Saturday, November 20, 2010

UNESCO To Consider International Engineering Program

At its recent meeting, UNESCO's Executive Board directed the Secretariat to propose a new International Engineering Program in conjunction with its draft Program and Budget for the period 2012-2013. The program should "strengthen research, education and capacity-building in the field of engineering." The Board had considered a report by the Director General on the feasibility of creating such a program.

At one time UNESCO had a significant program in the Engineering Sciences but that program had been reduced in scope and impact due to reductions in its resources. The new International Engineering Program would presumably restore resources devoted to engineering.

UNESCO recently published its World Engineering Report.

Engineers play a vital role in developing and managing the infrastructure of modern life, including:
  • roads, railroads, airports and ports
  • potable water and sanitation systems
  • dams, canals, and irrigation systems
  • electric power systems
  • computer and information systems
Industrial engineers play a key role in planning and managing factory work. Biomedical engineers develop and maintain the complex equipment on which modern medicine depends. Aeronautical engineers design and maintain our fleets of aircraft. Mechanical and electrical engineers design the machines on which our modern society depends.

There is an acute need for more and better engineers in developing nations. Indeed, there is a major need for research and development of new engineering technologies to meet the needs of poor people, many of whom live in regions for which engineering solutions developed in rich nations in temperate climatic zones serve only poorly. Building engineering capacity will involve not only training new engineers and continuing education for all engineers and research and development, but also support for the the profession such as strengthening professional engineering societies and improving the dissemination of engineering professional information and tools.

In the United States, according to the most recent information from the National Science Foundation, there were some 1.5 million engineers employed in the country, compared to 2.9 million in computer and mathematical sciences, 258 thousand employed in the life sciences, 267 thousand in the physical sciences, and 291 thousand in the social sciences. While the U.S. practice is not representative of the global proportion of professionals in science and engineering fields, it does indicate that the engineering professions play a huge role in modern society.

It should be noted that other organizations in the United Nations system are concerned with specific fields of engineering. For example, WHO is concerned with biomedical engineering, FAO with agricultural engineering, and UNIDO with industrial engineering and other engineering professions concerned with industrial design and industrial equipment. Indeed, in its programs focusing on water, UNESCO already has programmatic activities dealing with engineering in water systems. However, there is no UN agency other than UNESCO with the charter to deal with engineering education and the general support for the engineering profession.

I would therefore suggest that UNESCO recognize that the importance of engineering is at least comparable to that of the natural sciences and the social and human sciences and draft a new International Engineering Program consonant with that responsibility. It is hard to see how that could be accomplished without either significant cuts in the resources devoted to other programs or an increase in the UNESCO resources.

One might expect that a program for the next biennium might be conceptualized as a modest step toward building a major program and as a step by which UNESCO could demonstrate its competence in building engineering capacity.

John Daly
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.

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