To unlock its full potential and fulfill its obligation to serve society at the highest levels, the engineering community needs to answer the “call to service” and step into the public policy arena. In this arena, priorities and funding are set and critical courses of action charted to address many of the engineering challenges of the 21st century. Engineering Change Lab – USA’s (ECL) virtual summit, Engineering & Public Policy Leadership, held on June 20, 2023, explored this imperative, outlined the wide variety of options for engagement, and highlighted the personal satisfaction and sense of purpose that can come with contributing to society through public policy.
George Sparks, President & CEO of the Denver Museum of Science & Nature, kicked off the summit by emphasizing the challenge and opportunity of engagement in public policy. According to Sparks, with the passage of such Federal programs as Operation Warp Speed, the Infrastructure Act, the Chips Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, the U.S. is entering a new era of industrial policy. In this era, there is a critical need for engineers, scientists, and other technical experts to work alongside and guide legislators, administrators, and bureaucrats in setting goals, making rules, and implementing policies and programs.
In 2018, Sparks led the museum to establish the Institute of Science and Policy to help society solve our most complex state, national, and global challenges. Founded on the principle that science should be the foundation for good policy, the Institute acts as a “convenor and honest broker.” It’s programs bring together people with diverse viewpoints in an atmosphere of trust to address critical issues of energy, water, and public health through collective action guided by sound public policy.
Next, Michael Molnar, Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Office of Advanced Manufacturing, moderated a panel discussion of NIST Fellows, who reflected on their personal decisions to answer the “call to service” to engage in public policy as a way of making a real difference. These fellows, who ranged from early-career professionals to retired executives, highlighted several key observations based on their experience in the public policy arena:
- Technology is at the heart of nearly every major public policy issue that we face. Engineers have a natural connection to, and vision of the future with respect to technology that can guide other disciplines involved in policy development.
- Developing good policy is only the start; implementation of policy is also critical.
- Interest in social issues and past policy failures (e.g., the Flint water crisis) can be primary motivators to get involved.
- In addition to technical expertise, other key skills include systems engineering, convening and facilitating stakeholders, and the ability to understand complex topics and communicate about those issues in simple language.
- Those working in federal agencies are devoted public servants with high capabilities, open to new ideas and willing to collaborate and work well across agencies. There is a rich ecosystem of passionate people, inside and outside government engaged in the public policy arena.
- Engagement in public policy is a meaningful way to contribute, have a real impact and move important programs forward.
In the first group exercise of the summit, participants explored crossing the threshold to service in public policy. The exercise utilized polarity thinking, comparing the upsides and downsides of remaining in a technical problem solver role to adopting a role in public policy. Key takeaways from the discussion are captured below.
- The engineering community brings credibility to the public policy arena that can translate into trust from the public. This can generate a virtuous cycle of engagement and trust building between engineers and the public.
- Trust, influence, and recognition will come with consistent involvement.
- Public policy is inherently about problem-solving that involves a much bigger community and larger scale challenges.
- The engineering community can bring an ethical and principled approach that is often missing in policy discussions.
- Engagement in public policy requires a mindset shift from the stereotypical black-and-white engineer’s mindset.
- Involvement needs to start with college education, motivating students to engage in policy issues and building skills to do this successfully.
The second half of the summit featured three leaders from the engineering community who offered their perspectives on the public policy journey. Deanna Matthews, Associate Department Head for Undergraduate Affairs, Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, offered the academic perspective. The mission of Carnegie Mellon’s Engineering and Public Policy program is to “create engineers with a difference.” The program offers undergraduates from all engineering disciplines the opportunity to add a public policy focus to their basic degree. Focus areas of masters and PhD offerings include climate and environment, energy systems, risk analysis, technology innovation, and information and communication technology. The undergraduate program emphasizes both quantitative methods and social sciences as important learning related to public policy.
Jimmy Hague, Policy Advisor for Fresh Water Priorities at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), provided the perspective of a nonprofit engaged in public policy related to conservation issues. He described TNC’s approach as science-based, non-partisan, on-the-ground, and at all levels of government. He offered that behind-the-scenes work with agency staff can be just as important as lobbying Congress. He also cautioned to be prepared for the long haul, that policy development at the federal level can be a years-long process.
Patricia Gomez, Director of Energy and Deputy Chief of Resilience for Miami-Dade County, described her policy role in the public sector. She focuses on policy implementation related to energy / climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation and resilience. She described the new skills that she has developed, particularly communication skills that allow her to work effectively with different stakeholders and translate complex issues in simple terms. Patricia emphasized that policy implementation can be successful even in different political environments through maintaining adaptable and flexible approaches.
In the second group exercise of the summit, participants looked ten years into the future and envisioned how each of them had answered to call to service to engage in the public policy arena. A common driver of these envisioned futures was the call to contribute to making communities better.
The technical knowledge and experience of the engineering community are critical to effective public policy. To have a greater impact in the public policy arena, we will need to move from a sense of disempowerment to empowerment; from believing that we only implement the policies and ideas of others to active engagement in defining the right problems in the right way. We will need to apply this empowerment in new ways, with great respect and empathy for the impacts of public policy on people, on communities, and on the environment. By doing so, we will experience a heightened sense of purpose in the work of the engineering community.
Look for a detailed white paper documenting the summit soon. Provocateur presentations are available at this link.
A recording of the summit is available at this link.