When I go to a party alone and the host finds out I’m a lawyer I often hear: “Oh, so and so over there is a lawyer, let me introduce you to her.” My fantasy is to reply with this: “Thank you. But is there an engineer in the house? You see, the work of engineers inspires me.”

Engineers create intellectual property (IP). Sadly the kudos, social status and money too often go to others, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries. We are pondering this theme as Australia’s 2020 ideas summit approaches. We seek an escalator to the future, better still a road and a road map.

Engineers can build IP roads and road maps to the future. They deal with substantive IP. Their work can invent or create a market.

In contrast most people in business, including often we IP lawyers, work with merely late stage representational IP. We merely paste IP law decoration or packaging onto products or services, eg by making a brand a registered trade mark. This rarely creates new markets. It’s not blue ocean strategy.

Did you know that 50% of the people who work for Google are engineers? That’s about 7,500 engineers! John Doerr, a venture capital investor and Google director pointed this out at the Web 2.0 Summit in October 2007. Doerr said it while saying that to solve global warming it would be a good idea to throw engineers at the problem. Meanwhile, Google’s engineers are busy with business re-invention which beats Microsoft, Yahoo! and others.

Enough polemic. Let’s reach into some real data. The theory the data supports is that there is a connection between falling numbers of engineering graduates and the fall of many Western economies relative to the rise of China and India. This was about the only significant point I got on reading The World is Flat by U.S. journalist Thomas Friedman. The long quoted passage below is from pages 256 to 259 and speaks volumes as Friedman sticks to quoting hard data. The numbers are remarkable.

I would value hearing from readers as to whether the position is similar or different in Australia.

Every two years the National Science Board supervises the collection of a very broad set of data trends in science and technology in technology in the United States, which it publishes as Science and Engineering Indicators. In preparing Indicators 2004, the NSB said, “We have observed a troubling decline in the number of US citizens who are training to become scientists and engineers, whereas the number of jobs requiring science and engineering (S&E) training continues to grow.” …

The NSB report found that the number of American eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds who receive science degrees have fallen to seventeenth in the world, whereas we ranked third three decades ago. It said that of the 2.8 million first university degrees (what we call bachelor’s degrees) in science and engineering granted worldwide in 2003, 1.2 million were earned by Asian students in Asian universities, 830,000 were granted in Europe, and 400,000 in the United States. In engineering specifically, universities in Asian countries now produce eight times as many bachelor’s degrees as the United States.

Moreover, “the proportional emphasis on science and engineering is greater in other nations,” noted Shirley Ann Jackson. Science and engineering degrees now represent 60% of all bachelor’s degrees earned in China, 33% in South Korea, and 41% in Taiwan. By contrast, the percentage of those taking a bachelor’s degree in science and engineering in the United States remains at roughly 31%. Factoring out science degrees, the number of Americans who graduate with just engineering degrees is 5%, as compared to 25% in Russia and 46% in China, according to a 2004 report by Trilogy Publications, which represents the national US engineering professional associations. …

Nevertheless, America’s science and engineering labour force grew at a rate well above that of America’s production of science and engineering degrees, because a large number of foreign-born S&E graduates migrated to the United States.

Social attitudes speak volumes about the status of engineers. Quite obviously they don’t have a high social standing in Anglo-Saxon countries.

Contrast that to Russia, India, China or even Iran where since the mid-20th century engineers have had a higher social and professional standing than most others. They were among the core of the intelligentsia in those countries. Remember that the founders of Google emanate from the Russian educational system. As for Iran, even if you were not an engineer, in the 20th century as a sign of respect a white collar person would be often introduced as “Mr Engineer” just like we might routinely say “Sir” or “Madam” in formal conversation.

"disciplina_hadrian_thracia"Engineering is a great discipline. That concept recalls Roman mythology in which Disciplina was a minor deity and the Latin noun disciplina, according to Wikipedia, referred to education and training, self-control and determination, knowledge in a field of study, and an orderly way of life. All roads led to Rome, and engineers built them.

If you’re thinking of engineering something and want a complementary conversation with an IP lawyer who’ll listen, try me on (+612) 9269 0229.

Reference: Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Globalized World in the 21st Century (Penguin/Allen Lane, London, 2005).