The Future Is Now

More Scientists Needed -- Fast!

Calculus may not be easy and it certainly isn’t fun, but it shouldn’t dissuade young people eager to make a difference in the world from becoming an engineer or pursuing another technical calling.

A recurring motif that played out during the Raleigh Grand Challenge Summit session on American innovation was that in order for this country to lead the world in innovation into the future, it needs to make a collected and concerted effort at producing significantly more scientists and engineers.

And that means calculus.

A head of a wildly successful high-tech company, a director of a renowned research institute, a U.S. senator and some audience members, all slightly tongue-in-cheek, cited calculus as a discouragement for students wanting to become scientists. But, they were quick to point out, in all seriousness, that innovation must be a key component in U.S. success in the world. So that means more engineers.

The world is catching up, they warned. And fast.

“It’s not simply enough to win back the jobs we’ve lost the past two years, but we need to create a whole generation of jobs in the green economy,” said U.S. Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del), a Duke mechanical engineering grad and the only engineer in the Senate.

“The green economy is the future,” he continued. “The Chinese have turned on a dime, they get it. They are now the largest producers of solar panels and wind turbines. They graduate three engineers for every one here. U.S. engineers have to get back to being engineers, and not going to Wall Street.”

Watch Sen. Kaufman's special legislative address.

But, the panelists continued, the country needs more than just additional engineers. It needs engineers with different skill sets than their predecessors a generation ago. The world of technology is changing so fast that engineers will have to adapt with the times to succeed.

“The engineer of the future will need a larger collection of skills,” said John Chambers, chairman and CEO of CISCO. “We must train them how to learn, because their jobs will continue to change. They will need to know as much about politics, law and business as they will about engineering.”

Successful engineers will also have to work well within a team structure and be able to synthesize a wide spectrum of diverse input.

As the leader of a high-tech company, Chambers said that timing can be just as important as technical innovation. In particular, he is always looking ahead to times of transition when the moment is ripe for new technologies to be reliably produced and ahead of the competition. This is accomplished at CISCO by teams of different specialists working toward a common goal, he said.

“When I meet new engineers, one of the first things I start with is their vision of the future,” Chambers said. “We’ve built our whole business strategy on looking forward and taking advantage of these transitions.”

Throughout the session, the conversation repeated returned to education, especially attracting students as early as possible into science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields, commonly know by its acronym STEM.

Watch Chambers' keynote address.

Of immediate concern are engineers in the energy generation and transmission industry.

“The Baby Boomers will start retiring in five years, so where are we going to get people to replace them?” asked Jeff Wadsworth, president and CEO of Battelle Memorial Institute, the world’s largest non-profit research and development organization. “We have the best universities in the world, but our K-12 system is deteriorating.”

Wadsworth added that the correlation between family income and educational level achieved by students is “staggering.”

“We need to focus on K-12, especially on those who don’t have a chance,” he said. “This is not an issue of innovation, but one of policy.”

Watch Wadsworth's spotlight address.

Panelists all said they sensed that among young people today, there is a great desire to do something that helps better society. Everyone involved in technology fields, as well as the government, needs to show these young people that STEM is an interesting and fulfilling outlet for their energies and passions, they said.

“What can the federal government do?” Kaufman asked rhetorically. “We have introduced a comprehensive bill to improve STEM, one that especially encourages women and minorities, and one that has garnered widespread bi-partisan support. We need to inspire young people to become engineers and be the leaders of the green economy – we need to put engineers and scientists on the same stage as entertainers and athletes.”

Watch discussion.