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Subra Suresh's 2013 Investiture Address

President-Elect of Carnegie Mellon University and Former Director of the National Science Foundation

June 8, 2013

Congratulations to the graduates, your families and friends. I congratulate you on having completed the Thayer School’s rigorous courses of study in engineering. This is a day of well-earned pride and joy, and I am grateful for the honor and privilege of being part of your celebrations today.

As I look out at this gathering, I am reminded of the old joke that a graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that 'individuality' is the key to success.

But where you go from here is a very individual matter. It is hard to predict where you will end up. When I graduated from college in 1977, with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, I set out for Iowa State University to get a Master’s degree, with a one-way air ticket purchased with borrowed funds, a half-full suitcase, and less than $100 in my pocket.

Subra Suresh When I arrived in Iowa, I certainly never imagined that my career would subsequently take me to be the dean of the School of Engineering at MIT, and the director of the National Science Foundation. By now, I am sure you have figured out why I speak with an Iowa accent!

And now, like you, I am about to take a new step, as president of Carnegie Mellon University. So I too am looking at a new phase of my life.

But I believe that there is no group of Dartmouth’s many distinguished graduates this year that will have more influence over the future of our planet than you will. We engineers have a reputation for being a bit too modest and low key — but many believe that we are more important to society than ever before. Countries large and small — from China to India to Singapore to Qatar to Rwanda — view innovation and engineering education, as a ticket to economic prosperity, to make a positive difference in the lives millions of citizens.

The National Academy of Engineering in 1999 published a list of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. You can probably guess what these include — the spread of electricity; the invention of radio, television, and the Internet; the development of the petroleum industry, and along with that, the spread of the automobile and construction of highways; the achievements of nuclear engineering; and the revolution in agricultural technologies. All of these brought enormous benefits to human life on a scale previously not imagined, and many of them were adopted in the lifetime of your parents and grandparents.

Then, in 2005, the National Academy of Engineering issued another list, this time of the 14 greatest engineering challenges of the 21st century. Here are a few of them:

When you compare these two lists, it is striking that a great many of the challenges of the 21st century are issues that arise out of the engineering achievements of the 20th century. The success of the petroleum-based economy we built over the last century has given us the problem of how to control carbon emissions and slow climate change; the invention of nuclear technologies now leads to the challenge of preventing nuclear terrorism; the spread of instant global connectivity made possible by the internet now presents the challenge of securing cyberspace, preserving citizens’ privacy and protecting confidentiality of personal information; and the aeronautical engineering that transformed global transportation system also means that infectious diseases can travel fast from anywhere on the planet to anywhere else, almost at the speed of sound, and threaten the planet with a deadly pandemic.

My challenge to you today, the Thayer School’s class of 2013, is this: What do we engineers need to do differently in the 21st century in order to respond to the challenges of our time while also doing a much better job at anticipating future consequences?

I want to offer three insights that might help us answer this question.

My first suggestion is that we must recognize and allow for the human factor and human behavior in our engineering solutions. The interface of engineering with social, behavioral, and economic sciences is now essential. We must recognize that incentives for human behavior must be anticipated and planned for, and the impact of technological capacities on social life must be better understood.

Subra Suresh Let me give an example. In the late 1980s, the National Science Foundation, NSF, established its first Engineering Research Center in the state of Oklahoma to develop weather forecasts and models that would predict severe weather events such as tornadoes. That center, over the years, has done wonderful work in developing simulation tools that accurately predict severe weather events. As you know, during the past year, and just last week, citizens of Oklahoma died as tornadoes repeatedly pummeled that state. This tragedy arises not just because of our inability to predict accurately how tornadoes develop and move — many technological advances have made such predictions possible today! It is also due to our inability to predict how people would respond to warnings about weather events.

The second insight I would offer is that we are in a new era of engineering, with many new tools, and that we must make careful and thoughtful use of these tools. What is so exciting about engineering now, in the year 2013? During the last few years, I was Director of the National Science Foundation. This gave me a front row seat on progress across all fields of science and engineering. I learned that we are in a powerful new era — your era, in a sense — an era defined by amazing new capacities.

It is, first of all, a New Era of Observation. Today we have telescopes that show us the farthest reaches of the solar system and we have microscopes that can show us materials at the tiniest, sub-nano scales, one atom at a time. We have computational simulations that give us glimpses of the origins of the universe. We can look at (and listen to) the depths of the oceans across the whole planet. Imaging technologies are giving us an ever more nuanced picture of the biology of the neuron in the human brain, which can now be interpreted in conjunction with the psychology of the human mind.

It is also a New Era of Data and Communication. Communication technologies have also changed the definition of who can collect data: any citizen with a cell phone can now take part in observation of a range of events — the approach of a tornado, the flight of a songbird, or the precise patterns made by a detonating bomb in Damascus or in Boston. Citizens are making more observations, in more places than ever before and with much greater accuracy than ever before; these will be useful for the advancement of knowledge, in science and in society. We are indeed at a time when a young child in a rural village in Brazil can use a mobile phone to observe the sky and generate data that feeds into a national/international network that becomes part of scientific data gathering. An iPad can now generate about 1 terabyte of data per day!

So as engineers in this new era, we have many challenges to address that intimately link the latest in technology with human behavior: How do we take the vast amount of data generated every day, and make sure that we are able to sort, organize, store, retrieve, and permanently archive information across rapidly changing platforms? How do we separate useful knowledge from a vast amount of useless background noise that is generated without proper vetting and where it is difficult to separate fact from fiction? How do we create new domains of knowledge and new fields of intellectual pursuit from analyzing and properly interpreting data gathered across traditional fields of natural and social sciences and engineering? We must use these tools to ask bigger questions: we can simulate a new range of conditions and test our assumptions more deeply; we can rely on much larger and much more diverse kinds of data to further discoveries in all fields of engineering, and to help us predict more reliably what the consequences and spillover effects of new technologies will be.

Dean Helble presents the 2013 Robert Fletcher Award to Subra Suresh
Dean Joseph Helble presents the 2013 Robert Fletcher Award to Subra Suresh

Your faculty at the Thayer School already know this — the school’s no-department structure encourages a broad view of engineering thinking; the school already participates in a wide array of research projects that bring in expertise from Dartmouth’s renowned humanities and social sciences programs, medical school and business school, among other fields. This interdisciplinary thinking will be valuable in acquiring an awareness of the human elements at play in complex engineered systems.

The third insight is that our biggest challenges are unfolding in a global context. You are graduating today, leaving a small college town in New Hampshire. Whether you choose to work in New Hampshire, the U.S., or a foreign country, your career and life experiences will be shaped increasingly strongly by the highly interconnected and networked global enterprise.

The good news is that science and engineering are already global enterprises — this too is part of our new era. Global challenges need global solutions. Good engineering anywhere is good for engineering everywhere.

No innovation is too small to be useful. Remember that our country’s goal of putting man on the moon galvanized an entire generation of engineers. It transformed our innovation ecosystem. But also remember, as someone noted, that we put man on the moon before we put wheels on the suitcase. Having wheels on the suitcase is extremely useful in our day-to-day lives.

So I want to leave you with these three insights:

I have every confidence that as Thayer School graduates, you are fully prepared to take on the grand challenges, and to succeed in the three areas I highlighted.

This reminds me of a story about a dinner for Nobel Laureates hosted at the White House by President John F. Kennedy. The story goes something like this. President Kennedy apparently marveled at the collective intelligence assembled at the dinner table, and said that “the last time there was so much intellectual horse power in this room was when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Well, if Kennedy were here today, he would really marvel at your accomplishments and your future potential.

Looking out at you here today, I have every reason to be optimistic that even the largest and the most daunting challenges will be met and mastered.

Thank you.