Friday, July 13, 2012

More on Engineering Diplomacy

Good public policy needs engineers to be good public policy makers. There isn’t much new or better that happens in the world today that isn’t made possible by some innovation in engineering. But all the changes that make life better also make life a bit more complicated. To deal with these complications, we develop public policies, laws, and regulations to provide the framework for the operation of an orderly beneficial society.
John Sununu
This post complements a recent one that has been surprisingly popular.

I was just reading an article from several years ago by Norm Neureiter who had been the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State. He pointed out that he had always assumed that engineering was subsumed under "science and technology" until challenged by engineers at a meeting of professional engineers. I too have long assumed that it you are talking about technology of course you are talking in part about engineering (and in fact there is engineering science as well). But I too have come to feel that it is better to use the term "science, technology and engineering".

I suppose the flagship role of engineers is to make things that work well and efficiently. Where it is easy to do so, we don't need professionals. Where the technology involved gets complicated or difficult to understand, the professionals come to the fore. So engineers are often working with cutting edge techniques and reducing them to practice. But engineers are almost always worrying about costs and sustainability. They want to build things that not only work, but are profitable to operate and that will last.

I started my career as an engineer and after a few years working as a senior research engineer and teaching, I joined the Peace Corps in the 1960s. As a volunteer. I spent a couple of years in an engineering school in Chile. There I taught some but mostly worked in the computer center. I had the opportunity to develop computer programs that helped

  • evaluate whether the utility company in Chile should invest in a dual purpose sea water desalinization and electric power generation plant for the northern desert,  
  • automate the location of towers for high tension wires, and
  • a company decide to expand its production line and increase local employment.
I also turned over software to Santiago (that worked) to synchronize traffic lights, but that software was never again used. The experiences at a PCV were life changing, and eventually I went to work full time in international development. The Peace Corps is an opportunity for engineers to serve as "citizen diplomats", and important if poorly understood role.

Later in my career I was involved in the funding of grants for scientific research as part of our foreign aid program. Admittedly, the research was justified by its potential for eventual application, but it was scientists who were doing the research. I came to realize that their attitudes were different than those I had internalized as an engineer. For that reason, diplomacy needs engineering sensibility as well as that of scientists, even scientists explicitly working towards developing technologies.

One of the issues that Neureiter raises is why engineers might join the government when that calls for them to stop doing the kind of engineering for which they trained and indeed work that they like, even when such a decision needs to be explained to their engineer friends. That decision has its benefits. For example, I convinced my colleagues in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that we should be investing in information and communications technology and notably in the early 1990s that we should do something to promote the transfer of Internet technology to developing nations. As a result, we made a small grant to a university in Costa Rica to build an academic backbone for the Internet in that country; NASA came through with bandwidth on their satellite channel to the United States. The diplomatic impact was great -- the Vice President of Costa Rica came to Washington to sign the grant. More important to my mind, the Costa Rica backbone rapidly grew into a backbone for Central America. I had the pleasure of believing that due to our effort, a whole region got online months or even years faster than they otherwise would have.

I have had the opportunity to help develop projects for USAID and the World Bank that were intended to stimulate science, technology and engineering in developing countries. For example, I worked on part of a loan program in Brazil that was planned to provide $1.2 billion in loan funding for the sector. The government in borrowing that amount was pledging not only to promote the development of scientific, technological and engineering capacity in the country for more than a decade, but also to complement the borrowed funds with additional funding from its federal budget. How many engineers get the satisfaction of helping to move a whole country so much in so useful a direction? Incidentally, working in multinational organizations raises issues of the role of the citizen in multilateral diplomacy.

Of course, engineers often leave day to day engineering to do something else. Many good managers benefit from training and experience as engineers. John Sununu, whose quotation begins this post, left engineering to lead a university, to become a governor of his state, and to become the White House chief of staff. So too, some engineers opt for a career as diplomats, even choosing to work in the economic, political, or management services of the State Department.

Neuriteiter was instrumental in greatly expanding the role of STE fellows in the State Department. I helped to expand the role of STE fellows in USAID. About a third of the fellows stayed in government, many of those who came to USAID stayed in government. For them the fellowship was a good way to find a new direction for their careers. On the other hand, I think that those who returned to academia or the private sector after a year or two in USAID also benefited from their experience, bringing new knowledge and understanding to the rest of their career. Certainly their service in USAID benefited the U.S. foreign aid program, and decades after we initiated the fellowship programs in USAID they continue.

I would point out that a young engineer who becomes a career diplomat will not fully develop his professional toolkit as an engineer, and in fact will find his engineering skills becoming rusty and outdated while serving his country abroad (and while developing other skills and abilities as a diplomat). Young people serving fellowships in government also do so before they have fully developed the full range of abilities of senior engineers and engineering managers. Senior fellowships are a very useful complement to the participation of more junior fellows and engineers in career service. Still, there is a very important role for senior engineers in providing advice to the government through advisory committees and the like

Neureiter refers to the National Academy of Engineering listing of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. I note that many of these achievements were realized in the United States and western Europe, but have not yet reached much of Africa and Asia, nor indeed parts of the Americas. There remain huge challenges of developing the infrastructures in these regions. There are real challenges and opportunities for American engineers in completing the penetration of these achievements globally. Indeed, it seems likely that opportunities for engineers in this area will only be available if other engineers work as diplomats or provide engineering advice to their governments.

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