A panel of distinguished scientists at Princeton joined industry visionary Norman Augustine June 2 in a lively discussion of the significance of a recently issued report on the future of U.S. competitiveness in science and technology.

Norman Augustine

“Americans tend to take for granted that we will always have a leadership position in science and technology,” warned Augustine, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences committee that produced the report. He noted that once-dominant empires of other eras – for example, Spain in the 16th century or Britain in the 19th century – were ultimately eclipsed by other powerhouses.

Augustine, who is the former chair and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corp., said the “flattening” of world economies – the equal opportunities brought on by advanced telecommunications and other technologies – threatens the standard of living in the United States. “Capital follows opportunity at the speed of light and it doesn’t care where borders are,” he said.

On one hand, said Augustine, it was a good thing that global economy is flattening, with the wage gap narrowing among countries and raising the standard of living in the developing world.

“It will make a safer, more stable world,” he said. However, he said, “in a period of tectonic change like this there will be winners and losers. We would like America to continue to be among the winners. That was the point of our work.”

The panel, part of Princeton’s annual Reunions program, was moderated by H. Vincent Poor, the newly appointed dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and organized by Richard Miles, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and head of the applied physics group at Princeton. Augustine received both his undergraduate (magna cum laude in 1957) and his master’s degree in engineering (in 1959) from Princeton.

Joining Augustine on the panel were Robert Goldston, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Robert Socolow, co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton, and William Russel, professor of chemical engineering and dean of the graduate school at Princeton.

In their remarks, the other panelists concurred with many of the recommendations in the 2005 report, especially its suggestions for strengthening K-12 education. The report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” offers the collective recommendations of 20 eminent CEOs, Nobel laureates and educators. The recommended measures for making the United States more competitive in science and technology, some of which have already been adopted by Congress and the president, range in scope from education and research to patent reform and tax policy.

Goldston called the report’s focus on K-12 education “very impressive.” He noted that that the Department of Energy, which funds the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, supports research into elementary particle physics, but was investing most of its research budget into efforts that will have a direct impact on U.S. industry.

Goldston suggested that some domestic policies may unintentionally threaten U.S. standing in the international scientific community, citing for example the difficulty after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 in obtaining visas for foreign scientists.

“It is still the case that in our field I cannot hold an international meeting in the United States,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that I will be able to get the Chinese and Russians into the United States on relatively short notice. All of the international meetings in our field are happening abroad.”

Socolow said that the National Academies report identified the U.S. energy problem as a critical reason the United States must scale up its efforts in science and engineering. “The energy problem is the Sputnik of 2006,” said Socolow, alluding to the Russian space effort of the 1950s that shocked the United States’ slumbering space ambitions into full alert.

“There is no doubt in my mind that if the recommendations proposed by Norm’s committee are adopted, the nation’s science will become stronger,” Socolow said, noting that Princeton was in a unique position become a leader in the energy field given important research being done on its campus in engine combustion, fuel cells, batteries, fusion, materials science and other areas.

Russel called the report’s recommendations essential and compelling but not sufficient.

In addition to investing in engineering and science, Russel said, the United States needs to invest in becoming better informed about other cultures. He called for “parallel efforts for education and research in the social sciences and humanities to provide the data and historical understanding to inform effective public policy.”

Russel noted that Princeton faculty contribute to many cross-disciplinary efforts that connect scientific research with policy initiatives. In particular, he mentioned an initiative on oil energy in the Middle East that involves the departments of near eastern studies, physics, engineering, and the Princeton Environmental Institute.

Socolow said that the interests of an international University like Princeton extend beyond national agendas.

“Princeton’s mission transcends the mandate of Norm’s committee,” he said. “Our job is to teach the future leaders of this country and of the whole world. We are just as delighted when an alumnus returns to his or her home country and makes a discovery there as when his or her counterpart makes a discovery here.”

Socolow suggested that cross-pollination during their educations in science and engineering contribute to greater understanding among people from different cultures. Princeton alumni – who come from every corner of the globe – “feel an allegiance to the fate of the world,” he said.

“They are able to talk productively to each other for the rest of their lives. From this common experience come warmer and more nuanced conversations. This is what we have to protect. Princeton’s mission is to be in the nation’s service and in the service of the world.”

Video recording of the event