The Introspective Engineer

The Introspective Engineer

by Samuel C. Florman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466853263
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/24/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 360 KB

About the Author

Samuel C. Florman, a civil engineer, is a principal in a major New York-area construction company. In addition to scores of articles, Mr. Florman has written The Civilized Engineer, Blaming Technology, and his classic, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. He lives outside New York City.

Samuel C. Florman, a civil engineer, is a principal in a major New York-area construction company. In addition to scores of articles, Mr. Florman is the author of the novel The Aftermath, as well as The Introspective Engineer, The Civilized Engineer, Blaming Technology, and his classic, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt




Late in the summer of 1987 I accepted a book review assignment from the editors of a technical journal. The object of my critique was called Strengthening U.S. Engineering Through International Cooperation: Some Recommendations for Action. Although the title was long, I had been assured that the text was short — merely sixty-eight pages — and that the review was to be no more than five hundred words. This didn't sound like very hard work, and the topic seemed vaguely interesting, so I looked forward to the task with equanimity.

When the booklet arrived, however, and I glanced through it, my heart sank. It was a report by the Committee on International Cooperation in Engineering, an eminent group established by the National Academy of Engineering and the Office of International Affairs of the National Research Council, and at first look the report appeared to be — how can I put it? — drab, lackluster, let's just say dull. Nevertheless, a commitment is a commitment, so I had to follow through.

I set to work in mid-September, and I recall that at the time one event was totally dominating the news, claiming magazine covers and daily headlines. This was the debate about whether Robert Bork should serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate committee hearings on the Bork nomination lasted for two weeks, and wherever one went during that time, passionate arguments could be heard about politics and constitutional law. The only concern that ran those hearings a fairly close second — at least in the circles I frequent — was whether or not the New York Mets were going to overtake the St. Louis Cardinals in the race for the National League pennant.

As I started to work on my review of the NAE committee report, and as I started to weigh the significance of what I was reading, I felt that the ground was shifting beneath my feet, that tremendous upheavals were taking place, and that nobody was paying any attention. This calm, deliberate, dull booklet contained shocking news and dire warnings.

As the report made clear with a few key statistics, the United States was no longer the undisputed world leader in the realm of engineering research. We were no longer the brightest, most inventive, most creative people in the world. Of course, by 1987 I had heard a lot about foreign industrial competition. Everybody knew about Japanese cars and television sets. But I had assumed that at least in research the U.S. was still the leader by far. I thought, in fact, that engineering research was supposed to be our ultimate salvation. According to conventional wisdom, other nations may be good at making things, but we're better at devising new ways to make things and also at dreaming up new things to make.

Well, apparently that was no longer the case. It appeared that in at least 34 important disciplines comparable or superior technology was being created abroad. These included artificial intelligence, robotics, systems engineering and control, optoelectronics, combustion and engine technology, high speed rail, and nuclear plant safety. According to the findings of the NAE committee, the U.S. was not only losing its competitive advantage, the nation's leaders were not even keeping informed about what was happening elsewhere in the world.

The report suggested that in addition to quickening the pace of our own research activities, we needed to shed our self-satisfied complacency. It recommended that the National Science Foundation and other concerned agencies support American engineers in fellowships and sabbaticals abroad, sponsor domestic lecture tours by distinguished foreign experts, gather technical information worldwide, and encourage increased participation in international standards development. It further suggested that engineering students be given more opportunities to learn foreign languages and to study in other nations. And further still, it urged U.S. corporations and professional societies to become more aware of the need for international activities.

Yet everybody's attention was focused, at least for the moment, on the Bork hearings — on political intrigue and the niceties of constitutional law. The situation, as I perceived it, was positively unreal. I don't mean to imply that the Constitution is unimportant, or that freedom is not precious and worth debating passionately in a thousand forums. But, the essential precondition of individual freedom — the essential precondition of philosophy, free speech, and meaningful constitutions — is prosperity, or put most simply, material well-being. I have already argued this in the Introduction, and I will return to the theme again and again because it is so basic yet so often ignored. Plato could only hold forth in his academy because Athens was rich, and Athens was rich because Athenians were able technologists.

Don't people see, I mused, that our Constitution depends upon our technology? What would become of the hallowed American system of justice if our trade deficit continued to rise, if our economy became depressed, if we suffered from extensive unemployment, if our poor lost all hope and our workers became desperate? What would become of our fine judicial theories if the middle classes fell prey to uncertainty, and if the dispossessed began to riot? Very quickly we would begin to hear some new and not very palatable interpretations of our constitutional rights. Wherever we look in the world we see that freedom cannot exist independently of technological progress. Technology does not in itself create freedom; but freedom cannot exist without material comfort, and material comfort in today's world depends upon technology.

Above the portals of the New York State Supreme Court building in lower Manhattan there is an inscription that states: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government." Very nicely put. But as every engineer knows, pillars are worthless unless they rest on firm foundations. Technology is the foundation on which rest the pillars of justice and good government.

Thus ran my thoughts as I tried to fathom the meaning of that sixty-eight-page pamphlet. For a while I took to carrying it around as a sort of Bible, and even tried quoting from it to a few of my friends. But for the most part they only called me Chicken Little and went back to talking about the Supreme Court — and about the final exciting days of the baseball season.

October arrived and three things happened: I completed my review more or less on schedule1, the Bork nomination failed in the Senate, and the Mets lost the pennant to the Cardinals. Well, life goes on, and I started to think about other things.

* * *

But almost immediately there arrived in the mail an invitation to participate in a colloquium sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Each spring this organization brings together a number of specialists from government, industry, and academe to discuss the forthcoming federal budget for research and development. Discussions about the federal budget are not high on my personal list of priorities, and my initial reaction was, good grief, what could be more tedious? But this reminded me of the way I had felt when I first saw that dull report from the National Academy of Engineering. I looked at the invitation again. Budgets may appear to be boring, but they are important, just like engineering research is very important, and in fact the two topics are intimately related. So, in the spring of 1988, I went to Washington to hear discussions about the federal R&D budget.

The event, for all its importance, cannot be described as scintillating. As I sat there among congressional staff members and representatives of executive agencies, and watched columns of numbers projected on screens in darkened rooms, more than once my eyes started to glaze over. And later when I returned home and repeated some of the things I had learned about the R&D budget, I was greeted with total indifference. Again I was made aware of how little the average person knows — or cares — about how engineering fits into our national life.

Yet, the AAAS colloquium helped to alleviate the shock I had felt the previous summer in my encounter with the NAE report on engineering research. The United States may be facing fierce international competition, but it is far from a complacent and helpless giant. I was relieved to discover that there are people in Washington — and elsewhere — who recognize how crucial science and technology are to national vitality, and who are helping to allocate resources accordingly.


Research and development — the familiar R&D — is only one aspect of engineering, engaging less than 40 percent of American engineers (See Chapter 7). But it is the technological frontier, the place where we grapple with the unknown, and seek to devise the artifacts of the future.

Formal studies support the hypothesis — which in a way is intuitively obvious — that R&D is essential to the well-being of our society. Industrial innovation is central to wealth creation and economic growth, and R&D is a critical element of industrial innovation. During the past fifty years "technological progress" has been responsible for about 40 percent of the productivity gain in the United States.

Yet the average informed citizen knows hardly anything about what R&D is. During my visit to the AAAS colloquium, I realized that I myself had only the most superficial understanding of this vitally important topic.

I've met dozens of science and engineering professors, and graduate students, "doing" R&D on numerous campuses. I know that they get "grants," usually from some federal government agency, although occasionally from industry or nonprofit foundations. Their projects are sometimes highly theoretical ("Two-Phase Potential Flow" or "Modeling of Microstructural Evolution in Thin Films") and sometimes emphatically practical ("Microwave-Induced Hyperthermia for Deep-Seated Tumors" or "Geophysical Surveys of Toxic Waste Spills in Interior Alaska"). I've met scientists and engineers who work at government laboratories, designing atom bombs, photovoltaic cells, or glucose monitors; also those who work for industry, at the fabled Bell Labs and elsewhere. I know that most large manufacturing corporations have R&D activities, for how else do they "invent" their products and learn to put them together?

But is this crucial activity appropriately supported? Who does it, who pays for it, and most important, where does it stand in our allocation of national resources?

* * *

Consider the year of this writing, halfway through the final decade of the twentieth century. The general profile, in constant dollars, has not changed substantially for a number of years.

In fiscal 1995 the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the United States was just over $7.0 trillion. The federal government spent $1.54 trillion while earning $1.35 trillion in receipts, showing the deficit pattern with which we are familiar. The total committed to R&D in the U.S. was $188 billion. The main sources of this money were:

The Federal Government $73 billion Industry $107 billion Universities, Colleges and other nonprofits $8 billion TOTAL $188 billion

Industry, in addition to its own commercial work, performs much of the government-funded R&D, as do the universities and colleges. Also, academe performs work for industry. But the key concern here is the source of the money.

The federal expenditure, when analyzed by agency funding, breaks down as follows:

Defense Department 49.9 percent Health and Human Services 16.1 percent NASA 13.0 percent Energy 9.1 percent National Science Foundation 3.4 percent Agriculture 2.1 percent Commerce 1.7 percent Transportation, Interior, EPA, etc. 4.7 percent TOTAL 100.0 percent

The total allocation for defense, however, is not defined by the Defense Department allocation. If one counts military portions of the NASA and Energy budgets, the figure becomes 53.5 percent. (This is less than during the Cold War, when about two-thirds of the federal R&D budget was allotted to defense.)

At first look, I am pleasantly surprised to find that the federal R&D expenditure of $73 billion represents almost 5 percent of the $1.54 trillion federal budget. This seems reassuringly judicious until one considers that if 53.5 percent of the federal funding is dedicated to defense, then government expenditure on civilian R&D is only 2.2 percent of the federal budget. And, assuming that industry-funded R&D is 90 percent nonmilitary, the total national investment for civilian R&D (about $138 billion) is seen to be slightly under 2 percent of the GDP.

Is this a lot or a little? One unsettling indication is to compare the U.S. with Japan and Germany where the figure stands close to 3 percent. In absolute dollars, we spend more than any other nation. Yet our competitors spend proportionately more.

Of course, military R&D is not without value to the civilian sector. Claims may sometimes be overstated, but the benefits do exist. Not only do products developed for weapons turn out to have everyday application, but, more importantly, the military has long supported "pure" research, with general benefits accruing to society. This is particularly true in the realm of computers. When in the 1960s Douglas C. Engelbart, a computer scientist at the Stanford Research Institute, established the Augmentation Research Center, dedicated to developing human-computer interfacing, his work was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. And when, a decade or so later, the counterculture-type engineers at Apple Computer Co. developed the "user-friendly" Macintosh, they relied heavily upon the techniques thus created with military support.

The world-renowned American R&D establishment is in large measure a product of the Cold War. With the ending of the Soviet threat, there was fear that support for the enterprise would diminish. Yet both the Bush and Clinton administrations set the objective of maintaining federal commitment to R&D, while reducing the military component to 50 percent. Another goal announced by leaders of both parties was gradually to increase the total spent on civilian R&D from 2 percent of the GDP to 3 percent, comparable to our leading commercial competitors.

However, the 1994 Republican victory in Congress called into question all previous strategies. The budget plan passed by the House of Representatives in May 1995 would have cut the civilian portion of federal R&D by 35 percent over a period of five years (after accounting for inflation), rousing the New York Times to editorialize:

The party that preaches cost-benefit analysis for Federal agencies ought to practice what it preaches. ... Knocking out innovative research can lead to stagnant productivity and growth. By that calculation, the House plan is an irresponsible gamble.

However, shortly after the budget bill was voted, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to Science magazine, "privately delivered a surprising message to a handful of key legislators: Don't pull the purse strings too tight on federal research programs." Happily, after the Senate had its say and negotiations with the White House were concluded, the final budget cuts were not nearly as severe as had been feared.

Nevertheless, in the tight-budget atmosphere that will likely prevail for the foreseeable future, there will be further battles in the R&D arena. Even people who would defend and enhance the federal R&D program are often at odds with each other about priorities.

One dispute pits champions of "big science" against supporters of "small," with the most significant recent loser being the gigantic Superconducting Super Collider, cancelled in 1994.

Perhaps the fiercest debates entail questions of "pure" R&D versus "practical" or "strategic." "Pure" or "basic" scientific research relies heavily upon government support. This time-honored concept is being questioned by people concerned about the crisis in industrial competitiveness. They suggest that government investment in R&D should yield not merely long-term, trickle-down returns, but more immediate returns by way of saleable products and increased employment, particularly in manufacturing.

A leading proponent of the new approach has been Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), formerly chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees Independent Agencies, including EPA, NASA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In calling upon the NSF to allocate 60 percent of its resources to funding research in "strategic" areas (such as biotechnology, infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, and high-performance computing) Ms. Mikulski said: "We're looking for ways to satisfy the immediate, compelling human needs of our society, while also planning for the long-range needs of the nation."


Excerpted from "The Introspective Engineer"
by .
Copyright © 1996 Samuel C. Florman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Also by Samuel C. Florman,

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