People in the Spotlight: an Interview with Norman R. Augustine

bridges vol. 22, July 2009 / People in the Spotlight

By Caroline Adenberger

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Norman R. Augustine

Norman R. Augustine is one of the "Fifty Great Americans" living, according to the Library of Congress and Who's Who in America . A quick Google search of his name results in more than half a million matches for the retired chairman and former CEO of the Lockheed Martin Corporation .

In addition to his successful career in corporate America, Augustine has served in key government positions under two US presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He was the assistant secretary for research and development of the Army from 1973 to 1975, and then undersecretary of the Army from 1975 to 1977.

Today, although he considers himself "retired," Augustine serves on countless governmental advisory boards. He also served for 16 years on the President¹s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In 1990, he led the Advisory  Committee on the Future of the US Space Program, and in 2005 he was assigned chairman of the National Academies commission that produced the  landmark report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing  America for a Brighter Economic Future ."

Just recently, in May 2009, he was again called by the White House to chair another high-level panel. He is currently leading the committee that is reviewing, and will determine the future of, the US Human Space Flight Plans. The panel¹s final report and its recommendations are expected at the end of August this year.

Augustine, who attended Princeton University where he graduated with a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering, magna cum laude, and a master of science in engineering, was interviewed by bridges regarding his views on and recommendations for the future of science and engineering in the United States.

bridges: You have underlined repeatedly how important it is to sow the seeds of interest in science and engineering early in childhood. Can you tell me a little bit about your own upbringing? Who planted the science seed in you?

Augustine: I actually consider myself a bad example of the points that I am trying to make with regard to early science and engineering education. I grew up in Colorado, always loved the mountains, and wanted to become a forest ranger. It was not until high school that I discovered my interest for science and mathematics. I was reasonably good at science but always very good in mathematics, kind of a natural.

It was my grandfather who was really into science. Although he had only a fourth grade education, he made models of how the planetary system works, and so on. I consider him one of those brilliant men who never received the right education to make best use of their talents. If there was anyone from whom I "inherited" my interest for science, I guess that would be him.

When I got to college, engineering seemed to be a reasonable thing to study. However, it wasn't always a clear path to me. Even at college age I was still considering forestry as an option. Eventually, I followed some study advisors who recommended aerospace engineering to me.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} bridges: K-12 education seems to be key to many of the challenges of society. What is your recommendation for improving the current US system?

Augustine: Since I've gotten more involved in the subject of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, I have became increasingly aware that the problem we have in the US system starts early on in a child's education. To give an example: One critical decision happens in 8th grade: At that point, a student basically makes the decision if she or he wants to preserve the option of becoming a scientist or engineer later in their lives. Why then? Because they decide if they will continue with their math education by choosing algebra to be part of their curriculum - or not. If they decide at that early age against it, it means that in a hierarchical structure like science education they are already falling behind. If you don't take geometry, you probably can't or won't take algebra, no trigonometry, no calculus complex variables, and so on. I believe by not taking algebra in 8th grade, students most probably cut themselves off from the sequence of education required to become a scientist or engineer.

Another observation I made is that, usually by 4th grade, kids got "turned off" by science. Which is kind of amazing, keeping in mind that little kids love things like space and dinosaurs - both of them excellent examples for science! Usually it's one thing or the other: Either a parent that tells a daughter that girls don't do math, or often it is a teacher who is assigned to teach math but doesn't actually know anything about science or math. They read the chapters before class but when a kid asks "Why is this important?" they are not able to answer that question, and kids quickly lose interest in something that is presented in a boring way out of a textbook. Personally, I believe it is much easier to teach someone who has an education in math or science how to teach kids properly, than to teach science, or math, to someone with no interest or talent for it but who has been instructed in teaching.

However, this is a difficult challenge to tackle, keeping in mind that there are more than 13,000 school districts in the US, each having its own rules for who's teaching and what is taught. What I would like to see is standardized testing throughout the country, in particular in math and sciences, with a basic curriculum prepared on a federal level. That was also one of the recommendations of the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report we prepared in 2006.

Such testing could be kept voluntary on a local level. There's no need to make it mandatory, because I believe that both parents and companies, once they realize that the local schools don't live up to national standards, will put a lot of pressure on their school boards to improve the math and science teaching, which will eventually adopt good practices from others that perform better. But it won't have the feel of "being dictated" from Washington.

Another thing I realized, simply by comparing my own education to today's state of our school system, is that once our K-12 system was good, even measured against international standards. This has changed, we all know that. Today, the US K-12 system is the 3rd highest-ranking school system in terms of costs, dollars per student. So it's not necessarily a lack of money that brought the quality of the system down.

However, there are still groups of children that outperform others. Take, as an example, many children from Asian family backgrounds. Education is seen as something very valuable and important to their families, and the parents make sure their kids study for school, for life. However, others see being the quarterback on the school football team as the most important achievement for their kids in school. Our nation as a whole has to pay the price if we do not maintain a balance.

bridges: You recently spoke about "re-engineering engineering." What do you mean by this?

Augustine: The way engineering is taught has not changed much in the last 100 years, but what is taught has changed a great deal over the last ten years alone, because of the advancement of science and engineering

Due to the advancement of the field, a student has to cover nowadays a lot more information to become a good engineer. Therefore I think engineering studies should be "re-engineered," or extended, from the current four-year programs to five- or even six-year programs at college, ending with a bachelor's degree. In my opinion, this would be necessary to maintain a certain level of quality in engineering education. Unfortunately, we currently see a movement in the US in the exact opposite direction: reducing from four to three years for the master's program, mainly because university education is so expensive. I am just wondering how more knowledge is supposed to be taught in less time, without losing its depth and quality?

bridges: According to recent studies, public investment in science and technology produces a societal rate of return of between 20 and 67 percent. Other studies have shown that somewhere between 50 and 85 percent of the growth in gross domestic product in the US in the last half century is attributable to advances in science and engineering.  
Why is it still so difficult to get the taxpayer's dollar for investments in science?

Augustine: Well, in the US only four percent of our workforce is scientists and engineers, so there is a good chance that many people have never really gotten to know a scientist or an engineer.  They have no real idea of what scientists are actually doing when they go to work. They only get their impressions from either the newspapers or Hollywood, where the scientist is usually portrayed as the geek or the madman blowing up his or her laboratory.

In this context, it is also interesting that engineers are usually seen, according to public polls, as one of the highly ethical and intelligent groups of our society, but still many do not want to be an engineer. Young people have been flocking towards business or law schools; the interest in engineering is even lower than it was 20 years ago: Enrollment has dropped by almost 20 percent over the last two decades.

So what to do about that? With young people, engineering has the reputation of being a really tough course in college. So with everyone focusing on the grades, a common recommendation - one that has even been published in The Washington Post - on how to obtain good grades in college is to skip all engineering courses! This brings me back to K-12 education. Currently, 83 percent of US high school graduates were not even qualified to enter a basic college class in engineering.  

In addition to this, there is still a widespread false belief that compared to other professions, engineers do not make as much money. This is generally not true. But again, in news and media you have the person portrayed who does finance on Wall Street, or the successful corporate lawyer, not the engineer, as being highly rewarded financially.  As a matter of fact, engineers make a very decent living.

bridges: You stress the importance of students going abroad to broaden their horizons. Many US-American students prefer to spend only a few weeks during the summer at a foreign higher education institution instead of spending a whole semester or even an entire academic year abroad, as is usual in Europe. What is the reason for this, in your opinion?

Augustine: I think our biggest disadvantage in this regard is that most people speak our language. So one main motivation for many non-native English speakers - namely to improve their language skills while studying in the US - doesn't hold true for American students. Secondly, especially in science and engineering, the sequencing of the curricula is very hierarchical. In order to follow the next semester's curriculum, the student must have attended certain classes with specific content. If the student wants to spend a semester abroad, he or she needs to make sure that exactly those classes are taught that match his or her home university curriculum, or the student would fall behind the next semester. And thirdly, many excellent universities don't want their students to leave for a whole year. All the institution gets is four years, usually, to build strong bonds both between fellow students and with the university. Donations by alumni play a very important role in university financing in America. So the university is critically interested in "bonding" as strongly as possible with its student body.  

bridges:  Any takes on how to solve the conundrum of research vs. teaching at universities?

Augustine: I think a true balance between teaching and research is very powerful.  That's one of the main reasons why our US university system has been so successful, along with the competition that takes place to enter universities. However, I feel that currently the system is a little out of balance; it has shifted too much towards research, away from teaching. Nothing too dramatic, but it could use some readjustment.

Distance learning could be one answer to this question. If you could pick between a class taught by a Nobel laureate online versus a class with the teaching assistant who is physically present with you in a class room, which option would you go with? Times have changed: In the past, what made a good university was, one, an excellent faculty, and two, the quality and size of its library. Today, you simply need a computer, no matter where you physically are, to access information. As far as knowledge is concerned, you can get almost as much from the MIT online classes as you can get from sitting physically in a lecture hall in Boston.  What is missing in the online case is face-to-face interaction with senior professors.

Another advantage of online learning would be for engineers and scientists already in the workforce: Today, one needs to constantly update his or her knowledge to stay on top of the most recent developments in one's field. I receive many letters from engineers who write me that they can't find a job, so why would we put effort into educating even more engineers? Well, by taking a closer look at those engineers, most of the knowledge and education they once received is simply outdated by now, of no use anymore in today's fast-changing professional world. By offering affordable up-to-date online courses, however, it would be much easier not to lose the edge in one's profession. .

bridges: You've been a leader in many different industries: from private industry, to the nonprofit sector, to government, to chairing many committees with focus on public policy development and government. What are the differences and challenges, and how did you prepare for them?

Augustine: No matter what industry you are working in, two things that you should always bring to a job include being willing to work hard, and to like people - if you want to successfully lead them.

But, of course, there are significant differences between the fields you just mentioned. For example, at university, you have to debate and to discuss a lot before coming to a commonly supported decision. That's just the university climate, in depth discussions and eventually conviction of your colleagues to support you. If you'd compare this, say, to an environment like the military, things are handled in a completely different way: You are expected to give orders and usually those orders are not questioned but implemented.  You are measured afterwards according to success or failure. Private industry would probably be somewhere in between, with discussion and debate first until you tell your team that this is how we will do it. And in politics or government, chances are high that there will always be half of the group that fights your decision. There are fundamental differences in all of those work environments.

How to prepare for such leadership challenges? I think there are only a very few books out there that give valuable advice on how to lead and manage people. I think team sports offer a good training opportunity for leadership in its own microcosm: If you lead the right way, you win with your team; if you make mistakes, your team will lose - but in sports the impact of failure is usually tolerable.

As for mentors, I had the privilege to work for and with some great people throughout my career, people like David Packard, General Omar Bradley, or our former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and many others whose leadership styles have influenced me strongly.

bridges: In a recent testimony at the House Science Committee, John Holdren said he put the "most knowledgeable man we have in aeronautics" in charge of reviewing the human space flight program - he meant you. This is quite a task! However, it is not a new one for you. Can you tell me a bit about the procedure of the blue ribbon panel and its goal?

Augustine: The panel I am chairing was requested by the White House and focuses on NASA. I did a similar job nineteen years ago, right after the failure of Challenger. Then, the goal was to develop a plan for NASA in the future. This panel, however, focuses strictly on human space flight and what role it should play in NASA's future. We have 90 days to work out our recommendations, and by the end of August I hope we will be able to present its findings, including a set of options for NASA and the president.

bridges: You were also the chairman of the committee that produced the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," or RAGS, report in 2006. As of today, where do you feel the report's recommendations have been followed and implemented, and which recommendations and conclusions do you think still need more attention and work?

Augustine: Most of the recommendations we came up with in RAGS are long-term recommendations, and this question will be better answered 10 to 15 years from now. Frankly, the first two years focused mainly on getting the topic of science and science education on the Washington agenda, to elevate awareness of it. I think we've accomplished this goal. Now is the time for implementing those recommendations. Last year we made a lot of progress in terms of funding for science and for education. Of course, a lot still needs to be done, for example getting more teachers involved. I do have two concerns, though, at this point: One is that, currently, the government is pouring a lot of money into science. This is basically a good thing, but science usually needs a few years to come up with results. However, now science is in a situation where it has to quickly prove that it is worth all that money. Another is that most of the money comes from the Stimulus Package. That money will be gone two years from now. If we then fall off a "funding cliff," this could be disastrous for science.

bridges: Science and Engineering have been mentioned very often recently in connection with "smart power" and as a way to build bridges between countries. What is your take on the internationalization of science?

Augustine: I think science and engineering are by nature an international endeavor. For decades, scientists have cooperated across national borders; it only becomes complicated when governments get in the way. Opposing this is when one government spends disproportionately on advancing science, I particularly mean basic research, and all other nations benefit from the results. Some citizens of the former country might ask: "Why do we have to pay for the research and everybody else takes the knowledge that comes out of it? Why are we doing this?" My answer is that basic knowledge is the property of the world, the scientific and engineering race starts only when it comes to applying research. I am convinced that we will see more and more internationalization of science in the coming years.

bridges:  How did you manage to be in top management positions while having a family, write books, travel extensively, and be on the boards of many organizations? What is the Augustine secret of time management?

Augustine: One secret sits in the room next door, my assistant Laura Ahlberg with whom I've been working for more than fifteen years; she keeps me on my schedule. I really try to not waste time. For example when I am on an airplane, I am always working.  And I do not waste time with movies or with watching TV - well, except for sports, especially football and basketball.

bridges:  Do you ever miss or regret not working as an engineer anymore but sitting in committee meetings? Do you still build things in your free time?

Augustine: I would have been very happy to spend my whole life as an aeronautical engineer. There was never a moment when I declared that I stopped being an engineer to become a manager. It was more like gradual erosion, and at some point, I was falling behind my pure engineering colleagues in terms of knowledge and engineering capabilities. Some still think that I "sold out" engineering by becoming a manager! However, since I've been retired I enjoy a new form of scientific engagement by working, for example, with the National Institutes of Health on medical issues, or I have also worked on particle physics. Many of the committees I work with deal with subjects I haven't had a chance to study or work on during my career, so this keeps me learning new things and it keeps me curious. And I love to do woodworking in my spare time, building very fancy dollhouses for my grandchildren.


The author, Caroline Adenberger, is the editor of bridges and the deputy director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C.