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From Nerd to Wonk

Tired of designing devices that policy-makers will misuse? Go back to school and train to become a policy maven yourself

5 min read

Lined up end to end, the pipelines that carry oil and gas around the United States could reach the moon and back.

Should the United States need to import liquefied natural gas from Canada or distribute ethanol coast-to-coast, the country will need still more pipelines, all of them vulnerable to mishap or malice. It’s all grist for Paul Parfomak’s mill.

Parfomak analyzes pipeline security for the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency sometimes referred to as ”the brains of Congress.” He estimates the risks of accidents and terrorist attacks and draws up mitigating policies for members of Congress to consider. The job requires an understanding of a wider range of issues than most professionals normally cover.

”You simply would have a much more difficult time understanding the policy dimensions if you didn’t understand the engineering,” Parfomak says. However, you also need to understand the effects of the price of oil and gas, as well as the manifold ways in which the governmental and legislative processes work.

Fortunately for Parfomak, his Ph.D. in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, has trained him to think not just as an engineer but also as a risk analyst, economist, and social scientist. His degree, he says, puts him ”in the sweet spot.”

Engineering and policy programs originated in the United States in the 1970s at Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Stanford. Others were later established at Washington University and the University of Maryland. In Europe, the Netherlands leads, with technology and policy programs at Delft University of Technology and Eindhoven University of Technology, and emerging programs at Utrecht University and a few other schools. Other programs are found at the Instituto Superior Técnico, in Lisbon, and at the University of Cambridge, in England.

Graduates work mainly in local and national government agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and NASA, and in international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. Some also work for corporate giants such as AT&T and Lockheed Martin.

All the programs train engineers to solve problems that lie at the junction of technology, society, and politics—say, where best to string new power lines, or how to estimate the environmental impact of public transportation, or how to evaluate the safety of cellphones on airplanes. IEEE Fellow Patrick O’Shea, chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department at the University of Maryland, in College Park, says that the standard engineering curriculum teaches students to ask whether something is possible, and if so, whether it is practical. That may be fine for computers and iPods, he says, but it won’t work for energy and transportation, where ”things may be feasible and even practical, but there is tremendous resistance to them for various reasons that have nothing to do with technology.”

Dava Newman, head of MIT’s program, says that the idea is to coax engineers out of their discipline’s black-and-white realm to engage in the gray areas of policy-making, where debate is a way of life. ”We firmly believe we’re trying to train engineers with a difference, so that they might go out and lead.”

In addition to technical courses, the curriculum covers the methodologies of policy, economics, decision analysis, risk analysis and assessment, and management. Students learn to take big, messy, unstructured problems and then identify the most important pieces and ask the right questions.

To round out the qualifying exam for a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon, several faculty members spend the better part of a month creating a fictional scenario that the students must work out in five days. This year, students had to decide what a real estate company in Florida’s Miami-Dade County should do to prepare for a 2-meter rise in sea level over the coming century. ”They had a bunch of options. Do we abandon the city, do we turn it into the Venice of the West, or do we try to dike the whole area?” says IEEE Fellow Granger Morgan, the head of the program.

Photo: Chad Dowling


A Ph.D. in engineering and public policy puts Parfomak ”in the sweet spot.”

The correct answer? There isn’t one, but ”there are typically lots of wrong answers,” Morgan says. The students needed to recognize, for instance, that just one dike would be a disaster should it fail, and that the city would need multi­ple dikes, which would carry a hefty cost. Also, moving out might be safe in the long run, but it might be a public-­relations disaster.

These programs are popular choices for engineers with a bit of work experience. ”On average, [students] entering the program are about 25, with a few years of experience,” says MIT’s Newman. According to Morgan, having such people makes for a richer school environment for the entire class.

The interdisciplinary nature of technology and policy attracts a lot of women. At Carnegie Mellon, the engineering and public-policy program has a higher proportion of women than any other engineering program on campus does.

The popularity of engineering and policy programs should increase as society faces ever more challenges falling at the intersection of technology and policy. The environment, energy, and transportation have been central issues at least since the 1973 oil crisis. Now climate change and environmental issues are more in the forefront in the United States than they have ever been before, Newman says. According to the University of Maryland’s O’Shea, ”Energy is the most important techno­political problem we face.” And then there are newer challenges in national security, information security, and biotech­nology. ”The great thing,” Newman says, ”is that we’re in vogue now.”

Undergraduate engineers who decide they want to go into the field can try to land a policy-oriented internship. Matthew Ezovski, an IEEE student member at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., got such a gig through the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering, a program focusing on the greater Washington, D.C., area.

”It’s important that those who influence policy understand the scientific implications of everything they do, whether it’s telecom regulation or funding basic science research,” Ezovski says. The interns don’t work for particular agencies but pursue their projects through the applicable offices, agencies, and leaders. Ezovski’s research on the security and effectiveness of biometric passports led him to work with the State Department and the House Judiciary Committee.

Very few undergraduate programs let students combine engineering and policy courses. But Susan Bailey, vice president of AT&T’s global network operations planning, did just that, ­double-majoring in electrical engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon. ”I wasn’t satisfied to do problems and labs and come up with the answers to the technical question without asking, ’Why do I care about how this works?’ ” she says.

Although her job is mostly technical, Bailey says she does better because of her policy training, which gave her a way to understand how the world works, with models of economics, behavior, and decision making. ”If you don’t have exposure to the models, you are more limited by the number of tools in your tool kit that you can bring to bear,” she says.

Of course, there are other options for engineers who want to view the world through a wider-angle lens than the one they got in college. There’s always business or law school. But if you want to shape technology’s impact on people or, in O’Shea’s words, ”want to play a more direct role in doing good for society,” then policy just might be right for you.

About the Author

Prachi Patel-Predd, a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum, is a freelance writer who covers technology, energy, and the environment.

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