Editor’s note: Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. He is a serial entrepreneur, including the founding of Cary-based Relativity Technologies. A portion of this article is reprinted with permission of BusinessWeek Online.

DURHAM, N.C. – In October 2006, I was invited to give a talk at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C.. I was surprised that they even knew who I was and considered this a HUGE honor.

The keynote speech was by the president of the academy of engineering, Charles Vest (ex-president of MIT). I nearly fell off my seat when on his second slide, Dr. Vest started talking about Vivek Wadhwa of Duke. He had 4 slides dedicated to refuting on the graduation rates of engineers in India and China. I couldn’t believe that 5 minutes of his 20 minute talk were about his disagreement with me…a tech entrepreneur taking a “sabbatical” in academia. I’ve never felt so special! J

Not to be outdone, I spent an equal amount of time in my speech refuting his message that a key to global competitiveness is graduating more engineers and scientists. My view was that the problem wasn’t supply – it was demand. If there were shortages, engineering salaries would be increasing, and they were not. Since investment banking jobs were more lucrative (and sexy), the financial services industry was attracting top engineering talent ().

A few weeks later, I took intense fire via email from Intel Chairman, Craig Barrett, who had worked with Dr. Vest on a report called “Gathering Above the Rising Storm”. This highlights how America is losing its competitive edge and advocates increasing engineering graduation rates to match India and China. Anyone who knows Dr. Barrett knows that arguing with him is futile. So I politely took his blows.

Since then, . And in a breakfast meeting with Dr. Vest two weeks ago, he told me about a project which he had launched to define the “grand challenges” facing the U.S. (and the rest of the world). We agreed that science and engineering (S&E) are critical to long-term U.S. competitiveness and solving key problems are critical to mankind’s survival. The problem is that American children don’t seem to be interested in S&E. We also agreed the debate about supply and demand is largely irrelevant — the real problem is one of marketing – these fields aren’t considered to be cool and children don’t believe that engineers can make a real impact on society. His ideas about creating the excitement seemed dead on. I told him that I believed so much in what he was doing that I would do whatever I could to support this.

The article below tells the rest of the story. My conclusion is that President Obama needs to grab the mantle from here. With the new emphasis on alternative energies and the environment, the funding and demand will be there. Now we need to add the excitement.

(Note: The following is an excerpt from Vivek’s BusinessWeek Online article.)

It could have been a Final Four basketball game for Duke. The university’s students clamored for tickets, professors canceled classes, and organizers fretted over getting twice as many applicants as spaces. But this was a different kind of March Madness. The furor was over an engineering conference held at Duke on Mar. 2-3. Despite a snowstorm, 700 students from around North Carolina slogged through the snow to attend a conference they hoped would set them on the path to changing the world.

The Grand Challenges Summit was a conference to discuss the most important challenges facing society and how engineering and science can help solve them. Debates have raged for decades about the lack of interest in science and engineering among U.S. students. After witnessing the students’ reaction to this summit and their determination to attend in the face of Mother Nature’s best efforts to dissuade them, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the reason why we struggle to entice undergraduates into engineering is lack of effective motivation, rather than lack of interest. Ask a student to be an engineer and they might blink at you. Ask them to better the world with science and they jump up and down.

Last year, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) convened a panel of technology and engineering luminaries. The group included a wide range of acknowledged innovators from the private sector and academia including Google founder Larry Page, noted inventor Dean Kamen, the inventor of the first synthesizer Ray Kurzweil, and Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Mario Molina from the University of California, San Diego. The goal of the panel was to create a slate of Grand Challenges for scientists and engineers.

The challenges ranged from the obvious (providing clean water, engineering better medicines) to the slightly wacky but still fascinating (reverse engineering the human brain). All the challenges were the stuff science geeks drool over, and the publicity around the challenges created a huge buzz in the science community.

Encouraging Students’ Passion for Science

After seeing the excitement the Grand Challenges created, NAE President Chuck Vest brought together a number of prominent engineering deans from around the country to discuss how to turn the challenges into a more organized effort. Vest observed that many of the great engineering and technological challenges of today require not only brilliant engineering but also an understanding of social sciences, social policy, business, even the humanities and arts. For example, creating a product to cheaply purify water must also take into account cultural mores, distribution logistics, and the existing water sales mechanisms and supply infrastructure in developing countries in order to be successful.

For the full article, .