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June 2006

students' voice

Engineering a Communication Bridge (Part 2)

by Patrick E. Meyer

A critical communication gap exists between Americas policy-makers and engineers. Policy-makers often seem to base policy analysis, design and implementation on the advice of experts, who lack a technical or engineering degree. They may be oblivious to the fact that engineers often have evidence that contradicts the experts solicited advice. A sizeable number of historic case studies prove that when policy-makers fail to consult engineers on technical matters, the result may generate systems failures that lead to financial hardship or loss of life.

That policy-makers neglect engineers advice is curious, when one considers that at the nucleus of their combined interests. Policy-makers and engineers want the same thing. By definition of their profession, policy-makers are mandated to create change. And in a similar vein, engineers acquire a lifetime of knowledge that they use to foster change for the good of the public-at-large. However, the nature of the desired changes may differ considerably. And therein lies the difference.

According to James Winebrake, Ph.D., chair and professor of Public Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), policy-makers ultimate objectives sometimes conflict with those of engineers. Winebrake argues that when objectives conflict, you need to discuss the conflict in a constructive matter. To discuss the conflict, you need to speak the same language. And currently, it seems policy makers and engineers speak a different language.

Paul DeCotis, director of the Energy Analysis program at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, mirrors Winebrakes argument. DeCotis maintains that policy-makers and engineers do not have a communication gap per se; rather, like men and women, children and adults, or Democrats and Republicans, they have a different dialect. DeCotis explains that policy-makers and engineers each have their own set of words and symbols to code and decode messages and each might have a different listening and learning preference. He argues that to communicate efficiently, policy-makers and engineers need to speak a similar and shared language one requiring the two parties to recognize and respect that each profession presents their ideas differently. Each of these professions must make an effort to convey information in ways that the other understands.

According to George McClure, chair of IEEE-USAs Communications Committee, the differences that exist between policy-making and engineering language may be a result of the need for decision-makers to factor in non-technical factors, even when the science and engineering is clearly presented to them. McClure recognizes that unlike many engineers, policy-makers must often consider diverse factors such as timeliness, funding availability and allocation, effects on constituencies, and unintended consequences of policy decisions.

Bill Williams, IEEE-USAs legislative representative for Technology Policy Activities, echoes McClures arguments. He said that policy decisions are often not based on logical scientific outcomes, but on satisfying the conflicting objectives of competing constituencies. Williams argues that by nature, political decisions are often non-optimal and engineers often have difficulty accepting this way of thinking and what may look like an illogical outcome.

In addition to a differing concept of optimal change, engineers typically do not have access to vehicles that they can use to communicate or apply their ideas properly. Thus, the problem does not lie in a policy maker neglecting an engineers advice outright. Instead, it seems that a policy-maker may often not receive the advice in the original manner that an engineer intended. In other words, the gap allows for a flow of information, but in a manner often leading to misinformation, unintended or intended bias, and occasional propaganda.

In my next columns, I will expand this concept further, discussing the specific roles of politics, economics and engineering in formulating and implementing public policy. For now, consider this simple answer to the dilemma of this particular communication gap: train people in a manner that eliminates the gap entirely.

Ron Hira, professor of Public Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and IEEE-USAs vice-president of Career Activities, points to the gap as one of the reasons why RITs Public Policy program trains its students to recognize that policy makers and engineers speak in different languages. We are training people at RIT to try to bridge that gap, says Hira. But, the training must be conducted on both sides of the gap. Jonathan Miles, a professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., argues that engineering programs must be injected with a suitable measure of policy and social context. Training on both sides of the gap will create better foundations, and allow for building a stronger communication bridge between our nations policy-makers and engineers.


Patrick E. Meyer is IEEE-USA Todays Engineer Students Voice Editor, and a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright 2007 IEEE