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The President and the E-Word

When presidents call engineers by their first names, and when they don't

4 min read

The President and the E-Word

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The word least likely to be spoken by politicians was once a simple one: ”engineer.”

I was reminded of the invisibility of the E-word recently when studying the origins of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous farewell address to the nation, which he delivered 50 years ago this month on 17 January 1961.

The address is well remembered, even famous, for Eisenhower’s warning about the emergence of a ”military-industrial complex,” which might distort government policies in pursuit of profits from the development and sale of weapons. Less famous, but no less significant, was Eisenhower’s other warning: that ”public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” At the same time, Eisenhower warned that scientists could become prisoners of government funding, with contracts becoming, in his words, ”virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

President Eisenhower complained in this farewell address so vigorously about the potential perils of elite scientists ignoring the popular will—and of themselves, paradoxically, becoming tools of power—that his own science adviser, George Kistiakowsky felt compelled to clarify the president’s remarks in a later interview with Science magazine, the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

What’s gone unnoticed until now—what I discovered when reading an early copy of Eisenhower’s farewell speech that had been ignored in the Eisenhower archives until last month—was that the President’s speechwriters, Malcolm Moos and Ralph Williams, wanted Eisenhower to highlight engineers as well as scientists. In a draft of the farewell, penned one month prior to Eisenhower’s speech, Moos and Williams made two references to engineers and engineering, placing both the occupation and the activity on an equal footing with scientists and science.

Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

And yet by the time Eisenhower read his speech in a nationally televised address to the nation, the words ”engineer” and ”engineering” were absent. Instead, Eisenhower talked of research, technology, and science—but not a word about engineering.

To be sure, Eisenhower was merely reflecting a widespread mental habit, common some half-century ago, of subsuming engineering under the larger rubric of science and technology (S&T) or research and development (R&D). But by writing engineers out of the politics of science, the president diminished the public’s understanding of technological change.

The tradition of emphasizing science and scientists at the expense of engineers and engineering continued under later U.S. presidents. In 1980, for instance, under President Carter, the government launched the National Medal of Technology (with no mention of engineers, even though they created most technologies—and though among the first group of recipients, in 1985, was Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer trained at the University of California, Berkeley). In 2007, President George W. Bush updated the medal, adding ”innovation” to its name, but again refusing to utter the E-word.

Words matter, and times are changing. President Obama has embraced the E-word, putting engineers on a par with scientists in his vernacular—and giving engineering a public status that the diverse field has never held in relation to science, at least within the discourse of politics.

In November 2009, for instance, Obama declared, ”Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models.” In April of 2009, he told a gathering at Georgetown University that he’d like to see ”our best and brightest commit themselves to making things. Engineers, scientists, innovators…what we can really use is some more scientists and some more engineers who are building and making things….”

In October 2010, Obama continued his promotion of engineering as a career, and an activity. At an event called the White House Science Fair, the president went out of his way to highlight the contributions of engineers, showing a unique awareness of any modern president of the essential equality between careers in science and engineering. ”This is an interesting statistic,” Obama said, ”particularly at a time when young people are thinking about their careers: The most common educational background of CEOs in the S&P 500 companies—all right, the nation’s most successful, most powerful corporations—the most common study of CEOs is not business, it’s not finance, it’s not economics—it’s actually engineering. It’s engineering.”

To be sure, some proud engineers might argue that engineering is more important than science. But that’s not a view widely shared, and it misses the point that in the politics of technoscience, engineering has too long been ignored, or been conflated wrongly with science.

Names are important. Engineers and scientists represent parallel occupations, harder than ever to distinguish and yet distinguishable. To speak their names properly helps clarify, and illuminate, in subtle ways complex issues facing experts of all dominions. That Eisenhower edited engineers out of his famous farewell address—and that Obama today includes engineers on an equal basis with scientists—shows that the public understanding of technological change does not stand still.

This story was corrected on 12 January 2011.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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