The following article is based on an excerpt from APESMA member Reece Lumsden’s book ‘The View From Here – Optimize Your Engineering Career From the Start’
“The ideal engineer is a composite … He is not a scientist, he is not a mathematician, he is not a sociologist or a writer; but he may use the knowledge and techniques of any or all of these disciplines in solving engineering problems.”
N. W. Dougherty, 1955
Engineers involved in politics – it seems both counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Why would one interested in politics bother to study engineering in the first place? Why not study political science or economics or law, which would seem to be much more appropriate for a life in the political sphere? While it would seem that engineers have no place in the political process, they have more to offer than you may realize and as the opening quote from N.W. Dougherty (past Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Tennessee) implies, an awareness and even some detailed knowledge of politics and the political pro-cess can be a valuable asset.
A pertinent question raised by this opening quote is just what constitutes an ‘engineering problem'. One perspective is that engineering problems represent the symptom or manifestation of a larger social policy issue. Consider for a moment such mega projects as the Suez Canal, Hoover Dam or the Transcontinental Railroad; none of them were ends in and of themselves but rather they were all executed for social policy reasons. To effectively execute the engineering, it requires the engineer involved to understand the reasoning behind it, whether that be enabling trade, empowering commerce or connecting communities.
In the West, politicians tend to be lawyers, self-made business-men or former heads of big business, but very few have a technical background of any kind. There are exceptions, notably the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who has a science background and with governments in the East, it's an entirely different story. In China, every member of the uppermost tier of the communist party is an engineer. Having engineers involved in the upper echelons of government helps guide decisions made by leadership that may impact the health and well-being of technology-driven industries or the development of infrastructure.
Engineers are also extremely useful in the legislative process where government regulations are formulated. Having a roomful of politicians with no technical back-ground draft bills that affect the regulation of the power industry would not seem to be the smartest way to do things, and yet this is precisely what has happened in the U.S. Noting this, some engineers have carved out very lucrative careers translating technical documents and arguments into language politicians can understand and incorporate.
Engineers generally stay out of politics and the political process because it's not so cut and dry; there's no right and wrong, and negotiation is a part of the environment. Many engineering arguments are assessed in terms of their cost or economic impact rather than their technical merit and the political process and politics in general can also be a particularly fickle and unforgiving occupation where perception counts for more than facts. For the engineer mindful of these issues, they can be a very rare and powerful commodity in an occupation whose decisions frequently impact the technical side but rarely include those versed in its language, namely engineering.