Journal Archive > 2002 > June

House testimony

Engineering dean lobbies Washington for more NSF funding

Despite a dramatic increase in the country's demand for engineers, interest in the field has dropped significantly at colleges and universities nationwide. Testifying on Capitol Hill in May, Ioannis N. Miaoulis, dean of the School of Engineering at Tufts, called for an influx of funds to refuel students' interest in engineering by supporting more engineering and science programs. Miaoulis cited such programs' importance to the long-term growth and security of the United States.

"We have a severe shortage of engineers," Miaoulis told the National Journal's Technology Daily. "We import engineers from abroad, and a lot of our new technologies that we rely on for security reasons are developed abroad. I don't think that's a safe path."

Engineering Dean Ioannis N. Miaoulis © Mark Morelli

Miaoulis testified before the House Science Subcommittee on Research, advocating support for two bills that would provide more than $700 million in additional funding to the National Science Foundation (NSF). Crafted with bipartisan support, the legislation is designed to attract more students to engineering and science fields.

In a vote taken shortly after Miaoulis' testimony and that of several other experts, the House subcommittee authorized a 15 percent increase in NSF funding for the new federal fiscal year, which begins October 1.

Tufts ties to NSF
"The NSF, through its numerous investments in research and education, has made this nation stronger, better educated," Miaoulis told the subcommittee. "At Tufts University, we are particularly proud of NSF's contributions since the founder of NSF, Dr. Vannevar Bush, was one of our own engineering graduates. His assistant in starting the National Science Foundation, Prof. Lloyd Trefethen, was actually my undergraduate adviser and mentor while I was an undergraduate at Tufts."

NSF-funded programs at Tufts have been successful in attracting larger, more diverse groups of students to enroll in the university's engineering programs. "It is difficult to attract engineering students, yet it is more challenging to retain them," Miaoulis told the House committee. "It is customary for an engineering school to lose 30 to 50 percent of its undergraduate population during the undergraduate years. At Tufts, we have reverse both of these trends, and I strongly believe that without the support we received from NSF, we would not have been able to succeed."

Grants awarded to Tufts in the early 1990s helped the university create 60 engineering courses that offer students critical engineering skills, including acoustics, fluid dynamics and digital image processing.

"We used to have a net loss of 15 percent of our undergraduates," Miaoulis said. "With this NSF-funded curriculum, we managed to become the only engineering school in the country where more students transfer into engineering from liberal arts programs than from engineering to liberal arts. We actually see an increase in our class size most years."

Investing in science is critical
The number of women enrolled in Tufts School of Engineering has increased by 26 percent, making the university home to one of the most successful enrollment programs for women engineers in the country.

But increased enrollment isn't the only benefit to increased funds for research. "A major contributor of the growth of the U.S. economy during the second part of the last century was federal investment in basic scientific research," Miaoulis said. "Investments in the areas of physical science and engineering have resulted in the best science and technology program in the world."

Discoveries in the hard sciences—such as engineering and physics—have helped spur major advances in human health and the biomedical sciences.

"A significant component of the research that culminated in the development of the CAT scan was conducted in our physics department at Tufts" under the late Prof. Allan MacLeod Cormack, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in developing the computerized axial tomography scan, Miaoulis told the committee. "Clearly, computer science, mathematics, physics and engineering are essential to the advancement of human health and provide the foundation for new discoveries in the biomedical sciences."

Similarly, work currently under way in Tufts School of Engineering may lead to advancements in everything from airport security to cancer screenings. Research in nanotechnology at Tufts "may lead to new means of developing sensors and actuators to be used in homeland security as pathogen detectors or to discover lifesaving drugs," Miaoulis said. "Other engineering faculty at Tufts are working on NSF-funded projects that will revolutionize mammography techniques by using optical spectroscopy for imaging human tissue."

With more funds available to support engineering research and curriculum development, the Tufts dean said the nation's scientists will be better able to achieve important scientific breakthroughs.

"The proposed legislation will enable NSF to fund more great ideas at a higher funding level and duration," he said. "The nation's creative minds should spend more time focusing on their research and less time trying to get funding."