Dr. Vest Goes to Washington: Listening Hard as He Seeks to Revive Engineering and Technology

7/31/07Follow @bbuderi

Charles M. Vest, president emeritus of MIT, has arrived in Washington to head the National Academy of Engineering. Every morning, Vest’s jogging route from his Arlington, VA, condo—”approximately 2.5 miles, slowly”—takes him past the Iwo Jima memorial to the Netherlands Carillon, around the edge of Arlington National Cemetery, and across Arlington Memorial Bridge toward the Lincoln Memorial and back. “It doesn’t quite match the Esplanade,” he says. “But I have great inspiration every day as I get ready to come in to work.”

The longtime MIT leader (who’s also an Xconomist) began his new role on July 1, taking up digs in the original National Academies building on C Street across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. We caught up with him last week, a few days before—”to my utter amazement,” he says—he was awarded a National Medal of Technology by President George Bush. Already, Vest has laid out a vigorous agenda that focuses on improving the state of science and engineering education while providing authoritative, independent advice to the government on an array of technical matters. “What attracted me when this opportunity came up is that I believe that in these years ahead, it’s going to be extremely important for the government to get sound advice on science and technology, because they lie at the core of so many of the great issues we face—security, globalization, competitiveness, energy, the environment,” Vest says. “It’s very exciting to be part of trying to pull that together…It really is, I believe, a very important mission.”

Vest stepped down from the MIT presidency after 14 years in December of 2004. Since then, he has been actively engaged in national-level committees and commissions, including serving as co-chair of a National Research Council committee (with former Defense Secretary William Perry) that is examining the relationship of technology, privacy, and counterterrorism. The committee’s report should be released this fall. He also wrote a short book, The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web. The book explores how universities, governments, and the private sector interact, and also looks at academic openness post-9/11 and the concept of the emerging meta-university, of which MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative is an important element. While at the NAE for a six-year term, Vest retains his position on the MIT faculty, where he is a professor of mechanical engineering. Indeed, he intends to return to the classroom after his National Academies stint is over, probably in the policy arena.

At the NAE, Vest’s first step has been to do what he did when coming to MIT: listen and learn. Even before arriving in Washington, he e-mailed the NAE’s approximately 2,000 members, asking two questions: “What do you think the important things we ought to work on are? And what do you think I ought to worry about?” So far, Vest says, he has received 250 to 300 responses. “I’ve been trying to answer each one, but I did get a little bit behind.”

It’s still early days. However, he says, “There are a few things that are quite obvious. We are charged with looking after the technological welfare of the country. And so I think we need to continue to be extremely concerned about educational and informational and cultural forces that seem to be making fields like engineering and science less attractive to very bright young people. We have to understand that and try to turn that around.” This might include such steps as seeking new ways to build visibility for the profession and trying to influence good teaching, especially in the primary grades, he says.

Another big concern is energy. “One of the first major new studies that will be undertaken here very soon will be what we are calling a foundational study on energy,” he says. Organized through the National Research Council and involving all the Academies—NAE, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine—this projects seeks to bring together a variety of experts “to look across the broad spectrum of technologies for energy, energy conservation, energy distribution, and renewables,” as well as nuclear power and more traditional fossil fuels, the new NAE president says. The goal, he stresses, will be to assess the scientific, technical, and economic facts about each. “We will not undertake to make policy recommendations. We just want to get a uniform basis of facts out there…We would like these to be the reference that everybody has to use.”

There is no better place to pursue these goals, he says, than at the Academies. “I think of us as the world’s greatest think tank,” says Vest. The various groups have strong professional staffs, enhanced by incredible convening power, he notes. “When people are asked to participate in an important study through the Academy they almost always say yes.”

Vest says he is particularly excited about a strong level of collaboration between the Academies. He’s known Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, since 1970. Harvey Fineberg, who heads the Institute of Medicine, was the provost at Harvard. Says Vest, “These are two people that I really respect and like, and one of the attractions is I think the three of us are going to work very closely together, which is critically important today—when so many major issues and exciting new areas of science and technology cut across the traditional disciplines.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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