By Laura Kachin
Science and engineering research is entering a new era in which global challenges require global solutions. Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation, discussed the challenges and opportunities associated with this new era of science and engineering research and development before an audience of George Washington University researchers, students, and faculty on Oct. 4. The lecture was sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research.
President Steven Knapp welcomed Dr. Suresh, who heads the federal agency responsible for supporting basic research across all disciplines of science and engineering. “Having a figure like Dr. Suresh on campus is both informative and inspiring for the university’s research community,” said Dr. Knapp. He praised the renowned researcher for his forward-looking leadership, especially at a time when universities and institutions are questioning how much funding will be available for research.
During the course of his talk, Dr. Suresh justified the importance of supporting basic research. His lecture, titled “The New Era of Global Science and Engineering,” tackled the trends, challenges and future of science and engineering R&D. Demographic and economic factors, according to Dr. Suresh, hold the keys to this new era of science and engineering research.
“There are more scientists and engineers concentrated in Asia than anywhere else,” said Dr. Suresh, describing the new demographics of research. The data suggest that number will continue to increase in the foreseeable future because of the population growth in the region. Shifting gears to economics, Dr. Suresh argued that both small countries, like Qatar, and larger countries, like Singapore, India and China, are investing an increasing amount of national resources into science and engineering research. “These countries are seeing investments in science and engineering as a means for economic prosperity,” said Dr. Suresh. “These investments are a necessary step to move up the economic ladder as a way to escape poverty and improve their quality of life.” He then posed the question, “How do we engage in this globalized world?” The United States, he said, must work rigorously to compete in the coming years, as well as cooperate and collaborate with their partners.
Dr. Suresh outlined how the United States stacks up against other countries in terms of R&D investing and education. “One third of all of the R&D investment is in the United States,” said Dr. Suresh. However, for the first time in the history of scientific funding, collectively the top 10 Asian countries matched U.S. levels of R&D funding last year.
Shifting his focus to education, Dr. Suresh presented the latest data on the percentage of undergraduate degrees in natural sciences and engineering in three major parts of the world. Twenty percent of all college graduates in Asia earn an undergraduate degree in engineering, and roughly 14 percent receive degrees in natural sciences. In Europe, those numbers are closer to 12 percent. In the United States, however, 11 percent of graduates earn an undergraduate degree in natural sciences and just 4.4 percent complete a degree in engineering. Even more startling is the fact that only 1.43 percent of female college graduates in the United States pursue engineering.
How has the United States remained a leader in science and engineering innovation, despite just 4.4 percent of its college graduates earning engineering degrees? According to Dr. Suresh, the answer lies beyond the lack of investment in science and engineering innovation. “It’s about the values placed on those attributes and the institutions that are created to ensure them, whether it’s the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Defense,” he said. “These institutions are defined and developed based on values and that is exactly where our leadership role comes from.”
Looking forward, Dr. Suresh said that while funding remains the largest barrier to NSF’s mission, other obstacles are holding back the nation as well, such as the lack of consistency in scientific peer review journals. In this new era of science and engineering research, Dr. Suresh said, one needs to ask, “Who will develop policies to ensure compliance for shared and collaborative global scientific enterprises and how will universities and institutions participate?”
“A young person can have brilliant idea that can change the world 20 years from now, we want to make sure that we can support that innovation,” said Dr. Suresh.