Why Public Policy Needs Dartmouth Engineers

Excerpt from Dartmouth Engineer Magazine article by Kristen Senz, with Illustration by Mike Ellis. Read full article here.

Browsing the daily news headlines might lead one to conclude that we live in an era ruled by populism, fear, and misinformation. In reality, over the past 20 years, officials at all levels of government have increasingly sought data and technical expertise to evaluate and enact effective public policy. This shift is part of a constellation of factors that has set the stage for engineers to take a more active role in public discourse and policy. 

Such factors include record levels of public trust in engineers as professionals, greater support for interdisciplinary research, and a broadening of traditional systems engineering to include the policy landscape. In addition, both private and public sectors have increasingly recognized the value of the systems approach to solve complex problems of the modern world—from climate change, to energy, to pandemics.

As technology gets embedded into nearly every facet of society, studying the intersections of engineering and public policy has become critical for the next generation of leaders.

That’s why Thayer School in 2008 introduced a modified major in engineering and public policy in partnership with the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. At the time, Thayer’s then-dean Joseph Helble said the modified major “puts engineering on an equal footing with the liberal arts,” enhancing the breadth of students’ knowledge and preparing them to contribute much-needed technical expertise to public discourse.

The major combines the technical aspects of engineering with additional areas essential for policymaking, including economics, ethics, and policy analysis. The modified major is intended both for engineers who want to influence public policy, and policymakers interested in gaining a working understanding of technology.

Since 2011, 11 students have graduated with the modified major, leveraging it to explore how various engineered solutions fit into the daily lives of the people they are intended to serve. They also gained the skills to inform public debate and shape public policy.

Laura Kier ’12 used the modified major to pursue her interest in sustainable design. “My take on my major is that I will be able to survey human needs, understand environmental policy, and engineer solutions to our increasingly unsustainable world,” she said.

Now Dartmouth’s Provost, Helble, who spent a year in Washington as a science advisor in Senator Joe Lieberman’s office, is a strong proponent of science communication and the involvement of engineers in public life.

“All of us with technical backgrounds should do our part to shape the decisions we entrust to Congress,” he once wrote. “Our collective future depends on it.”