Our Greatest Grand Challenge
To address society’s urgent problems, engineers need to step up to the political plate.
Opinion by Adedeji Badiru
The 2018 midterm elections once again raised the question of why there are so few engineers in politics. Politics—particularly Congress—is in dire need of systems thinking and problem solving. True, engineers are in scarce supply, and the shortage is a worrisome trend for employers in government as well as business and industry. With their pick of job options, it comes as little surprise that engineers place politics way down on their list of aspirations.
Despite a broad diversity of professions among U.S. elected officeholders, engineers remain woefully underrepresented. Engineers Week is celebrated each year on George Washington’s birthday, but he was one of just three engineers to serve as president. (Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter were the other two.) And despite the influx of four newly elected Democrats with engineering backgrounds to the House of Representatives—Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania; Elaine Luria of Virginia; Sean Casten of Illinois; and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina—engineers still represent a sliver of that body. Indeed, of the 541 members serving in Congress last year, the Congressional Research Service tallied just eight engineers—seven in the House and one in the Senate, or 1.5 percent. This stands in stark contrast to China, where many top political posts are held by engineers.
Members of Congress have been lawyers, actors, songwriters, comedians, journalists, authors, dentists, doctors, nurses, welders, entrepreneurs, and business executives. So where are the engineers? Perhaps it’s cultural. Engineers seek finite solutions predicated on data-driven analyses, which are not exactly terms of endearment in Congress. Politicians are experts in arguing why something that appears to be red is actually blue. Engineers would have none of that! Thus, they are apt to find poor footing on the floor of the House or Senate when the debates grow heated. So engineers stay away in droves, to the detriment of building a critical mass.
As we fervently advocate for the education of future engineers, it is critical to impress upon engineering educators and engineering students the importance of increasing engineering’s visibility in the policies and politics that influence society and address its challenges. In recent years, engineers have been steeped in the “Grand Challenges for Engineering” issued by the National Academy of Engineering in 2008. The 14 challenges range from making solar energy economical to providing energy from fusion, reverse engineering the brain, securing cyberspace, providing access to clean water, personalizing learning, restoring and improving urban infrastructure, preventing nuclear attack, and advancing health informatics and medicines. Nowhere does that daunting list mention that engineers ought to pay attention to the policies and politics that can facilitate or hinder engineering solutions to those grand challenges. If the executive, judicial, and legislative branches are where the pertinent enabling policies are crafted, engineers must strive to be at the table. [Editor’s note: See a series of case studies, supported by the Teague Foundation, that explore the benefits of closer ties between liberal arts and engineering curricula: https://www.asee.org/engineering-enhanced-liberal-education-project/case-studies]
Engineering students don’t know what they don’t know. It is the job of engineering educators to instill the awareness and desire to serve on policymaking platforms at the local and national levels. Recognizing the urgent need to address global societal issues from a technical standpoint, engineers should lead, or at least initiate, efforts now to get engineers elected or appointed to policymaking positions as a strategic path for engineers in the future. Engineers can leverage their education in seeking data-driven, sustainable solutions while mitigating the murky areas of political horse-trading and decision-making. The proven engineering design process can serve politics well, from problem identification and definition to selecting the best solution and monitoring its implementation. The result would be more effective representation and greater accountability. QED.
Adedeji Badiru is a professor of systems engineering and dean of the Graduate School of Engineering and Management at the Air Force Institute of Technology. He is a longtime member of ASEE.