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Tilting at the Windmills of Public Policy:
Some Lessons Learned from an Engineering Perspective
It is indeed an honor to receive the 2012 Arthur M. Bueche Award of the National Academy of Engineering for “leadership in academe and national service to support innovative science and technology policies”, particularly since I have long regarded the National Academies as setting the gold standard for expertise, integrity, and impact in science and technology policy. In fact, much of my own policy education and experience have been shaped by leaders of the National Academy complex.
It is in this spirit of “lessons learned” from years of tilting at the windmills of public policy that I thought I would offer a few observations on this occasion. First, a bit of personal background. As a nuclear engineer, I have spent almost 50 years in the nuclear power policy wars, usually losing more battles than winning them, although the war is still not lost. As a faculty member, dean, provost, and president of a major research university, there have also been many battles concerning higher education policy. Fortunately, most of these have been won, except for my total failure in making a dent on the rampant commercialization of big-time college sports!
My activities in federal policy have been more of a mixed bag, e.g., over a decade on the National Science Board (including chair); the NRC Committee on Science, Technology, and Public Policy; the NAE Executive Council (two terms); currently chairing the Policy and Global Affairs Division of the NRC; and dozens of various studies, commissions, boards, etc. over the years, some successful, some frustrating, but all quite interesting. Perhaps of most importance to the National Academy of Engineering was my role in chairing the nomination committee that persuaded Chuck Vest to become your President! Most recently, I have enjoyed reporting to Chad Holliday in his role as chair of the National Academies committee on the future of the American research university.
So, what are the lessons learned from almost a half-century of these experiences as an engineer venturing into the thicket of public policy? Some of these lessons are obvious; others are worrisome:
Lesson 1: There are two flavors of S&T policy: The first involves “science and technology for policy”, that is, how science and technology are used to develop public policies in a broad array of domains such as national security, public health, economic competitiveness, and environmental sustainability. The second approach involves “policy for science and technology”, how policies are developed to promote beneficial scientific and technological development at the international, national, state, and local levels, such as the allocation of research funding and the regulation of research and technology development.
Lesson 2: There are two groups of participants involved in S&T policy: Those scientists and engineers serving on key advisory and executive committees who understand science and technology but not always the policy process, and those elected officials, staff, and academics who understand well the policy process but less so the scientific context for their actions. Here, part of the problem is the wide gap that usually exists between “those who know what to do but not how to get it done” and “those who know how to get things done but not what to do”!
Lesson 3: There are also many different approaches to both the substance and the objectives of science and technology policy activities. While those of us from technical backgrounds are most comfortable with scientific evidence and reasoning, policy discussions also involve other belief systems such as political pragmatism, faith-based belief, public misunderstanding, and occasionally more sinister agendas designed to thwart and confuse more rational policy efforts.
Lesson 4: Largely because of the cacophony of backgrounds, beliefs, and agendas of those involved in policy activities, there is an unpredictable, indeed, a mysterious character to policy development that requires both great patience, an ability to listen carefully, an openness to not only other points of view but quite different thought and value systems, and a tolerance for frequent failure if one is to make progress in science and technology policy development.
Lesson 5: This brings me to my last lesson learned: Engineers are different than scientists! Of course, they are quite different in perspective, in the sense that while scientists are focused on understanding nature and the way things are, engineers are involved in manipulating nature to create things that have never been. The more pragmatic approach engineers take to policy issues can be very valuable, since they tend to avoid endless debates and instead demand action. But there is also one significant weakness that engineers sometimes bring to the table in policy discussions that arises as a consequence of our current approach to engineering education.
Ironically, although engineering is one of the professions most responsible for and responsive to the profound changes in our society driven by rapidly evolving technology, its characteristics in practice, research, and education have been remarkably constant–some might even suggest stagnant–relative to other professions. The current paradigm for engineering education, e.g., an undergraduate degree in a particular engineering discipline, occasionally augmented with workplace training through internships or co-op experiences, seems increasingly suspect in an era in which the shelf life of taught knowledge has declined to a few years and the challenges faced by engineers continues to grow in complexity and diversity. To be sure, the engineering curriculum has added more scientific content as well as emphasizing engineering activities such as design and systems integration, but this has been done within a four-year undergraduate curriculum increasingly overwhelmed by both the breadth and depth of knowledge required by professional practice. In a very real sense, we are continuing to educate 21st century engineers using a 20th century curriculum in 19th century institutions.
It has long been apparent that the education for practice in knowledge-intensive professions needs to be broadened considerably if students are to have the opportunity to adapt to the rapidly changing needs of a global society. Essentially all other learned professions have long ago moved in this direction (e.g., law, medicine, business, architecture, etc.), requiring a broad liberal arts baccalaureate education as a prerequisite for professional education at the graduate level. Yet engineering educators and employers continue to resist most efforts to elevate engineering education to the post-graduate practice-based programs characterizing other learned professions such as medicine and law. In fact, in looking through the University of Michigan catalog, I find that today the only two remaining professional degrees still taught at the undergraduate level are engineering and dental hygiene!
Ironically, most engineering education occurs in comprehensive universities spanning a broad range of academic disciplines and professions characterized by unusually broad learning communities of students and faculties. Hence, we certainly have the opportunity to augment engineering education with the broader exposure to the humanities, arts, and social sciences that are absolutely essential to building both the creative skills and cultural awareness necessary to relate to a globally integrated society. By embracing a paradigm for engineering education that takes full advantage of the comprehensive nature and unusually broad intellectual span of the American university, we can create a new breed of engineer, capable of adding much higher value in a global, knowledge-driven economy.
Here, the key is to reaffirm the fundamental purposes of a college education and its foundation based upon the concept of a liberal education. Our colleague, Bill Wulf, used to quote Thomas Jefferson’s concept of a college education: “To develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.” Note how appropriate this view of the purpose of liberal education seems today as preparation for the profession of engineering. Such breadth would also produce engineers more capable of shaping public policies in the diverse and challenging environment characterizing most of today’s policy issues.
The leadership of the National Academy of Engineering has demonstrated quite convincingly how influential engineers can be in shaping public policy if equipped with the appropriate breadth of experience, interests, and understanding necessary to relate to the great diversity of viewpoints and experiences of others involved in policy development. I have had the privilege in working closely with three such leaders: Bill Wulf, whose skill and determination united the membership of the National Academy in a common vision for the future; Chuck Vest, whose great ability to relate to the broad interests and experiences of both government leaders and the public they serve has re-established engineering as a vital national priority; and Dan Mote, whose leadership in higher education, engineering, and academy matters provides strong confidence in the future of this important institution.
Once again, let me express my deep gratitude for being honored with the 2012 Arthur Bueche Award. Let me also convey with my great respect for and confidence in the unique role that the National Academy of Engineering will continue to play in addressing the challenges faced by our nation.