Reversing the Politicization of Science & Technology

By Eaton, Robert J. | Executive Speeches, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Reversing the Politicization of Science & Technology


Eaton, Robert J., Executive Speeches


Thank you, Bill [Wulf]. It's a high honor to be here in the capacity of Chairman of NAE. I mean that sincerely.

I am an engineer who--like many other engineers--took a turn in the road many years ago that led me out of the laboratory and into the executive suite. But I'm still an engineer, and the opportunity to serve NAE for the next two years is a great privilege, indeed.

This is my maiden speech in this role, and I want to use it to tell you why I'm looking forward to this opportunity so much. To do that, I have to go back a few years.

In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall crumbled under the dead weight of a 75-year bad economic idea called communism. I was head of General Motors of Europe at the time and I happened to be in Berlin the day after it happened. The party was still going on.

One day, there was an ugly rampart of concrete-and-concertina wire that symbolically cut the world in half. The next day, people were breaking off chunks as souvenirs.

There was euphoria not only in Berlin, but in all of Germany, all of Europe, indeed all of the world, and, ironically, even in the Soviet Union, which was about to crumble almost as dramatically as that wall itself.

We all knew we were watching serious history being made. We knew this was more than a headline; this was a major shift in the world's political tectonics.

It was the end of the Cold War, and that war was fought on two fronts. Our military strength kept it cold, for the most part. But in the end, it was our economic strength and technological superiority that brought victory.

One day the leaders of the Soviet bloc looked across that wall in Berlin at the prosperity of the capitalist west and quietly and finally said "Uncle."

Then we began doing what we always do after a war--we began disarming. We began cutting military budgets. And we began cutting other budgets as well, including some of the research and development spending that had such a high priority for so long. We began to forget how we'd won.

For all the fear and discontent that it brought, the Cold War was a godsend to American science and technology. For a time after Sputnik, aerospace engineers wore the patriotic halo of front-line Marines. We were locked in technological combat with the Soviets, and the guys with the slide rules were the heroes.

Sic transit gloria ... and all that.

I'm glad the Cold War is over. I'm glad we won. But I have to confess that I'm getting more and more nostalgic for those heady days when I was a young engineer and the whole country seemed to be looking toward engineering and science to protect its way of life.

And I sincerely hope that I'll see those days again when the United States comes to a permanent realization that putting science to work through technology will largely determine our future security and prosperity.

Unfortunately, that realization will probably come from a sense of vulnerability, just as it did when the Soviets put that little beach ball-sized satellite up back in 1957, or when they put the first man in space in 1961.

Maybe the Year 2000 bug will help do it. I think it's one of the most amazing and telling events in the history of modern technology.

How could so many tens of thousands of engineers and technicians not see this coming 20 years ago? Of course, many of them did, but then why couldn't or didn't they solve the problem? This is a huge indictment of our whole technological infrastructure and those who maintain it.

I think it's an anomaly. I hope it is. Because a couple more blunders like this one and those of us in the field of applied technology are going to have a credibility problem of Clintonian proportions.

But if it helps to reinforce our fundamental dependence on technology, it may serve us well.

We all know that the general public takes technology for granted. …

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