An Article from the January 2005 JOM-e: A Web-Only Supplement to JOM

Exploring traditional, innovative, and revolutionary issues in the minerals, metals, and materials fields.




The Symposium on Materials and Critical Societal Issues

Diran Apelian


EDITOR'S NOTE: The symposium on Materials and Critical Societal Issues was held during the Materials Science & Technology 2004 conference in New Orleans, Louisiana in September 2004. The speakers' slides from several of the presentations were collected and converted to into portable document format (PDF) files, and a video presentation of "Material Engineering Challenges for the Society of Tomorrow: Housing, Transportation, Health, and Food Delivery Needs", is available for viewing as part of this month's JOM-e.

Materials and society are closely interlinked. Historians have identified civilizations by materials such as the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Materials have always been the enabling tools allowing humankind to shape its existence on the globe.

As we have witnessed during the last three to four decades, much of our societal advancements are due to advancements in materials science and engineering (MSE). We have witnessed the re-shaping of our lives through revolutions in the telecommunications, medical, and transportation industries. Yet a close examination of the MSE research agenda in the United States in recent decades indicates that many of the resources for MSE R&D have been defense-centric rather than focused on societal needs. The driving force for R&D in the United States has been primarily the Department of Defense (Army, Navy, Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, etc.). Defense is a critical societal need; however, it is not the only need, and a balance is needed to ensure that basic human needs are being addressed.

If we believe that materials and society are interlinked, then we should see a close relation between the MSE research agenda and societal issues that affect the human condition. This, however, is not the case. The best way to analyze any strategy is to examine the budget accompanying the enterprise; the budget for the Department of Defense is huge compared to the budget of the National Science Foundation and other charitable foundations. Society faces burgeoning needs in such areas as housing, health care and health care delivery, transportation, food distribution and packaging for the masses, recycling, and alternative energy production. These are needs for which solutions exist, but will require the creativity, ingenuity, and talents of the MSE community, as well as our will to allocate resources for the society of tomorrow.

As has been posed by the United Nations’ Millennium Commission, the real question is not how many people the Earth can support, but how many people the Earth can support with what quality of life? Sustainable development is the key. Sustainable development is the level of human activity that can meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Though at present much emphasis in the MSE forum is on nanotechnology and other functional materials, the world is in dire need of materials-engineering solutions that address the basic needs of society. By looking beyond the scope of high-end technology and in addressing today’s evolved primary needs, we may uncover a deeper understanding of the future of materials engineering and the challenges of the coming era.

I was privileged to present the 2004 ASM-TMS Distinguished Lecture on Materials and Society, which focused on critical societal issues and outlined opportunities for MSE. The title of the lecture, presented during September's MS&T’04 meeting in New Orleans, was: “Material Engineering Challenges for the Society of ‘Tomorrow’: Housing, Transportation, Health, and Food Delivery Needs.” The manuscript based on the lecture will appear in Metallurgical and Materials Transactions early this year, and an audio visual presentation can be viewed on the JOM web site. After the lecture, the Public and Governmental Affairs Committee of TMS, along with the Federal Affairs Committee of ASM, organized a session on opportunities and challenges in the food, housing, medical, recycling, and transportation industries. Experts in each of these areas were invited to participate in this forum, titled Materials and Critical Societal Issues. (See the sidebar for web addresses and details on all contributing lecturers.)

We are grateful to the keynote speakers of this special session who have made their presentations available for the MSE community and have agreed to make their respective presentation slides accessible. It is my sincere hope that we can inspire the MSE community to take on an advocacy role to ensure that resources are and will be available to energize our talents to address critical issues facing society and to take a long-term view of the globe.

For more information, contact Diran Apelian, Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Metal Processing Institute, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 100 Institute Road, Metal Processing Institute, Worcester, MA 01609-2247;

Copyright held by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, 2005

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