President Trump Needs an Engineering Adviser

The new president could use advice from a practical problem solver

3 min read

Opening illustration for Spectral Lines.
Photo-illustration: Isabel Espanol

Donald Trump, let an engineer help you.

We get that you find scientists—despite their amazing feats of discovery and selfless pursuit of new knowledge—too ideological, independent, and consumed by contentious claims about climate. So like the last Republican president, you will probably go a long time before selecting a science adviser (George W. Bush had been in the White House over seven months before he chose a physicist).

Here’s a bold idea: Why not break with tradition and do without a science adviser? Why not choose an engineering adviser instead? Engineers make things work, and keep them working, which is exactly what you need to succeed.

While you’re skeptical of elites, there’s a lot to like about engineers. They build stuff, they don’t just talk about it. Engineers embrace action, not theory. They possess a sense of urgency befitting your own taste for haste. And like you, they find scientists too condescending and credit grabbing.

Engineers do brag, of course, but usually only after their creations are humming. Unlike scientists, who often require unfettered freedom, engineers work within limits. And engineers have an ethos of responsibility. In their professional codes, they hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

Engineers are also a diverse tribe—and we know you are diversity challenged. The subfields, such as electrical, civil, and mechanical engineering, share a commitment to problem solving and an enthusiasm for drawing on a broad menu of resources.

As a result, engineers often are the first responders when technological fixes are required to manage or eliminate complex emergencies. Pragmatic responses demand the high-level involvement of engineers, which will be easier and quicker to accomplish when one of their own sits among your top advisers.

For an infrastructure junkie like you, engineers are kindred spirits. Complex systems sit at the heart of the nation’s critical infrastructure, the engineers’ domain.

Selecting an engineer to join your inner circle of advisers would honor tradition, too. The first presidential science adviser, who served Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, was an electrical engineer. Not only did Vannevar Bush deliver technologies that helped defeat the Germans and the Japanese, he did so by embracing help from the sort of capitalist industrial titans that you value.

Herbert Hoover, the only modern American president to practice engineering, graduated Stanford with a geology degree in 1895 and worked as a mining engineer. Hoover built his reputation as a great humanitarian by defeating immense logistical barriers to the delivery of food aid to Europe during and after World War I.

Scientists have long believed they have a special capacity to help politicians—and a special claim on the public. That there will be a “March for Science” in Washington on 22 April but no “March for Engineering” speaks volumes about the different cultures of these two communities. Engineers generally eschew grand public gestures. Although they may be blunt, engineers work well in teams, where roles, lines of responsibility, and objectives are clear.

The collaborative aspects of engineering might perplex or even alienate mavericks like you, President Trump. As historian Henry Petroski has noted [PDF], engineers usually succeed in making a considerable mark on the world only when receiving help from “an army of assistants.”

Along with learning to accept help from others, an engineer could teach you about the benefits of sharing credit. If great scientists personify “solitary genius,” engineers value humility and working in the background, attributes that you might try out someday as president.

About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or IEEE.

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