Charles Vest
President, NAE; Fmr. President of MIT

Helming the National Academy of Engineering

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Finding the most accomplished engineers, but doing so in a more global context.

Charles Vest

Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush. 


Question: What do you do?

Vest: Well I will answer the question with the caveat that I’ve been on the job all of four months now. And so I’m trying to understand it at greater depths and see how it needs to be shaped going forward. But the basics are these. There are four national . . . three national academies here in the U.S. – National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Collectively we operate something called the National Research Council. Now in a nutshell the academies are chartered by the U.S. Congress to be literally the advisors to the nation in science, engineering and medicine. So the sort of core activities of the National Academy of Engineering are threefold. One, it’s simply an honorific organization. Through an almost byzantine but very detailed process, we try to select and elect as a membership the most accomplished engineers in the country from both academia, and industry and elsewhere. So honorific. Then we also administer a number of major prizes, particularly the Draper prize which is sort of the highest prize that the private sector gives for engineering accomplishment. That’s gone to people who invented the jet engine, World Wide Web and so forth. And then the bulk of our work, however, is in producing reports on specific topics generally requested by the Congress; sometimes by the administration; sometimes by ourselves on technological issues facing the country either very specific or sometimes much broader and try to provide that advice to how we keep a sound technological leadership in the U.S. So day-to-day is really a lot like day-to-day was as a university president if you take away the students and you take away the sometimes heavy emotional pressures that one feels as a university president. So I’m delighted to say that I’m always around bright people, because we always have groups coming in and out to do studies – leaders from industry, leaders from university worrying about generally large important problems and trying to help shepherd that process along to get the right people to do the right studies, and then to help promulgate what we find is sort of what constitutes the day-to-day business at the NAE. And I have to tell you, at least so far, I’m also traveling a lot. I was on the road 36 days in the last two months giving speeches, helping to run meetings, giving awards, all these kind of things. So it’s not a slow retirement . . . retirement job. I accepted this honor because I feel that the future of this nation and indeed the world is increasingly dependent on having sound technological leadership, and strong science and engineering and medicine undergirding our public policy, what our industries are doing. And I’m particularly interested in the opportunities to help people think about what the evolving global context of all this is, and what our opportunities are, particularly for the next generation of young people. Recorded on: 12/5/07