CRIPPLING EVENTS, RIPPLING EFFECTS
Lately, it seems that many of the stories making the front pages have drawn attention to developments in technical matters that affect all of us, including questions about nuclear energy, national energy policies, and disruptions in local supply chains, all of which are taking place against the backdrop of a prolonged global economic recovery.
For example, reductions in Japan's capacity to supply needed materials for manufacturing, caused by last month’s earthquake and tsunami, has had a global ripple effect, impacting many industries including semiconductors, automotive and aircraft technology. Overall, the disruptions to infrastructure can be crippling, as we have seen with previous catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and others.
Any major catastrophe will have secondary effects on markets worldwide and will demonstrate just how fragile all economies can be. We see a cycle that goes from interruptions in resource recovery and the manufacturing supply chain to sudden inflationary pressures. Inflation leads to increases in consumer costs in basics such as food and fuel, shakes consumer confidence, and heightens concerns about unemployment.
On the other hand, as many have pointed out, we have in fact learned something about resilience. Just as failures in the Gulf of Mexico haven’t stopped the need to drill for oil, the disaster in Japan shouldn't stop us from engaging in a reasoned and informed discussion on nuclear power. From every earthquake, every flood and every other disaster, we learn how to build smarter and better.
ASME’s goals remain exceptionally well focused: Keep our eyes on the goal of technically sound, accessible energy, on expanding engineering’s impact in the global arena, and continuing to invest in the future of the workforce.
The imperative to stay competitive and become more innovative is one that engineers must convey to our policy makers, our engineering communities and the general public.
In the recent update by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences of its report, Gathering Storm Revisited, one of the facts cited was that U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the government devotes to energy R&D (about $2 billion more, in 2010, or close to 30 percent more). Yet the funding to support the development of new technologies that can compete with fossil fuels remains highly contested. In contrast, ASME recently released several policy statements supporting renewal of funding to achieve the goals set in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.
In the aftermath of Japan’s tragic events, there are new challenges in public discourse about technology. These discussions, however, are essential if we are to achieve our long-term vision for energy and workforce policies.
Even when faced with volatile consumer confidence, we must continue our efforts to spur innovation, so we can generate new technologies and new jobs. We must invest in our engineering programs and in the teachers of the science, technology, engineering and math courses who inspire and prepare our next generation. That’s how we can build an innovative and safer future.
—Robert T. Simmons, ASME President