William Wulf, President, National Academy of Engineering


Maxine Savitz ’58
Former Director of Technology Partnerships, Honeywell Corporation, and Member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Science Board

It is my privilege to introduce Bill Wulf, who is the President of the National Academy of Engineering. I have had the privilege of working with Dr. Wulf for the last six years or so on the governing council of the National Academy of Engineering. In addition to his role as president of NAE, he serves as vice chair of the National Research Council, which is the operating arm of the National Academies. He would like to see more of the women and men here participate on our committees, and might recruit you all to do some work on the studies. Dr. Wulf is another one at this conference who is looking at people in academia, government and industry, and he himself has worked in all three sectors.

Dr. Wulf is currently on leave from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where he is an AT&T Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He had been the chair and chief executive of Tartan Laboratories in Pittsburgh; spent time as an assistant director at the National Science Foundation; and early on was professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon. While he has been at the NAE, he has been a strong supporter of women in engineering and science. The NAE has created Web sites for younger women in K-12 schools and for women in engineering. Through Dr. Wulf’s efforts, NAE obtained funding for a summer program for women in engineering. Dr. Wulf has also been a strong supporter of the NRC’s Committee on Women in Science and Engineering, led by Dr. Jong-On Hahm (also a participant in this symposium).

One of the things we heard from a lot of speakers today is the importance of having a partner that really supports what you do in order to be successful. Dr. Wulf’s wife is Dr. Anita Jones, a well-known member of the University of Virginia’s computer science department. She is also the vice chair of the National Science Board, and, under the Clinton Administration, was under secretary for research at the Department of Defense. Bill and Anita cannot quite get their schedules together — when he is in Washington, she is in Charlottesville, but they are managing to be at the same place.

So Bill brings many sorts of experience with him today — professional, personal and practical — to his talk today at this symposium dedicated to the advancement of women in science and technology. So I want to welcome you Bill, and tell you how pleased we are that you came to join us.

William Wulf


I usually start these talks with a few words about the Academy because I have learned that not everybody knows what it is. There are academies of science and academies of engineering all around the world. They are mostly honorific societies; that is, you cannot join the Royal Society in London or the Academie des Sciences in Paris; you have to be elected by the existing membership. It is considered a very high honor to be so elected.

In the middle of the Civil War, 1863, a group of American scientists got together and decided that we ought to have one of those honorific academies, too. They incorporated what is now a 501(c)3, not-for-profit corporation in the District of Columbia called the National Academy of Sciences. At the time, there was no city government in Washington — the federal government acted as the city government. Consequently, the articles of incorporation of this private corporation were actually a bill passed through Congress and signed by Abraham Lincoln. We make a great big deal of that now, but in the District of Columbia in 1863 it was standard operating procedure. However, what is a big deal is that somebody inserted about 40 words into this otherwise completely boilerplate charter. These 40 words say that the Academy must provide advice to the federal government on any issue of science and technology, and do so whenever asked and without compensation. Thus, this charter has created an entity that is unique in the world: we are both an honorific academy and advisers to the nation.

Let me fast forward to today. What started out as a single entity, the Academy of Science, is now four entities (for their size, the academies are the most complex organization that I have ever seen, so I am going to simplify a little bit). There’s the Academy of Sciences, the Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine; you can think of those three as the honorific entities. The fourth organization, the National Research Council, is the operating arm of the honorific societies that conducts the business of providing advice to the nation.

When the government asks us a question, we put together a committee of 10 to 20 people who are absolutely the best in the country, bar none, on whatever the question is. This committee will have no conflicts of interest, and any biases will be carefully balanced. They will meet, usually, from three months to three years. (Actually, we’ve done a study in one month and we have two groups that have been going on for 50 years — but three months to three years is the usual range.) They will write what I think of as a Ph.D. dissertation to answer the question: it is 200-300 pages long (the last 50 pages are references); the text is fact-based; there is no opinion; it is tightly reasoned; and it is often dry as dust. But it is the definitive answer to whatever the question was. Most of these questions bear on important public policy.

Before the events of September 11, you may have heard discussion about the possibility of new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. That was provoked by a report we released in August. September 11 has swamped a lot of news coverage, but a report we just released recently was requested by Christy Todd Whitman in the EPA — it was prompted by the President’s rescinding of the regulation requiring a reduction in arsenic in drinking water. The administration does not like the report. It says there is no simple model of how many parts per billion is OK, and as far as we can tell, no amount of arsenic is good for you.

We issue one of these reports about every working day, 200 to 250 times a year. All of this discussion is so that you to understand that the Academy is two things. It is an honorific society, and it is a trusted adviser to the nation. We are not part of the government. We are private 501(c)3 corporation, but we operate under a very special set of rules and obligations resulting from the Congressional charter and a number of special laws and executive orders.

Diversity in the Engineering Workforce

OK, now let me get to my main topic. I want to focus on what I consider the absolute requirement for diversity in the engineering workforce (I think a lot of what I am about to say applies equally to the scientific workforce, but what I know from a personal perspective is the engineering workforce). I embark on this talk with a bit of trepidation, not because of the message that I am trying to bring to you, but the nature of the reasoning I am going use. This is the sort of thing that might almost be better done with a tightly reasoned paper than a talk, but you’re going to get it anyway.

Some people talk about diversity from the perspective of equity, the perspective of fairness. I think that Americans, by and large, are very sensitive to issues of equity, to issues of fairness. But that is not the argument I want to bring forward here.

Other people promote diversity from the perspective of simple numbers. The percentage of the population that is white male is declining. Us guys are going to become a minority fairly early here in the 21st century. In order to have enough scientists and engineers in the workforce, we are going to have to attract a more diverse population. But that is not the argument I am going to give either. I think there is an even deeper reason why it is not just "nice" to have a diverse engineering workforce, but why we absolutely require one!

In order to explain why, I have to share the views I have about the nature of engineering, which, frankly, are not the typical ones. Let me give you the full argument in a nutshell to start out.

First of all, I believe engineering is a profoundly creative profession. Point two, the psychological literature says very clearly that creativity is derived from an individual’s life experiences. As a result, if we don’t have a diverse workforce, we limit the set of life experiences that an engineering team will have and, consequently, we limit the creativity that could be brought to bear.

The stereotype of engineers is not that they are creative folks — it’s pocket protectors, white socks and big glasses. But I think that that stereotype is deeply, profoundly wrong. And so to come full circle, I think we lack the diversity that we absolutely need in part at least because of this incorrect perception of the nature of engineering. We have worked ourselves into a destructive negative-feedback cycle, and we need to break that cycle.

When I use the word diversity I certainly mean what you probably thought I meant, namely a collection of folks who mirror the U.S. population. I want to call that "collective diversity." I also want to talk about "individual diversity," the breadth of life experiences that a single engineer has.

The Academy has an annual meeting every year and the President is expected to give a talk. I gave a variant of this talk at the annual meeting a couple of years ago. There were a number of reasons why I did it, not the least of which is the Academy is not the most diverse organization you have ever seen. My members do not own the problem of diversity in the engineering workforce. I was trying to get their attention, but there were a number of other reasons why I did it. Let me share just one with you.

Engineering enrollment peaked in 1983. It is down about 20 percent from that now. Graduate enrollment has continued to go up, but that is largely because of the influx of foreign students. The number of American graduate students is declining at about the same rate as the undergraduate population. Now let’s step back. Let’s do a reality check. This decline occurs in the face of the fact that starting salaries are about twice that for people with B.A. degrees.

My economist friends tell me eventually the situation will fix itself. I am not so sure. I think we need to ask ourselves why is it that, even though the salary differences are so great, our profession is not attractive to women and underrepresented minorities? Why is it that, in a society that is so dependent upon the results of engineering, and where salaries are so high, somehow engineering is a repugnant profession?

By the way, as I am sure all of you know, the proportion of the total undergraduate populations that are women or are underrepresented populations is increasing. So it’s worse than the simple numbers suggest — engineering is losing market share. There is something not right here. Whereas minority enrollment in engineering had been slowly increasing, between 1993 and 1999 African American enrollment fell 17 percent. Seventeen percent! For women, enrollment climbed up to just under 20 percent but now seems to be flat. Why is that? What is it that is wrong with what we are doing?

This is not a worldwide phenomenon. I toured Taiwan at the invitation of the Minister of Education a few years ago and 35 percent of the undergraduate population is in engineering. It is 8 percent in this country. In mainland China, 46 percent of the undergraduates are in engineering.

Engineering — A Creative Profession

Let me return to my main argument, and start with creativity. My favorite quick definition of what an engineer does is "design under constraint." What an engineer does is design — or create —solutions to human problems, but not any solution will do. You have to deal with constraints of cost, size, weight, ergonomic factors, environmental impact, reliability, safety, manufacturability, repair ability, power consumption, heat dissipation, and on and on — there is an incredibly long list of such constraints.

Finding a solution to a human problem that elegantly solves the problem and satisfies the constraints is one of the most creative activities I know of. Notice I used the word "elegant;" let me dwell on that word for a minute. All great engineering achievements — I don’t care whether it’s Post-It notes or the Golden Gate Bridge — are elegant. They’re human, they’re spare, they’re aesthetic. In Einstein’s words they are as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Let me tell you a personal story about myself that bears on this question of creativity and elegance. My father and my uncles were all engineers, so in some sense I was programmed to be one, too. But nevertheless, I can tell you the exact moment when I got hooked on engineering. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college I was working for the Teletype company in Chicago. I was a draftsman, inking on vellum. If anything could turn you off engineering, it’s inking on vellum! However, the group that I was working with was, among other things, designing an automatic telephone dialer. It was a little gadget that took a punched plastic card and, with little fingers that would "feel" where the holes were, would dial a telephone number. Well, this wasn’t the biggest problem that the group had, believe me, but these cards would occasionally bind as they went through the reader.

One day I looked up from my drafting table, looked at that dialer and saw the problem. I knew what was wrong and saw an elegant way to solve it. I mocked up the solution with some cardboard and drafting tape. It worked. We manufactured the parts for about a penny.

It was just a wonderful moment, that moment of creativity, that moment of seeing the right solution — the elegant solution. I got praise from a bunch of the older engineers. I got a bonus in my paycheck. I still think back on the fact that there were thousands of people who used that darn dialer who never had a card bind. All that was nice, but what hooked me on engineering was that creative moment when I saw the elegant solution. Looking back over my career, I’ve had the opportunity on a number of occasions to have those kinds of wonderful moments, and I can remember each one very, very well.

One of the members of my academy, Sam Florman, wrote a book in the middle of the 1970s called The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. It is a great book, and he makes the point very well. He talks about the joy of creation. It is that joy of creation that I think makes engineering an interesting profession. In the book, Sam cites an earlier psychological profile of engineers: "intelligent, energetic, unassuming people who seek interesting work." Interesting work! Not pocket protector stuff. Interesting work! Creative work!

Teaching at the University of Virginia, a strong liberal arts school, I find more in common with our friends in the fine and performing arts than we do with those in the sciences. Again Sam Florman: "the artist is our cousin, our fellow creator." Another one of my members, Bob Frosch, brought me a quotation from Ladislas Rita, who was the editor of the Codices of Leonardo DaVinci. Rita was commenting on the impact that he hoped that the Codices would have and said, "At last people will start believing me. DaVinci was an engineer who occasionally painted pictures when he was broke."

The point is that engineering is not poles apart from the creative arts. Quite the contrary, it is of the same cloth. Indeed, almost the definition of what makes one a human, as distinct from one of the other primates, is the use of tools to modify your environment. That is engineering. In many ways I think engineering is among the most humanistic of the disciplines.

Obviously there is also a dull, analytic side of engineering. There is an innate conservatism in engineering that has to do with our responsibilities to the public. It is just like the medical doctors: first do no harm. So, following our most creative moments, we immediately turn around and analyze the bejeebers out of what we have just designed. We try to find all the ways in which it can possibly fail. The more innovative, the more creative the solution you design, the more you suspect it.

I think it is that analytic side, that cautious side, which has become the stereotype of engineering. Instead of celebrating our creations, we try to find their flaws. No one seems to think that painters are dull people, but if you think about how many years Michelangelo spent lying on his back painting the Sistine Chapel, or about the brute strength that it took to put that plaster up on the ceiling from that position, it doesn’t sound so creative.

I have a good friend who is an Emmy award-winning director in Hollywood. A few years ago, he arranged for me to spend a weekend with some Hollywood filmmakers and I was just overwhelmed. They talked the whole time about how dull it was to make films. The amount of time they spend actually shooting a film is miniscule. They then spend months sitting in a darkroom editing the stuff, and apparently it is really dull. Yet that is not the public image.

There is a creative side to engineering. There is a creative side to painting. There is a creative side to filmmaking. There is a creative side to a lot of professions. And there is also a dull side to all those same professions. Somehow only the dull side is in the stereotype of engineering.

OK, so message number one, engineering is creative.

Diversity — Individual and Collective

Now talk about diversity. Let’s begin with a simple assertion: one’s creativity is bounded by one’s life experiences. The psychological literature is almost unanimous in concluding that creativity is not something that just pops out of a vacuum. Creativity is the result of making unexpected connections between things you already know. As a consequence, one’s creativity is bounded by what you know and hence by your life experiences.

I want to emphasize that individual diversity, the breadth of experience that a single individual has, is essential to good engineering. If engineers were really as dull as the stereotype, they’d be lousy engineers! Let me say that again. If engineers were really as dull as the stereotype, they’d be lousy engineers! They wouldn’t have the breadth of life experiences with which to be creative and hence with which to do good engineering.

Collective diversity, the kind that we usually mean, is just as essential for good engineering. At a very fundamental level, men, women, racial minorities and the handicapped have different life experiences. From the perspective of creative engineering, those differences are the fodder for creative, elegant engineered solutions. They are a "gene pool" for creative engineering.

To the extent we limit the gene pool for creativity, we limit the set of creative solutions that we will produce. I believe that my profession is diminished and impoverished when we use a design team that lacks diversity.

It does not take a genius to see that in a world of globalized commerce, our engineering designs must reflect the culture and taboos of an extremely diverse customer base. But it is a lot deeper than that. You can get the marketing department to tell you that women are shorter than men. You can get the marketing department to tell you that there are certain things you do not do in Muslim society. But the important point is that if you limit the set of life experiences on a design team, you limit the set of options that will be considered. The elegant solution may not be found.

There is a real economic cost to that. It is unfortunately an opportunity cost. It is a cost measured in might-have-beens, things that did not happen. Opportunity costs are very hard to measure, but they are also very real. Every time we approach a design problem with a pale male team we run the risk of not finding the elegant solution. It is hard to prove that, but I can give you some anecdotal stories.

Until very recently I still had two graduate students. I am now totally a policy wonk, a total creature of Washington – but until last spring I had two graduate students, both of whom happened to be women. One of them also happened to be Chinese. We were working on computer security and she came to me with a potential dissertation topic. I told her it was an impossible problem – it couldn’t be solved.

The problem was to run a program on a hostile computer and guarantee that the program either had not been tampered with or we would know that it had been tampered with. By a hostile computer I mean a computer owned by "the bad guys." The bad guys had complete control of the computer, they could pull a plug out of the wall, they knew what all the code was, they had all the passwords, they had anything that they might need in order to compromise the program she was trying to run. Moreover, this program had to run virtually indefinitely. So the bad guys had as much time as they wanted to do whatever they were going to do.

As I said, I told her that’s impossible. Darn it, she found an elegant solution. I don’t mean just a solution, but a truly elegant solution. I don’t honestly know whether it is because she is a woman or because she is Chinese, but her set of life experiences let her see a solution that I would never, ever have found. My Western, male, linear, left-brain would never have seen the solution. By the way, after she told me what the solution was, and I marveled at it for a while because it was so elegant, I was the one who was able to generate the proof that it worked – the nice linear, male, left-brain proof.


So let me pull the threads of creativity and diversity together. I believe that not the only but a central problem with declining enrollment in engineering, especially among women and underrepresented minorities, is our image. I can’t see any other explanation for why it is that such an interesting profession, which has had such an enormous impact on the quality of our lives, and which compensates its practitioners so extremely well, is not attractive. In fact the image is actually repulsive.

It is not a correct image, but it is the one that the public seems to have, at least in this country and most of the rest of the West. It is not the image in China, believe me. More than half of the ministerial posts in the Chinese government are occupied by engineers.

In this country, the image of engineers was in fact positive from the 19th to mid-20th centuries. During this period there were films, plays and novels in which engineers are the heroes. Walt Whitman: "singing the great achievement of today. Singing the strong light works of engineers." Robert Lewis Stevenson writing about the engineering of the transcontinental railroad: "If it be romance, if it be contrast, if it be heroism we require, what was Troy to this?"

It is not ordained that engineers must have the image of narrow, dull nerds! It is not ordained that the contributions of engineers to society be discounted. It is not ordained that we have an image that is repulsive to the diversity that we require in order to engineer well.

Let me sum up. Diversity is essential to good engineering. We have to face the fact that for some reason or other, the diverse population finds engineering repulsive, repugnant. That they do is evident in the enrollment numbers. There are many reasons for that, and I have touched on only one. You have been talking about lots of others. The lack of mentors. The lack of role models. Poor counseling. The nature of K-12 education, where teachers tend to turn students off — particularly women and minorities — of science and mathematics.

But among the list of things I think we need to get on the table is this incorrect caricature of what one’s life as an engineer is like, and what engineers contribute to our society. The stereotype does not have to be that way. It has not been that way in the past in the United States, and it is not that way in other places in the world.

There is no silver bullet that is going to fix this problem. It takes a change in attitude. That is not an easy thing to affect. But symposia like this are one of the ways that that is going to happen. And so, I cannot applaud enough what Bryn Mawr is doing. This is a problem that we must solve.

Back to Index