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MIT President Charles Vest was honored Sunday by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for his "outstanding university leadership, commitment and effectiveness in helping mold government policy in support of research, and forging linkages between academia and industry."
Dr. Vest, the 18th recipient of the NAE'S prestigious annual Arthur M. Bueche Award for statesmanship in science and technology, received the award's gold medallion at a ceremony at the National Academies building in Washington.
Dr. Vest, in his remarks, said that when he became president of MIT in 1990, there was an "urgent need to revitalize the relationship between the federal government and our nation's public and private research universities."
He said the bipartisan understanding of this partnership, which had been so important to the nation's prosperity, health, quality of life and security, seemed at the time to be slipping away because of the end of the Cold War and a lack of interest by academic and industry leaders in talking to Congress and the public.
Dr. Vest said that with the help of leaders of industry such as Norm Augustine and John Young, a widening circle of academic colleagues and the tutelage of MIT Vice President for Federal Relations Jack Crowley, "I have tried to help spread the word that science and engineering are essential to our future; that it is a proper and essential role of the federal government to support research in our universities; and that the glory of this system is the intimate interweaving of research and education."
The importance of advances in science and engineering, he said, is shown by the growth of life expectancy in the US -- from 55 in 1900 to nearly 80 today -- and by the growth in the American economy. During the past half century, over 50 percent of the growth in the US economy "is due to scientific and technological innovation, which largely flowed from our university laboratories."
Changes in corporate research and development have also affected science, he said. "We now must think of science and engineering policy, or perhaps even innovation policy, and it must include private industry as well as government and academia."
He said US corporations "are mostly out of the business of moderate- or long-range corporate R&D. They have gained astounding efficiencies and value by integrating near-term R&D into the broader context of product development."
As a result of these changes, corporations "now gain much of their actual innovation by buying successful start-up companies, whose intellectual capital often flows from our universities.
"All three parties -- government, industry and academia -- need to better understand and shape this system," he said, adding that "the role of the federal government in supporting research and advanced education will remain absolutely essential."
Dr. Vest said a new challenge in the public perception of science and technology is that "the number of young American men and women pursuing science, mathematics and engineering is declining at the very moment when science and technology are so clearly key to our future.
"We must turn this around," he said, noting that "our responsibility for human capital, for educating and developing the talents of young people, is the most important agenda item of all. "We must help students at every level experience the joy of discovery, the love of analyzing and understanding our wondrous universe, the thrill of design and the power of synthesis and creativity," said Dr. Vest.
The principal criteria established for the Bueche award are demonstrated statesmanship in the field of technology; active engagement in the determination of science and technology public policy; active participation on behalf of technology; and active contributions to industry-government-university relationships.
The NAE established the award in 1982 to honor Arthur M. Bueche, who was senior vice president for corporate technology at General Electric and a member of the NAE Council who spoke out for the advancement of technology. The honoree receives a gold medallion, a certificate and a $2,500 cash award.
Previous recipients of the award include four national science advisors, three of whom have strong connections to MIT: H. Guyford Stever, formerly a professor and department head at MIT; Jerome B. Wiesner, the late president of MIT; and Edward E. David (SM 1947), a Life member of the MIT Corporation. Another MIT-related recipient is Professor Emeritus Robert C. Seamans, Jr., who was honored in 1994.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 25, 2000.