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 are today’s big issues?
Vest: Well I think that we have very interesting tension in the world right now. We have on one hand because of the communications revolution, and the running of fiber optic cable throughout the world, and all the things that we know about . . . We have a situation where we are increasingly integrated, democratized, able to work together, everybody having the same chance. So there’s this great integration that’s coming; but at the same time there’s all this fragmentation that’s going on along cultural, and social, and political, and religious lines and so forth. And to me the sort of big thing out there today is how are we gonna resolve these two somewhat competing forces of integration fragmentation? Being a great optimist, I think integration is gonna win out, and that we’re going to have a better served population all over the world. This is certainly one big trend. Next I would turn to something I’ve mentioned several times. I am deeply worried about the energy future and the environmental future of the earth. And that’s why, to me, integration is so important. Because we cannot resolve these problems if we all break up into little groups and we don’t think and work together. I think science and technology must play a key role, but they cannot solve these issues alone. So the big issues of energy, environment, food, water, health are still the big things to me that I hope we can find national and global will to resolve. And then finally at a somewhat lower plane in a sense, we really have to figure out what globalization is all about. And I believe that we have to see this as an opportunity; that it means we have to think, work, learn, create together. It’s beginning to happen, especially in things like technology-based industries and so forth. I read that the new Boeing aircraft, the 787 has hundreds of thousands of engineered components. And they’re built in 545 different places around the world – from little tiny companies to great big places. So there’s this positive part of globalization, and I hope that we can stop seeing it as a problem and see it as an opportunity that we can use the empowerment and democratizing nature of the World Wide Web and the Internet to improve education across the board; and that we come to a better balance of how we both compete and cooperate around . . . around the world. These are the things that I try to spend some time thinking about, and perhaps acting on. Recorded on: 12/5/07