In This Issue
Fall Bridge Issue on Engineering, Technology, and the Future of Work
September 15, 2015 Volume 45 Issue 3

An Interview with. . .US Representative Paul D. Tonko

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

RON LATANISION (RML): We appreciate your making time to speak with us. We are especially pleased to have a sitting member of Congress talk with us, and one who is a trained engineer.

REP. PAUL D. TONKO (PDT): Thank you. It is rather interesting because you see the complexities of not only our society but the international economy. You understand the kind of analytical approaches that need to be taken. I think engineers should be front and center at the public policy table.

RML: I am very much of the same mind. We wanted to ask you, first, how did you come to work toward a degree in mechanical and industrial engineering? Second, how did that lead you to your interest and entry into public life?

PDT: People talk about that as two separate components, but for me it is very logical and very much represented through the global race on space. President John F. Kennedy, after a defeat for this nation—landing on our backside with the Sputnik moment—got us all developing and igniting this passionate resolve to go forward and win the global race on space. Everywhere you went you heard it talked about—in the classroom, at the playground, at church, at home; grandparents, parents, teachers, community, all talking about it. It was the global race on space. It was the Sputnik moment: ‘We lost. We have got to win this now.’

That impacted me in two very prominent ways: politics being noble, with a small n—having the boldness to change things and direct things and fuel things—and engineering as a matter of conquering space.

So when people ask me, ‘How did you, an engineer, find yourself in politics?’—it happened under the singular dynamic of the global race on space. It was the passionate appeal, and again the passionate resolve in response to that appeal, of the nation in a multipartisan way, to win this race of “US versus USSR.”

Today, we have a president tossing the same challenge our way, but this time it is not the United States versus another competitor nation, it is the US versus dozens of countries that are going to pass us by if we fail to resolve to provide the resources to make this happen. Those resources are physical, capital, and human infrastructure, and the human infrastructure is lacking. We need to produce far more engineers. As a society we are woefully underproducing the engineers we need to win this race of innovation.

RML: To follow that up for a moment, of your colleagues in the House and the Senate, how many members are you aware of that have educational backgrounds in either science or engineering?

PDT: I would say there are probably 10 in the two houses. I am guessing.

RML: I thought it was on that order of magnitude. When you consider the total population of 535 members, that is a pretty small representation, isn’t it?

PDT: Yes. I am reminded of Steinmetz, who was very involved in his local community, I believe on the school board.1 When he was quizzed about it, he said the first people in line to run for public office should be engineers because they are analytical, they are problem solvers, and I think it is natural for them.

RML: How do we encourage more engineers and scientists to do that?

PDT: I think we remind them that engineering is what transforms us. Engineering is what embraces the pioneer spirit. Engineering is what unlocks the untold possibilities. When you put it into that kind of romance not only are they great problem solvers, but the catalysts—the catalytic ingredient that creates that swirl, that transformation opportunity. So it is important to have us there because these are complex issues that require an analytical approach—it needs to be based in science and in fact.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): What opportunities do you get to talk with engineers and particularly engineering students, since you are talking about human capital?

PDT: I am lucky because I keep in contact with my alma mater, Clarkson University in upstate New York. I also have a great collection of engineer professionals and engineering students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and at other campuses—in the State University of New York (SUNY) system, at the community colleges, at Union College. I am fortunate because we have the infrastructure that either employs or educates the engineering community. That is helpful.

Going into the high schools, I see commitments in my local region that are encouraging. The region is one of the five hottest hubs in the country of clean energy innovation and high-tech job growth, and because of that I think we have become a very transitional area where we are attaching to our high-tech partners space for students. We have got them learning right at their centers of work. We have got high schoolers who are developing their intellect. We’ve got a high-tech campus, a green tech campus—we’re dubbed the “Tech Valley.”

The tone that has been established and the working practical experiences are now allowing for this opportunity. I go to a number of student robotics competitions, see summer camps based on robotics. That inspires me and challenges me to get out there and find the resources, develop the public policy as we have developed our ETEA legislation.2

It is a defining moment when you see how aggressively the need has grown for STEM-educated professionals in the past decade alone—and how that demand continues to grow. 

CHF: With your involvement in appropriations, of course, you can directly support students and technical programs at the university level. Do you also play a sort of cross-pollinating role between students and industry?

PDT: I’ve developed good working relationships with the private sector. We are constantly doing tours at these facilities. We have a small business roundtable. A lot of the innovative startups are small and medium-size businesses. We deal with industries as large as GE, with its international renewable center, and we have worked with them on the efficiency of wind turbines or natural gas–fed turbines. All of that dialogue is a concept or a bit of reality through which you can introduce students.

We are always encouraging a match in student mentoring so that someone can express the joy of working as an engineer. If we don’t see the profession on display we leave it to imagination—and perhaps imagination doesn’t take us there. It’s important for students to see the exhilarating quality of being an engineer, for them to come in contact with those active verbs like invent, discover, explore, and design.

RML: In your district you have, as you pointed out, a convergence of not only educational institutions but also technology-based companies such as General Electric.

PDT: You know, it is very difficult but in addition to connecting businesses with students, we are trying to connect parents with students. My area includes the eastern mouth of the Erie Canal, which, as we all know, became a spark that ignited industrial revolution in a westward movement—the Barge Canal/Erie Canal produced that early era of manufacturing.

Now we need engineers in today’s innovation economy, which means advanced manufacturing. If we are to harness the potential of an American manufacturing sector that continues to evolve and expand, we must strengthen the relationships between teachers, parents, students, and the business community—and promote the reality that today’s manufacturers aren’t the same as even ten years ago. It is advanced and rising quickly and in totally different settings. I see manufacturing in my district where you can eat off the floors and where it is the intellectual capacity of the engineer that is winning the race to not necessarily do it cheaper but do it smarter.

RML: Right. I continue to hear from friends at companies like General Electric and Boeing, for example—air frame manufacturers on the one hand and engine manufacturers on the other—that the calculus that involves the retirement of the current generation of engineers and the pool of the engineers in our education system leaves them very concerned about where they are going to find the next high-temperature oxidation expert or the next aluminum metallurgy expert. Do you also hear that?

PDT: Absolutely. I get concerned when I look at the statistics. As legislators, the decisions that I anticipate are going to be difficult. I did not assume coming into this job that life is easy. You have difficult moments, difficult decisions, and boldness that needs to be embraced. When the stats speak to you, as leaders we should be ahead of the curve. Whether that’s the education curve, the manufacturing curve, the innovation curve, whatever it is, we should be ahead of the curve.

Investing, as I recommend we do through the ETEA, is of absolutely critical importance. If we need to modify and intensify and lift what we are doing today, then let us do it. And if we have science and language and math but not engineering as part of the standards, let us upgrade. Let’s make it very clear. Let’s not leave it to interpretation. Let’s be very defined in our statute that we want standards developed for engineering, that we want staff training, routine upgrading for professional skills for the classroom. Make those resources available, have reviews done with research.

Are we reaching students the way we need to to encourage them to consider engineering? Even if you don’t follow that career path, developing analytical skills and problem-solving teams in the classrooms teach the students an awful lot.

RML: All that leads me to ask about the direction of university research in the United States. Maybe the corollary would be direction of funding from the traditional agencies that fund research at universities.

PDT: I have to tell you it is very distressing around here to witness how clueless we are at times as a leadership body that should be, again, embracing leadership. We don’t enhance areas like the energy-efficiency, renewable energy component of the Department of Energy (DOE), we don’t invest in the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E).

When I first came here ARPA-E had been established but never funded. So the fight in 2010 with the America COMPETES Act was to fund ARPA-E. Now we have a track record with a concept, whereas before we had only the concept. Why would you not grow ARPA-E? That is how we as a nation maintain our leadership quality, with the intellectual capacity of our citizens.

If we are going to invest in the intellect, stretch the educational development of our young minds—if we are going to cultivate engineers—then we need to make heavy investments in research to unleash all sorts of opportunities, as we had in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

From the days of finding a polio vaccine to all that we are doing now for energy innovation—transformation and efficiency and conservation—all of that should be encouraged through sound public sector investment in research, R&D, and partnering with the private sector, where risk may be perceived as too great. The public sector can share some of that risk, and should be there where the private sector won’t go. There have been plenty of cases in US history of that.

I don’t want to hear, ‘Well, some research investment has failed.’ By its very definition, by its very nature, in the research area failure is the down payment to success. Without failure you would never realize a new product line or the best product line. So I don’t want to hear failure as the rationale to not invest in research.

Back to the space race of the 1960s that ignited my interest. It wasn’t just landing a person on the moon, it wasn’t Neal Armstrong staking the American flag into the surface. It was unleashing in every sector of our economy growth and high tech and new opportunity and hope. Hope. This is our down payment for hope.

RML: Do you think that Congress is of a mind to act on some of the things you have just described?

PDT: I am concerned that there are far too many members that are not. The tough thing in a legislative arena is that you broad-brush. But I want people to understand that there are those of us in Congress who believe in investment—investment in research, investment in education, investment in higher education, investment in innovation, investment in the cultivation of engineers.

Those investments are understood with very much validation and justification, a lucrative dividend follows. For those who see it as spending that needs to be cut, I think they are not seeing it for what it is. It is an order of investment that is essential for a world-leading nation to keep its status.

RML: I agree with your sense as well, Paul, of a public-private partnership in making all of this happen. If companies like Boeing and GE were to express their concerns about hiring the kinds of people they need going forward, given this calculus of retirement and hiring, I think that is an important statement. But I don’t see that publicly. I hear it from friends and colleagues. I would be much happier if some of our major corporations were to speak out very deliberately on this subject.

PDT: I think the messaging for these concepts needs to come from outside as well as from within. From within, oftentimes we are already prelabeled with our stripes. An independent audience can grow our economy, grow the dignity of having a job. Hearing from those groups, I agree, is absolutely essential. Let’s face it, their beginnings were with people of invention and innovation.

I represent “the electric city,” Schenectady, New York: headquarters of GE, home to Steinmetz and Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. These names are significant for having enhanced people’s quality of life—by providing services and products that have been lifesaving, that have increased our comfort or directly impacted our quality of life in other ways. These are major, major outcomes that came with investment.

This whole order of thinking where government is too big, government is the problem, government needs to be cut—tell that to other nations where there are sound public-private partnerships and where they are committing government resources matched by private sector support, to be as strong as they can be in this global race.

To me it should not be a question of if, it should be about how great an investment, how meaningful and effective an investment, and how we are going to bulk up so that we can win this race. Because whoever wins the global race on clean energy innovation will be the kingpin of the international economy.

RML: Do you have contact with the president’s science advisor John Holdren on any of these issues?

PDT: We have contact with the appropriate agencies and with the White House team and work routinely with folks. I think they know that we are driven by the investments that we need to make. For instance, the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) initiative that the president fostered, we are championing that effort and want to make sure it stays in budgets. This type of initiative goes after innovative concepts that require sound minds and sound training in development to go forward.

If we don’t create some sort of cultivating arena that takes our intellectual capacity and puts it to work for our nation and others in the world, then we are failing in our efforts here.

RML: Paul, I know we have a limited amount of time given your busy schedule. Is there any message you would like to give the members of the National Academy of Engineering?

PDT: I have a couple of messages. Get robust in your advocacy. Know that you are tremendously needed. If there is any group that should be loud and outspoken and forceful, it is the engineers. We have got highway infrastructure, transportation infrastructure, clean drinking water infrastructure, water sewer infrastructure, to name a few that are not being addressed. Engineers need to speak to these issues not only forcefully but technically and with great information at their fingertips.

My really great friend, Representative John Lewis from the state of Georgia, who was severely impacted and injured on the Pettus Bridge in Selma 50 years ago, led a walk over the bridge again this year for a 50th anniversary celebration. He has reminded me in our “brother Paul/brother John” working relationship, ‘Brother Paul, make trouble, good trouble.’ It is time for the engineers to make good trouble, to stir the pot. Talk about growing the amount of engineers we require, about using those engineers in public policy format and using their rationale to grow the resource commitment that we need to make it as a nation.

We need sound engineering savvy, we need energy policy transformation, infrastructure improvement, research levels that are enhanced so that we can go forth and be that sense of hope. Engineers equal hope to the people of this country, working their academic prowess to the public policy arena and through the innovation arena.

RML: That is a wonderful message. We will certainly transmit that to our members.

CHF: And Paul, a couple of publications will be of particular interest to you if you have not already seen them. The Academy recently released Making Value for America, about the new landscape for manufacturing and what is needed. If you have not seen it, I will pop that in the mail to you. You will also be interested to see the summer issue of the Bridge, which is specifically devoted to energy issues; at least one or two of the articles address the role of the federal government in energy. And the fall issue of the Bridge will be devoted to the changing status of manufacturing.

PDT: Wonderful. I have to run. I enjoyed the half hour we had to share.


1 Charles Proteus Steinmetz (April 9, 1865–October 26, 1923) was a German-born American mathematician and electrical engineer who served as president of the Board of Education of Schenectady.

 2 Rep. Tonko introduced the Educating Tomorrow’s Engineers Act in February 2015.