Conservative Liberal

FDR would have been a Republican today.

Engineers – into politics!

Back in the 1930s there was a slogan in the Stalin’s Soviet Union: "Komsomol members!  Man your airplanes!"  So now, similarly to that one, I decided to issue my own: "Engineers – into politics!"  Admittedly, this call is not the one I would myself heed.  Nor would many of my fellow engineers be likely to do it.  Because, although there many problems that need to be solved, and engineers are usually good at solving problems, there is much more to politics than just problem solving:

SAN FRANCISCO — Engineers elsewhere apply their talents to the political sphere, but those in the United States, unfortunately, don’t–and there are no signs the situation will change anytime soon. The overwhelming majority of American engineers choose industry and business, not government or policy, as their rightful place, even as their counterparts around the globe see no conflict between politics and their profession.

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Engineers in China are acknowledged as key players in the country’s rapid economic rise. They’re overrepresented in the Chinese Politburo and among government ministers, said William Wulf, president emeritus of the National Academy of Engineering and a professor at the University of Virginia.

Their role on the political stage is a reason for the country’s success. "That’s a real part of why China is doing so well," Wulf said. Lawyers predominate in American government, and while their solutions often address the immediate problems, they don’t give much thought to future implications, he said.

The engineering mindset tends to focus on the long term. When you build a bridge that will be there for 100 years, you have to think about its impact, and its ability to absorb future traffic growth and adapt to new kinds of transport. "A lot of what we’re seeing in China’s astounding growth is that sort of long-term thinking," Wulf said.

There was a time when engineers played a greater role in U.S. public policy. NASA program directors–technocrats in the broadest sense–worked to get funding for the U.S. space program at its inception in the late 1950s. But even that effort doesn’t match the role engineers are playing in other countries, according to Wulf.

"Maybe they were program directors in NASA, but they weren’t in Congress, and you wouldn’t have heard them opining about the economy," he said. If not politically inclined, then what are engineers? In their own words, they’re logical, detail oriented and methodical. The profession attracts those who don’t mind working on their own and who are confident–maybe overconfident–about their own abilities, said Vivek Wadhwa, a Harvard University fellow and professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

"Common traits of engineers are that they tend to be introverts, they tend to be arrogant, they tend to be proud. That’s the stereotypical engineer," said Wadhwa, a former tech entrepreneur who started his career as a programmer.

Their primary characteristics are a love of detail and the ability to work independently, he said. "You start your career writing code or doing other types of design work. For the first few years, you’re really on your own. It’s not a social profession," Wadhwa said.

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In Islamic and developing countries, engineering and medicine are the proven paths to success. Subjects such as social science, psychology or business are considered luxuries, Sahimi said. Drastically different social conditions mean the equation isn’t the same here. The United States has a large middle class, a democratic society and a developed economy.

"In the U.S., people who study engineering have the same characteristics [as engineers in the developing world], but they may not go into politics precisely because of the conditions the U.S. has," Sahimi said.

The view of the profession as a respected path toward success is shared by U.S. immigrants, according to Natalie Forood, a software manager at Ruckus Wireless in Silicon Valley. Forood, who emigrated from Ukraine at age seven, is the daughter and niece of engineers.

Having seen successful women engineers in Ukraine, and with encouragement to do well in math from her EE father, Forood felt confident she could grasp technical concepts. It wasn’t easy, though. Engineers need perseverance, she said. "An important trait in order to succeed in this field is to be persistent, and to work really hard at understanding concepts," she said.

A logical mind and the ability to think ahead are critical. It’s like a chess game, where you have to figure out what you’re going to do based on what your opponent is going to do, Forood said. The abilities to cope with pressure, to focus and to work hard are common personality traits in the profession, she added.

Forood disputed a common criticism made of engineers–that they think in black-and-white and narrowly focus on one solution. On the contrary, engineers collaborate, she said. "What I’ve observed is that people discuss several approaches and come up with the best one," she said.

The stereotype of engineers as more conservative than other professionals is based in reality, though, according to Forood. "By nature, I think most engineers are more reserved and cautious than people in other professions," she said. You don’t see many engineers doing extreme sports, for example, Forood said. They’re aware of the risks and aren’t willing to take them.

Nevertheless, being cautious or introverted shouldn’t stop engineers from playing a role on the larger stage of government, according to NEA president emeritus Wulf. The United States would be better off if they did, he said.

Only been two U.S. presidents, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, were engineers, Wulf pointed out. The typical engineering attitude to a public-policy issue is, "Oh, that’s not a technical problem, so I have nothing to contribute," he said.

But in Wulf’s view, engineers have expertise in other matters, whether they acknowledge it or not. In one nontechnical area in particular–immigration and visas–engineers have plenty to contribute, he said.

"They have been essentially mute," Wulf said. "The contribution of foreign-born engineers has been profound. Somehow, legal and illegal immigration have been conflated in some people’s minds, and I think it’s just shooting ourselves in the foot."

Other countries benefit from engineers’ brainpower at the public-policy level and the United States could, too, he said. "In reality, they often have a lot to contribute. And in places like China, France and much of Latin America, they do contribute," Wulf said.

Now, at least one of the examples of US Presidents who were engineers suggests that perhaps it would be best if engineers stayed out of politics.  And no, I am not talking about Hoover.  But then, my grandpa often quoted one of his teachers who would always tell those students who failed a test: "You will never become a good engineer.  You might become a Chief Engineer."  So, maybe Jimmy Carter falls into that category of engineers.  Or maybe he simply did not understand that there are things beyond his control, and there are people who are not rational.  Anyway, do read the article.

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April 13, 2008 - Posted by | Engineering

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