The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has nominated a veteran academic administrator and science policy expert, C. Daniel Mote Jr., as its next president. If elected by the academy's membership, Mote will succeed current president Charles Vest when Vest's term ends on 30 June 2013.
A mechanical engineering professor who got inducted into the NAE in 1988, Mote served as president of the University of Maryland, College Park, from 1998 to 2010. In his capacity as an academic leader, Mote has promoted open academic exchange between the United States and other countries and advocated reducing visa barriers for international students seeking to study science and engineering at U.S. universities. He spoke to ScienceInsider about his priorities as the would-be president of NAE.
Q: What challenges does the academic engineering community—and more broadly, the U.S. engineering enterprise—face today?
D.M.: Basic research level academics are facing great challenges, much of it related to funding, but also the national commitment to basic research and the competitiveness of U.S. research globally. Since 1990, after the end of the Cold War, the world has been moving into a globalization mode. It started with U.S. manufacturers shipping jobs overseas but it has gone well beyond that point. There are countries in Asia and elsewhere that are developing their research capacities. They watched us and figured out what they need to do to be economically competitive.
The Cold War period was a period of playing defense. It was a period of control—control of information and products; controlling information gave countries economic and security advantages. But in the 21st century, we can no longer control information. We have expanding economies and education; a couple billion more people have entered the global economy. Now, the game is not to control information; now, the game is to engage globally to develop your products. It's playing offense.
Think of a basketball team. If your team is strong enough that it can prevent the opponent from scoring, then you can spend your time playing defense. If you are unable to stop the other team, then you have to score more points than they do. The 21st global economy requires playing an offense game. We have to outscore the competition.
Q: What will your priorities be as president of the academy?
D.M.: The academy's responsibility is to serve the government—to advise the government on national needs relating to the environment, manufacturing, national security, and so on. There are other issues. Talent in engineering is really the coin of the realm. Human talent in engineering is in great demand; countries around the world are recruiting engineering talent aggressively. The NAE has a number of programs focused on talent. We need to capitalize on them to create a flexible and agile talent base, which is essential for our nation.
There's also a need for reeducating engineers. It's long been understood that we need to update the education of engineering talent in the field. What's going to happen in the coming years is that this responsibility has to fall on universities and colleges, which have traditionally seen this not as a primary responsibility but as an auxiliary responsibility. That's going to have to change.
Q: You've been a big advocate of international collaborations. That means spreading knowledge rather than confining it within national borders. Do you think that will help or hurt efforts to foster innovation in the United States?
D.M.: With collaborations, everybody gets something. The U.S. also gets a lot in collaborations. For example, it's very hard to work with different countries if you don't have some understanding of their culture. It's hard to sell them products if you don't understand what they want and why. The U.S. is going to have to focus on high-value products rather than low-value products. The U.S. will be seeking talent in these other countries. There's going to be this ebb and flow. The U.S. is well past the point that we have all the knowledge and others don't. This is a problem in this country, this tendency to think that collaboration means the U.S. giving away knowledge. If people spend some time in different countries, you understand this picture a lot better.