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"Engineers, Federal Fellows, and the Four Principles of Engineering Public Policy"

Remarks at Roy V. Wright Public Policy Lecture

Good evening.

I'm sincerely honored to be asked to deliver the Roy V. Wright Lecture this year. As we know, this award was established in 1949 in honor of Wright, who was president of the society in 1931. He believed in the role of engineers as important contributors to our nation. The Wright spirit is about good citizenship and public policy. Over 80 years later, the role of engineers in public policy is more important now than ever before. 

Past recipients have been important political leaders—senators, congressmen, governors. I'm Mike Molnar, and I'm just an engineer. I think President Wright would smile at that. His message is that everyone can and should be involved.  

I'm proud to be a mechanical engineer and active volunteer with ASME for 33 years. I'm also proud to be joined here tonight by my wonderful wife, Karen. Karen and I are celebrating our 19th anniversary, and she was very impressed that I remembered the date this year without any hints. Tonight, we are all here to celebrate the 41st anniversary of the ASME Federal Fellows Program.  

What do these three anniversaries have in common? Each is important, and each is made strong because of commitments. I believe that if something is important, you need to contribute and have sustained commitment. I also hold an altruistic view—that by giving to something, you will always get more back in return. This is true for a strong marriage. True for a professional society like ASME. And also true for engineering public policy. 

The theme of my talk tonight is simple: ASME Matters. Manufacturing policy matters. And Federal Fellows matter. They all matter to sound engineering public policy. 

Does that sound obvious? Many would disagree with this view. Some business leaders and business schools today still view the sole role of industry as maximizing profits for shareholders. The government would take care of schools and roads.  

Other businesses take a broader view, a partnering view. One which I have learned. Many progressive companies today become engaged with their communities. To be a sustainable company, great people are needed, and people want to live in good communities. Whatever the problem, being involved is the civic principle. 

Collaboration is not always easy, but it is highly effective in getting big things done. So, too, is engineering public policy and the reason why ASME Federal Fellows are so critically important. 

Public policy is a political process, requiring public input, deliberation and debate. Moreover, today, many—if not most—policy issues involve technology. While Washington, D.C., is blessed with having many smart and dedicated lawyers, scientists and engineers are a considerably rarer breed. Public policy input hinges on technically sound and unbiased information. Development of policies involving complicated technologies and commercial ecosystems especially requires subject matter experts from industry and academia. And finally, there is a critical role of federal fellows in development of initiatives, proposals and legislation. 

Today, both engineering- and technology-focused public policy is a systems challenge best done by teams. What is needed are subject matter experts in Congress and in the Executive Branch—Federal Fellows play a most important role.  

We also need mechanisms for broad input from industry and academia. This is where professional societies and trade organizations play a key role, such as the Engineering Public Policy Forum tomorrow, led by ASME. 

Now to my main message tonight: I learned three important principles in public policy as an ASME Federal Fellow more than a dozen years ago. Public policy in technology matters require: 

  1. critically accurate assessment of the challenge, 
  2. broad public engagement of stakeholders in the plan, and 
  3. sound bipartisan Congressional legislation and/or Administration initiatives. 

Working on manufacturing, I found these three principles are not always enough. Tonight, I want to proffer the fourth principle. Engineers are important to each of these, but especially this fourth principle. 

Before the story, if you are not involved in manufacturing, then some background is needed... 

Manufacturing is critically important to our country. U.S. manufacturing generates $1.8 trillion annually. If the U.S. manufacturing sector were a country, it would have the tenth largest economy in the world. Manufacturing has the highest economic multiplier effect and pays 19 percent higher wages than service jobs on average. Additionally, the key strategic importance lies in the special role with the U.S. innovation ecosystem. Manufacturing plays an outsized role here, as it employs 64 percent of scientists and engineers, represents 66 percent of private- sector R&D, and generates 70 percent of U.S. patents to U.S. entities. It has also been a remarkably stable direct workforce of 18 million over some 70 years, generating a huge positive trade balance, particularly in advanced products. 

So, here is my personal federal fellow story. What brought me to the White House over a dozen years ago. 

September 11, 2001, occurred, and I wanted to volunteer in some way for government service. What could a mid-career manufacturing leader possibly do? I was a bit busy—we just had our second child, I had a full time job, I was also serving as an ASME regional vice president, and I was also in a full-time MBA program. My ASME term and MBA program both ended in the summer of 2002. 

Due to 9/11 there was a relatively mild recession, but there was a deep recession for the U.S. manufacturing sector. The country was losing jobs and closing factories at an accelerating rate, while swinging to an unprecedented trade deficit in advanced products. It was decided that the Department of Commerce would lead the Administration's Manufacturing Initiative. Accordingly, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—or OSTP—for the first time, needed expertise in manufacturing, and they reached out for an experienced federal fellow for help. 

In hearing about the need, I applied for the ASME Federal Fellows program and was competitively selected as the first OSTP fellow for manufacturing. I worked with Commerce Secretary Don Evans, and especially with Commerce Undersecretary for Technology Phil Bond. Commerce did several regional roundtables to collect input, then developed the report "Manufacturing in America." I was involved in the interagency development and then responsible for implementing the advanced manufacturing and R&D elements.  

Here is the 2004 report. It is a good report, with 26 recommendations in six areas. This created the Assistant Secretary for Manufacturing, the first National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) interagency team on advanced manufacturing, an executive order on manufacturing as a priority, and catalyzed the formation of

Following this work, the recession ended, U.S. manufacturing seemed to stabilize, and the national attention to manufacturing ended. Yet, manufacturing was not stable and continued to hemorrhage jobs—some 6 million, representing a third of the entire direct workforce. In hindsight, more should have been done. What did I learn from this?  

First, the completion of a report, or passage of a bill, is only the start. Public policy requires sustained support. Initiatives need sound execution and successful implementation. Adjustments or course corrections are needed and for this, the ongoing involvement of stakeholders is needed. The needs of industry and academia, at least for manufacturing, are not well known or understood in Washington. 

Moving forward to 2010, the administration decided something needed to be done. One difference is that the technology and economic underpinnings were studied, and there was broad consensus that a structural public policy issue existed. Another difference was in the view to more broadly engage stakeholders from the private sector. To engage the best minds of industry and academia, it was decided to leverage the highest possible advisory body—the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST.  

These most senior leaders from industry and academia studied the issue and released the landmark 2011 report "Ensuring American Leadership in Advanced Manufacturing." This made the case that advanced manufacturing plays a special role in the U.S. innovation ecosystem, and the nation needs a strong innovation policy. It called for a coordinated "whole of government" effort. This was the beginning of an interagency approach. 

In 2011, NIST chose to create the first-ever position of "chief manufacturing officer," and former OSTP colleagues reached out to me to consider this service. After discussing it with Karen, I accepted, resigned from my industry career, and moved the whole family permanently here. In 2012, I was asked to form the interagency Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office (AMNPO) and begin the design of what would become the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. 

What followed: 

The 2012 PCAST Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) report, with five public workshops, 16 recommendations, including NNMI and the portal

  • AMNPO created, organized five public workshops engaging 1,200 experts in the design of NNMI; 
  • The 2013 NSTC report on the NNMI Framework Design—It is a rare NSTC report to have more than a half dozen committee members listed as authors. This report lists 845 authors: every federal agency leader, congressional leader, state and local leader, industry leader, academic leader, and association and organization leader who wanted to be identified as an NNMI design contributor; 
  • The 2014 PCAST AMP 2 report, with five public workshops and 11 recommendations; 
  • And in December 2014, Congress authorized NNMI with the "Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act," with 118 bipartisan sponsors. 

With NNMI now authorized, we are working to build a network of institutes, run by industry-led consortia, to create that new space for U.S. industry and academia to partner. The goal is to de-risk and rapidly scale-up the technologies discovered here, so that U.S. manufacturers can make it here. Right now, there are five institutes established with four more institutes under formation.  

To these nine there are seven more in the President's FY16 budget request, with the goal of a network of 45 institutes in 10 years. As called for by PCAST, the objective is to create a new space for industry and academia to collaborate, with the goal of nothing less than a renaissance for U.S. manufacturing.  

The lesson: sustained focus and deep involvement by academia and industry are essential for sound, balanced policies for U.S. manufacturing. 

Adding this as the fourth engineering public policy principle I've learned. The three, again, are: 

  1. Critically accurate assessment of the challenge; 
  2. Broad public engagement of stakeholders in the plan; 
  3. Sound bipartisan Congressional legislation and/or Administration initiatives; 


  1. Sustained execution and support, involving subject matter experts from industry and academia. 

Let me close now with an analogy

Engineering today is a team sport, often a systems challenge that needs a cross-functional team.

  • The design process needs input from all stakeholders. 
  • Getting the design right is a milestone. Celebrate the design review. 
  • What really matters is whether the design gets built, the production ramps up, the employees are paid, the customers are served and the enterprise flourishes. 

Similarly, public policy today is a team sport, often a systems challenge that needs a cross-functional team.  

  • The policy process needs input from all stakeholders; 
  • Getting the policy right is a milestone. Celebrate the committee reports, and the passage of legislation;
  • What really matters is whether the initiatives supporting the policy are implemented, the programs are effective, the market failures limiting stakeholders are addressed, and the private sector is unleashed. Industry and academia are partnered and new manufacturing hubs are established. 

The renaissance of U.S. manufacturing is just too important not to get right. We can only get it right if all stakeholders are involved. To this, federal fellows are a critical ingredient to this recipe for success.

Thank you!

Created May 11, 2015, Updated December 29, 2016