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September 2006

students' voice

Engineering a Communication Bridge (Part 3)

By Patrick E. Meyer

In the previous installment of this four-part series, I explained the basic concept of the "communication gap" that some experts claim exists between America's engineers and policy-makers. I presented the arguments of multiple authorities in various fields and provided the general conclusion that there actually is not a communication gap per se, but actually a lack of common language. In other words, a flow of information between engineers and policy-makers exists, but in many cases the information flows from engineers in "engineer-speak" and is received by policy-makers who are accustomed only to "political-speak." This absence of a common lexicon can result in differing interpretations.

In many cases, advice of engineers can be highly technical and thus unclear to some policy-makers. As a result, policy-makers may instead find comfort in the clear-cut analysis of economists. Economists present information in dollars and cents, a form of presentation that often rings true with policy-makers who must adhere to budgetary constraints and answer to money-conscious constituents.

In May 2006, I received a Masters of Science in Science, Technology, and Public Policy from the Rochester Institute of Technology. During my studies, I perceived that policy-makers are too often influenced by near-sighted economics; that relatively inexpensive "quick fixes" are efficient in the short-run and thus have become the unfortunate ad hoc standard for decision making. Wondering if this perception was acknowledged among professionals, earlier this year I interviewed a group of experts for their opinions on whether or not decision making has become ruled by quick-fixes. I received a wide variety of opinionated answers.

Mark Lively, a utility engineer who provides consulting services on economic issues affecting electric and gas utilities, explained that all investments and operational decisions require cost analysis. But, as Lively asserts, quick-fixes are not the only options considered by most engineers; consultants like himself must consider the entire range of costs over the potential life of the asset. Lively suggests that whereas engineers consider life-cycle costs, policy-makers may define certain costs as unworthy inclusions in overall cost evaluations, leaving them more prone to quick-fix answers.

Jonathan Miles, Ph.D., a mechanical engineer and professor at James Madison University, says that "there are cases in which decisions are made where cost-effectiveness outweighs proper engineering design and construction." Miles' opinion is mirrored by James Winebrake, Ph.D., chair of the department of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who agrees that "many bad decisions are based on quick-fixes without thinking about long term costs." Winebrake points to the classic example of President Eisenhower announcing to the country that electricity from nuclear energy would be "too cheap to meter." Eisenhower made this declaration, promoting a technological quick-fix to the nation's energy problems, but in doing so ignored the long term costs and environmental impacts associated with nuclear energy. These unforeseen costs and impacts ultimately led to the detriment of the industry in recent decades.

It is true that politics plays an increasingly important role in engineering disciplines. What is often overlooked, however, is the fact that engineering plays an increasingly important role in politics and decision making.

Unfortunately, very few national decision-makers have the background to understand those technical issues without the help of others. Out of the hundreds of congressional positions, only a handful are held by engineers —  Representatives Joe Barton of Texas and Clifford Stearns of Florida are two. The ranks of engineers serving in political positions in government are also thin, including NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (aerospace engineer), National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement (metallurgical engineer), and President Bush's former Chief of Staff Andrew Card (civil engineer).

Although some engineers have crossed the line into the political realm, why is it that the majority of engineers choose not to become involved in politics and decision making? A number of specific theories are offered, including that engineers are too busy or too introverted to get involved. Like many Americans, they may believe politics is unseemly or don't believe their involvement can make a difference. As Apple CEO Stephen Jobs put it in a February 1996 Wired interview, engineers "are not attracted to the political process. And why would someone be?"

Franz Foltz, Ph.D., a physicist by education and now professor of public policy and science, technology, and society at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says, "Public policy deals with the distribution of scarce resources. Decision makers must try to weigh costs to benefits/risk. People fund positive actions and not negative ones. As long as resources are scarce, there will always be pressure to maximize outputs. The result will always be risk taking and possible disasters." Many times, the "people" who are in the position to fund research, projects or policies are government decision makers. Thus, even with the few engineers in congressional positions, the "people" funding the projects are likely to be decision makers who, again, lean towards the economically sound quick-fix solution.

We live in a world where, according to Paul DeCotis, director of the Energy Analysis program at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, "communication ‘barriers' or problems know no limit — they are rampant throughout all organizations, households or social groups." In this context, engineering, science, technology, government and decision making are not exceptions. Although most engineers likely want to see their fellow engineers have increased influence in decision making, it is of utmost importance that we remember that, as DeCotis points out, "decision making is affected by many factors, including engineering, economics, social concerns, equity, fairness, greed, and so on, all of which can reasonably be expected to influence policy decision making in a capitalist democracy." The arguments of engineers are not simply overlooked because they are swept up in the political process. Instead, engineers' arguments are just a few words among a plethora of stances, opinions, facts, and points of view that pummel the nation's decision makers every day.

The number of technically trained people in Washington working in government positions or as representatives of special interest groups whose job it is to deliver technology-related policy advice to decision makers is increasing. Because much of that advice comes from parties representing competing policy interests, decision-makers must often wrestle with information that is contradictory and confusing.

In recent years, an increased engineering presence in Washington has helped to fuel the development of a common language between policy-makers and engineers. However, considerably greater actions can and should be taken to ensure engineers' views are weighted properly with those of economists or other experts, and that engineers have a fair chance at making their opinions count. The fourth and concluding installment in this series will discuss specific actions that can be taken to ensure engineers' voices are heard among the often-deafening roar of the many contributors to the nation's decision making process.




Patrick E. Meyer is IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Students' Voice Editor, and a doctoral student at the University of Delaware. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2007 IEEE