facing Civil and Environmental Engineering graduates. We feel good and rejoice at their ability to be in such high demand and to command such extraordinarily high salaries. There are many things to be learned from these cases.
First, the students receiving these offers had various degrees and specialties. Their backgrounds ranged from the mainstream mechanics to the more extreme information sciences and technology. Nevertheless, the companies hiring them were not mainstream civil or environmental engineering companies. Which brings me to the second point. Companies are finally beginning to look beyond disciplinary labels and focusing on individual competencies. This is a very welcomed change of style. Obviously, the individuals are also marketing themselves differently and to a much broader audience.
A third observation is that all the above individuals had gone beyond the normal expectations in studying information sciences or specializing in technology (hardware). I am sure that other examples would highlight other competencies. In this day and age your "minor" may be as important as your "major" and some "minors" are clearly very marketable.
A fourth observation is that graduate degrees (and experience) have value added. Two recent graduates of the joint degree program in Leaders for Manufacturing and CEE reported pre-MIT salaries in the $65,000 range. After completion of the joint master's degree both were earning $84,000. Another recent graduate of the Master of Science in Transportation reported a salary increase from $35,000 to $60,000.
A fifth observation is that although the above salaries are not rare, they are not the norm of our salary range. Individuals employed in the more mainstream civil or environmental businesses or government receive offers which are, routinely, significantly less than the above. Ironically, in some cases the individual received offers that were less than a fourth of the maximum quoted. To me it is amazing that the same person, with the same knowledge and experiences, asked to work in generally the same context, can be perceived in such disparate productivity terms. Either one industry and service is ridiculously over-valued or the other is shamefully undervalued. I will let you pass your own judgement.
The sixth observation is that in many of the cases the students struggle with the idea of drifting from the mainstream professional practice. In at least one of the examples the individual actually rejected the offer to accept less than half the salary working in her environmental engineering specialty. The mainstream of the profession is failing these talented people and losing them to other activities. Please note that I am advocating and encouraging that civil engineers should continue to broaden their horizons and that the market should hire by competencies. But at the same time I find it sad and disappointing if the market cannot comparatively reward talent in mainstream activities of the profession.
In fact, MIT undergraduates tell you that many go into Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) for the money, not because they like it. Presently the EECS department at MIT is nearly 40% of the undergraduate population. The rest of us are struggling to attract students. Civil and Environmental Engineering is seeing declining enrollments in all major universities.
Our challenge is to project the excitement of our profession. Few professions offer a more versatile education. Few professions offer as much opportunity for the entrepreneur, for the self-starter, for those who want to be their own boss. No other engineering profession offers as much opportunity to be creative. Civil and environmental engineers rarely see the same problem twice. Few professions can claim as much direct influence on the quality of life of so many people. Civil and environmental engineers deal directly with people and nature: what can be more important? Our successes (and our failures) are usually enjoyed (suffered) by very large numbers of people. Indeed Civil and Environmental Engineering is a good and satisfying profession. We must be proud of it and unabashedly promote it. When all else fails, tell your young audiences that it also pays well, sometimes very well!
5. Newsletter, 9:2 Winter 94-95
Fencing in "The Endless Frontier"
I recommend that you read the Clinton administration statement, "Science in the National Interest." Touted as the successor to former MIT president Vannevar Bush's report, Science: The Endless Frontier, it is an uplifting endorsement of the importance of science and engineering to this country and the unique success of its higher education. Unfortunately, while the nation is ready to praise, it seems less ready to invest.
Fifty years ago Bush stated, "Government should accept new responsibilities for promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth." He referred to the "endless frontier." The Clinton administration writes, "We must reexamine and reshape our science policy both to sustain America's preeminence in science and to facilitate the role of science in a broader national interest."
The administration ties research to strategic national needs. Their policy refers to "science: the endless resource." The contrast is between words like promote versus facilitate, between frontier and resource. In some sense Bush argued that impact follows knowledge, while today the search for knowledge is supposed to be anchored in strategic and economic needs. The Clinton administration calls for closer partnership between government, academia and the markets.
The new Congress is now backing off from the Clinton plan. All new programs promoting partnerships and dual use technologies (ATP, TRP, etc.) are in danger. Congress seems to be calling for government to focus, in a reduced way, on defense and basic research, presuming that industry and the market will pick up the slack.
I believe that the nation can ill afford to continue in a state of confusion relative to its engineering and science policy. We are eating our seed corn, consuming a backlog of science and technology innovation. The establishment cannot sit for long waiting to see what will be happening next. It behooves academia, government, and industry to quickly settle on a stable policy that will allow us to get back to the business we do best: educating the best engineers and scientists, and producing the seeds of innovation that drive the technological markets of the future.
Dollars Only for Some Scholars
Lost in the above important policy debate is the need to restore science and engineering to a position of preeminence in society. No science and engineering policy can overcome the fact that society rewards (in terms of salary) MBAs almost at twice the rate of engineers. In a sense, any new science policy is a flawed technological fix if it ignores the structural problems that are disincentives to attracting the best young minds to technical fields. Before it is too late, the nation must settle on a science policy that first restores this stature of engineers and scientists in society.
6. Newsletter 10(2) Winter 95
Pound Foolish, Penny Wise
I do not know Dr. Neal Lane, director of the National Science Foundation, but I already like him! His speech, "Thin Ice Over Deep Water: Science and Technology in a Seven-Year Downsizing", delivered at the American Astronomical Society Meeting on January 15, 1996, should be required reading for anybody who cares about engineering, science and the educational enterprise. Dr. Lane addresses two related issues: the recent shutdown of the federal government and the predicted, and almost unavoidable, major cuts in federal investment in non-defense research and development.
Federal employees have been devalued, debased and used as pawns by politicians who do not appreciate their service. Quoting Dr. Lane: "The government shutdown was senseless, wasteful, and many would say irresponsible governance. ... The phrase 'non-essential employee', used to describe those who were not required by law to be at work and were not allowed to work even voluntarily-by law-and other intentionally demeaning terms, casually and callously tossed about during the shutdown, were deeply offensive to federal workers."
I am not a federal worker, but I also felt offended. Many of those federal employees are engineers working on transportation safety, on environmental cleanup, on weather and flood forecasting, on technology transfer, on nuclear safety, on patents and technology transfers, on education and research, and a myriad other activities essential to the survival of our country. In parliamentary democracies like those of Europe, a united citizenry would have paralyzed all government and all society had their government acted the way ours has in the past few months. Again, quoting Dr. Lane, "The entire sordid episode has, I believe, irreversibly changed the image of public service, and I'm very worried about the implications for NSF as well as other agencies. But the shutdown reflects a much larger set of conflicts and challenges."
Dr. Lane proceeds to discourse on the irreparable damage that expected cuts (30% in constant dollars by 2002) will have on the infrastructure of research and development of this country. In a nutshell, we are eating or, worse, throwing away the proverbial seed corn that feeds our future. We in engineering and science have been terribly lax and uncoordinated in putting forward a clear message on the value of research and education. Research and development are the basic ingredients of increases in productivity and national wealth. Ultimately value must come from better products and services, from new concepts and ideas. Increases in productivity come from improvements in knowledge, working and living environment, and technology.
MIT Spawns Biotech Companies
MIT recently released a study of the biotechnology industry. Among the findings are:
1) Nine of the ten best-selling biotech drugs in 1994 were developed by three companies founded by MIT alumni or faculty.
2) Thirty biotech companies founded in Massachusetts are MIT-related. They have created more than 3200 jobs and had revenues of $520 million in 1994.
3) More than 100 license agreements have been negotiated between MIT and biotechnology companies since 1986. These licensee companies have attracted more than $630 million in development capital and employ 1200 people.
The point is that the $12 billion the government spends in academic research has extraordinary returns. Not only does academic research spur economic growth, but it also helps educate a dynamic and innovative work force that is the envy of the world.
It has been suggested that the science establishment and the nation will have to face the "reality" and focus on a few areas of research excellence, admitting that in the modern global village we cannot do it all. I see this is a good strategy for a particular institution, but not for the most powerful nation on earth. First, I do not believe in crystal balls, nor in those who claim clairvoyance. Second, the role of the largest economy on earth should be to encourage ideas and promote innovation, no matter where they come from. I do not buy the argument that we can no longer afford it. The day we cannot is the day we cease to be the United States as we know it.
The federal budget needs to be balanced, and it will be balanced. Nevertheless, I do not think that there is a need to follow a draconian approach that destroys the many things that we do well.
I'll end by quoting Dr. Lane again: "Clearly, this is a time of great challenge for science and technology in America. But, I believe we can seize this time as one of opportunity to work together in ways we have never done before to raise our voices together, to send out a clear and coherent message."
7. Newsletter, 11:3 Spring 97
The Information Revolution and Civil Engineering
MIT colleagues Nicholas Negroponte and Michael Dertouzos have recently published two acclaimed and very popular books: Being Digital and What Will Be, respectively. Their philosophy is different, but the essence of their message is the same: society is going through an information revolution. To some, their vision may sound far-fetched. I, on the other hand, feel that their future is already here. Civil and environmental engineers, and certainly academia, are falling behind. What should our role be in that revolution?
Back in the 1960s our Department took a leadership role with the development of the Integrated Civil Engineering Systems (ICES). That effort codified civil engineering calculations and made them accessible and relatively user-friendly to the profession at large. Way ahead of the times, ICES was the precursor of modern-day engineering applications. The experience had a clear civil engineering context; exploited a then relatively new tool, the computer, to facilitate calculations; received the almost exclusive attention of the Department; and was very well funded. But the revolution of today has less to do with computers than with the manipulation and use of information. The calculus has been, correctly, subsumed by the nature of the message, and yes, the media.
A couple of other things are also clear. First, everybody is, and must be, a player in the field. Second, being a player promises big rewards for very large investments. There is little doubt that for this reason industry leads the information systems field.
The Department has always maintained a presence in information systems. Most recently the Intelligent Engineering Systems Laboratory has worked on expert systems, collaborative engineering, conflict-resolution systems, data compression, advanced numerical methods, and Web-based education, just to name a few.
We have also been offering graduate degrees that are very highly valued in the marketplace. But where do we go now? How can we maximize our impact and maintain leadership in such a competitive and quickly evolving field?
Frankly I do not think anybody has an answer. My own, constantly evolving, thoughts are that coverage in a few general areas should guide the future efforts:
I am sure the above are not unique nor necessarily correct ideas. I invite your constructive suggestions on this very important topic.
8. Newsletter, 12(3) Spring 98
I have decided to share excerpts of the Robert Taylor Lecture that I recently gave to MIT's minority students. The lecture was entitled "Believe and Achieve: Success is Earned, Not Given at MIT". Following is a section dealing with Affirmative Action. I suspect that many will agree and others will honestly disagree (minorities and non-minorities alike). My hope is to stimulate thinking on an issue that I personally hold very close at heart.
"I would like to spend whatever time I have left talking about affirmative action. This national policy is being undermined. Proposition 209 in California dismantles affirmative action in all State units, including universities. In Texas, court decisions have tied the hands of universities in their effort to diversify the student body. The University of Michigan is fighting to keep a very successful affirmative action plan in place. The end result of all these attacks have been a catastrophic drop in minorities and women enrollments in the affected campuses and elsewhere. The main reason for this drop, as I will state later, is a misguided, biased, and wrong admissions criteria that fails to recognize excellence.
"Here at MIT a colleague and friend wrote an article questioning affirmative action which has sparked a lively debate. He summarizes the core of the arguments against an affirmative action policy . It goes like this. First, affirmative action implies admitting students who may, on paper, have weaker academic records. Two, minorities and women have larger failure rates. Three, given the previous statement, presumably MIT is harming these individuals by setting them up for failure. And finally, we must protect our so-called 'standards'. For months I have been biting my tongue but you have given me the opportunity to release my pent-up anger and disappointment. My response to all of the above is summarized in one word: nonsense.
"Any self respecting place of higher learning makes all admissions based on a combination of objective and subjective criteria. Exams like SAT's, GRE's, etc., are the worst predictors of academic success and proven to be biased in a variety of ways. If it were for SAT's, I would not be here today. When MIT looks at all student candidates it tries to honestly evaluate the whole person, to seek the virtues and gifts of intelligence, drive, honesty, hard work, discipline, and leadership. We seek a student body that will make us proud, that will succeed in a complicated, demanding and diverse society. All of you more than qualify. Your records are a litany of accomplishments. You are here because you are good and because you are whole persons with the potential that we seek. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.
"The argument about higher failure rates is a distracting tactic. If I start stratifying various groups I can probably prove that white Anglo-Saxon males have a higher failure rate than other unnamed groups. Does that make them unworthy? The important statistic is that all failure rates at MIT are insignificant relative to the success rate. We are talking very small numbers. This is an argument for emptying the glass when it is 99% full and start all over again. I would rather focus my energies on stopping the leaks but keeping the precious fluid that fills my glass.
"The third argument is my favorite. Paraphrasing: we (those who know better) want to protect your fragile egos and hence will not allow you to play in the big leagues, although the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor. Give me a break! What I want is the opportunity. I am, you are, more than capable of taking care of ourselves. I want to play. I will control my destiny.
"When I started as an undergraduate here 30 years ago, women and minorities were practically nonexistent on campus. Was the place any better then? No, our standards are as high as ever, our accomplishments even higher. That the corridors of MIT now show some variety in color and gender is for the better, in all dimensions.
"Let me be blunt. In my view affirmative action is not a gift, and is not a way to redress past wrongs. It is a way to create not only a level, but a playing field. Affirmative action implies making sure that opportunities are available to talented and qualified individuals. And trust me, the playing field is NOT yet leveled, and opportunities are not always offered to the best people. I am very proud that MIT and President Vest have been, so far, unbending in their commitment to opportunities and creating a racially diverse and, more importantly, a better MIT.
"Some opposition to affirmative action is malicious, most is honest
and well intentioned. All works to undermine our self-confidence. Please
do not let that happen. Be alert! You are here because you are good and
we think you have all the ingredients for success. Do not waste time second-guessing
how you got to where you are. Spend your energy doing your work. Success
is all that matters and the only answer to the doubters."
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