Perspective: Engineering and Politics
By Dean Joseph J. Helble
As the political season heats up, it is clearer than ever that engineering and public policy — engineering and politics — shouldn’t be viewed as separate worlds. Engineering is critical not just for creating technical solutions, but for informing public debate and shaping public policy.
Right now, however, technical talent on Capitol Hill is sparse. Only 4% of Senators and 7% of the members of the House of Representatives have college degrees in science or engineering. Congress regularly debates bills on highly complex, technology-related issues — including energy policy, fuel economy standards, climate change, asbestos use, cybercrime, food safety, spyware, underground mines, and embryonic stem cell research — but few legislators bring technical expertise to their deliberations.
Why does this happen? Unfortunately, students who are drawn to technology often have little interest in politics. And for those who do, their training, which at most institutions remains narrowly focused on solving technical problems, does not show them that engineering or science can be relevant to public policy.
At Dartmouth we are trying to change that. Thayer School and the Public Policy Program at the Rockefeller Center have developed a new modified major: Engineering and Public Policy. Students will study the core of the engineering curriculum as well as the core policymaking curriculum. It is a program for the aspiring public servant who realizes it will be useful to understand technology — and for the engineer who realizes that public policy affects which technologies are funded and chosen for development and adoption.
Energy technology is a case in point.
Speakers at our recent Dartmouth Energy Symposium outlined an array of alternative energy technologies to reduce our national dependence on oil — including solar thermal technology, fuel cells, systems to capture waste heat, cellulosic ethanol processes, compressed air energy storage, and development of improved building materials. Scientists, investors, and venture capitalists alike noted the nation’s need for government funding of early-stage research and development of promising technologies, and therein lies much of the challenge. As one speaker pointed out, politicians are more comfortable supporting the general idea of energy independence than assessing the specifics of how to get there.
This is why engineers need to be involved. We need to equip our students with the technological and public policy skills to make substantive contributions to this discussion. All of us with technical backgrounds should do our part to shape the decisions we entrust to Congress. Our collective future depends on it.
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