“Scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries”…

255Px-Norman Ralph Augustine

Article from Norm Augustine, IEEE Life Fellow and retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin… some fun quotes

…Scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries. They’re not seen as geeks or misfits, as they too often are in the U.S., but rather as society’s leaders and innovators. In China, eight of the top nine political posts are held by engineers. In the U.S., almost no engineers or scientists are engaged in high-level politics, and there is a virtual absence of engineers in our public policy debates.

…if American students have a negative impression – or no impression at all – of science and engineering, then they’re hardly likely to choose them as professions. Already, 70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born. Increasingly, these talented individuals are not staying in the U.S – instead, they’re returning home, where they find greater opportunities.

Here’s something else you also don’t hear that much – where are many engineers working *instead* of engineering firms like Lockheed Martin? Google, Wall Street, hedge funds, investment banks, the next face-IPO-book. At a conference we heard Dean Kamen say our “best and brightest” are working on things like Adsense and not the hard problems, we’re paraphrasing a bit – but that was the gist of it.

One of the reasons we’re in so much economic misery could be because we made too much “financial engineering” instead of “engineering engineering”. We have very talented friends who are engineers, but are not doing any engineering. They like the salary and the perks, it’s hard not to get addicted to something like that. Kamen also said “we are what we celebrate” so – that fits with Norman’s article as well.

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  1. I love the resistor.

  2. The nice thing about “financial engineering” is that it allows one to do “engineering engineering” as a hobby.

  3. yeah, all that and the fact that engineering “is too hard!!”

    This situation shall never change as long as engineering is seen as a “cost center”.

  4. Not just an engineering thing…

    Americans have always been distrustful of intellectuals. Of far greater societal value is material wealth and fame.

    Money Talks, Bullshit walks… it’s as American as Apple Pie.

    As depressing as that may be, I’m an engineer because I have to be. You see, there’s all this stuff coming out of my head all the time. I couldn’t be anything else and survive.

    I’m almost 50, and still a power-geek in my company. Most of my contemporaries have become salespeople, (yuck) middle-managers (double-yuck) or executives (blow my brains out, please). Most of those folks also make more money than I do, but here’s the kicker:

    Geeks are less likely to suffer from petty politics, are less vulnerable to management shake-ups, and best of all- I make enough money to be happy, AND I get to play with the toys all day!

    How great is that?

  5. Work your buns off getting a good engineering education while the business majors are partying at the frat house – then find yourself in a tiny cubicle with marketing and sales goons hovering over you asking, "what’s taking so long?" Nothing is worse than meeting your customer and having a management or sales person refer to you as, "My Engineer" – like you are a dog on a leash. 10-12 hour days, 6-7 day weeks too… I quit.

  6. It’s not just restricted to the US. I guess it’s pretty much every developed country. It’s certainly the case here in the UK.
    The question is why?
    Perhaps it’s because we become so used to technological advances that we expect them to appear the same way that we expect the sun to rise and set.

  7. I don’t really see a lot of evidence that “Scientists and engineers are celebrities in most countries” in assorted forums of international scope that I read. Or in the trade press, for that matter. Is this really true?

  8. (hmm. Let’s try this without the url)
    >> “*instead* of … Lockheed Martin?”
    Google is less “real engineering” than LM? What, engineers aren’t real engineers unless they build weapons? Yeah, some of the engineers at Google are working on “how to better match display ads to search terms” and other things of dubious “goodness”, but the same is clearly true at LM – no doubt there’s a core of “engineers” who spend most of their time rewording RFPs so they’ll be more likely to win contracts.

    And of course there was the “where are they now” survey my F-ing Prestigious Ivy League Alma Mater sent out some years ago. They wanted to know how I was employed now. Manager? CEO? Company Owner? Professor? Still being “just an engineer” wasn’t one of the choices. Sigh.

  9. @westw – writing online advertisement trackers is not the same as doing electrical or mechanical engineering.

  10. @adafruit – yeah, but the whole google mapping stuff is pretty much up there with GPS infrastructure, the search engine stuff up there with spy-class data mining, the EE and MechE in their datacenter design is pretty cutting edge (and they pay more attention to making it affordable than military contractors; a whole sub-class of engineering in itself), and there’s a lot of other stuff that google does, engineering and CS -wise, beyond getting the max $ per advertisement.

  11. @westw – dean kamen had said that all the ceos of engineering firms are seeing the top engineers end up at google and working on things like adsense, google’s biggest and only money maker for the company. writing online advertisement trackers is not the same as doing electrical or mechanical engineering.

  12. “Dean Kamen says” (is it online?)… I doubt his statement is accurate; Sounds like sour grapes to me. Top engineers go to google to work on cool stuff. Some percentage may end up working on ad sense, but I doubt that that is what lures people away. Most are probably leaving an oppressive large-company environment for what it widely touted as being a fun and innovative place to work. It’s not like those big engineer firms are famous for creating a wonderful and supportive environment for Engineers. Though I suppose that “sit around for 6 months doing busywork while we wait for your security clearance to come through” might have attraction for some people. I don’t see many such firms in the the assorted “top 100 companies to work for” lists. You’re young and you work at Adafruit; I don’t see you itching to go work somewhere in a 100k-employee conglomerate.

  13. @westw – dean’s point, and he’s said this at many of his talks we’ve been to, was the trend of engineers getting pulled to google, wall st. and financial engineering firms as opposed to actually working on the “hard problems” that need to be solved. from our experience this is accurate, we have friends are were talented engineers but chose to work in finance because of the salary / perks.

  14. Engineers being pulled to google, wall street, and financial engineering firms is much less of a problem than the dwindling number of people choosing to pursue science and engineering educations in the first place.

    Some people will flow towards careers that are more lucrative, others will seek more idealistic “save the world” research positions – that’s always been the case.

    It’s not that aren’t enough people who want to work on the “tough problems”, it’s that there aren’t enough resources to make these types of programs attractive or secure enough.

    Back to the point of dwindling numbers – there isn’t enough being done to stimulate young minds, and I don’t think that this has much to do with the lack of celebrity scientists and engineers. Our educational system these days focuses too much on results – all the board of education cares about are test results. Too many people are shying away from science and engineering because “there’s too much math” and “it’s too hard.”

    Boost the number of people interested in science and engineering careers, and you’ll have a bigger pool of people able to solve the tough problems once the “financial engineering” posts are saturated.

  15. @stuey – dean kamen also said, in just about every talk, “we are what we celebrate”. it’s usually a question – what is more celebrated, people who make millions from the stock market or people who make things? which is most rewarded, which is celebrated more by our society? dean also points to rock stars, reality tv show stars and sports heros – he also includes the enron-style mbas and financial engineers too.

    if we can celebrate engineering we’ll solve the problem of dwindling numbers of people choosing to pursue science and engineering educations.

    it needs to be more than just “get rich” though.

  16. Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen. Look at all the hype the "Jersey Shore" cast is receiving. Book deals, spinoff TV shows, appearances, etc. "Snooki’s" book, is #24 on the NY Times bestsellers list. And all for doing what?

    But this really isn’t anything different – when was there a time when movie stars and the such weren’t the most celebrated public figures?

    50 years from now when I’m about ready to retire, I want to look back and see that my work made a difference in society. But, there is a limited number of jobs out there where one can tackle the "hard problems," and starting a small business to attempt it solo or with a small group of people is too great a challenge. As I’m about to start job hunting soon, about the best I could hope for is a position that pays the bills and keeps me challenged and happy. A job that serves the betterment of mankind might be asking for too much.

  17. @stuey – during the space race we think it would be fair to say that astronauts were for a brief time the most celebrated public figures. the atomic age also had einstein as a household name as well as other physicists.

    it’s unfortunate you’ve resigned to “a job that serves the betterment of mankind might be asking for too much”.

    it’s not asking for too much and you can better the world just by sharing information, doing open source / open source hardware, teaching workshops, mentoring for FIRST…

    the “hard problem” isn’t just clean water, power and robotic limbs – it’s also education and inspiring.

    don’t give up 🙂

  18. I agree about the astronauts, but the Cold War was a different time and politics played a huge part in that. These days the media emphasis is on reality TV stars and the next i-gadget. The media will drop buzzwords here and there – nano this, graphene that, but for the most part they shy away from tech and science.

    I haven’t given up, and don’t plan to, but it’s still a reality that shouldn’t be ignored – few jobs exist where one could work towards scientific or engineering advancement solely for the benefit of mankind. Unless one doesn’t mind having to take a second job at the local fast food joint, that is.

    I do agree with you, though – there are ways to help push forward. Mentoring a FIRST team is something I definitely want to do, but my schedule doesn’t allow for that just yet.

    My main point is, working for Google or an investment firm isn’t too different than working anywhere else. It’s unfair to consider those types of jobs as unproductive. The fact is, most science and engineering jobs serve capitalism and not advancement just for the sake of it.

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