WPI President Helps Inaugurate Scientific Talks with China

Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations

Dr. Parrish makes his presentation, "Preparing Scientists and Engineers for the 21st Century," in Beijing.
BEIJING, CHINA - In the world of science and technology, national borders and state secrets are blurring and breaking down. When so much knowledge is available at the click of a mouse over the Internet, how do scientists deal with sensitive research? Moreover, when the goal is to solve global problems such as AIDS or environmental issues, can we afford to keep what we know to ourselves?

These were the kinds of questions posed at the first Sino-U.S. Joint Science Policy Seminar in Beijing at the end of October. Among the invited speakers at this first in a decade-long series of talks was Worcester Polytechnic Institute President Edward Alton Parrish. He was among an elite group of 12 government, scientific and engineering leaders from the United States, with a like number from China, who attended. Within that group, seven were asked to make a presentation, including Parrish, "apparently because of WPI's global program, my several previous interactions in China and my international activities within the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)," he explained.

The Beijing seminar, "Linking the Production, Dissemination and Application of Research," was developed by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) to strengthen and deepen the science-and-technology relationship between the two countries.

Dr. Parrish chats with Dr. Richard Atkinson, President of the University of California, during a break. The sign in the background reads "China-US Policy Seminar."
Despite such hopes, it was a discussion that almost never happened. Parrish was on a plane midair between Boston and Beijing when his office was notified the meeting might be canceled.

James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., chairman of the House Committee on Science, withdrew from the roster when allegations of Chinese espionage in the United States came to light. Feelings ran high, and it fell to President Clinton to make the final determination on the conference. However, Clinton left the decision to the NSF, which decided to proceed. After all, the problem underscored the conference goal - to find common ground on technological policy among international scientists and engineers.

Parrish rejoiced in the decision to go ahead.

"This was the first in a series of seminars on science and engineering policy issues and research and development," he said. "Having this seminar canceled seemed an unnecessary irritant to that process. The Chinese will develop sophisticated technology independent of whether we cooperate with them or not."

The world is changing, and it is clear WPI will play a role in the success of the future.

"In the next five years, we will be in a 'knowledge economy,'" Parrish said. "The new capital is knowledge. It's not skilled labor; it's not equipment; it's not location. We will need the best scientists and engineers from all over the world joining hands to make progress. To shut the door on China, with the largest population in the world, makes no sense. Besides, it's to our advantage to have these kinds of relationships. If we are collaborating, we know what other countries are doing."

In fact, Parrish noted, this collaboration may lead to peace, not war.

"Wars in the future are going to be dependent on technology," he said. "The better that technology gets, and the more people are aware of it, the more incentive there will be not to use it. In addition, these country-to-country partnerships give us a common international context for universities to do research and for companies to do business in a global marketplace. That's to everybody's advantage."

Dr. Parrish and J. Thomas Ratchford converse as they walk near the Friendship Hotel in Beijing.
Other U.S. participants in the Beijing conference included Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California, and John McTague, retired vice president of technology at Ford Motor Co. The second event in the series, tentatively scheduled for spring 2000 in Washington, D.C., will be a forum for Chinese scientists to discuss their accomplishments and plans.

Three main topics were addressed in this first meeting:

  • Science and engineering indicators (the statistics that show progress).
  • The changing character of industrial research and development and the role of university research.
  • Human resources and educational issues.

Parrish addressed the last topic in a talk titled "Preparing Scientists and Engineers for the 21st Century," in which he used WPI as a model for how a technological university can help solve these problems.

The presentation was well received. A vice president of Tsinghua University, China's most prestigious university, asked Parrish to repeat his talk the following week at a technological educational conference. However, other travel plans precluded a return trip to Beijing.

"Tsinghua University is, however, interested in striking up some kind of partnership with WPI," Parrish reported. "I also was approached by a dean from another university who was interested in finding out more about our management department. So I'm sure that there will be some additional contacts."

Now the task is to determine what the next step will be. "It looks like unless something happens politically to make the NSF change directions, this series will continue for the decade as planned," Parrish said. "I'm sure the NSF does not want to cut it off. There are a lot of ways we can deal with espionage, but canceling the high-level, 50,000-foot view of the world is not the way to do it."

Read Dr. Parrish's talk: