SWE Magazine Feature: Constructive Voices in Turbulent Times

Who needs scary movies when there’s 24/7 news? Dire warnings on everything from climate change to infrastructure, cybersecurity, and air and water quality are met by a constant flood of contradictions, and even denial. It can be difficult to know whom to trust, or how to effectively counter misinformation that drowns out solutions to the great engineering challenges of our time. Steady, credible voices with answers can rise above the noise — and one of them might be yours.

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“Constructive Voices in Turbulent Times” was written by Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor.


In a time when a fossil fuel is dubbed by some as “molecules of freedom gas,” others respond, rebranding climate change as “climate crisis.” Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, wrote, “We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

Viner’s sentiments are echoed by others, including the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which recently convened a daylong conference focused on how climate issues are covered by the media. The event included some of the top journalists in the world, along with climate scientists and other experts.

Randy Atkins, director of communications and media relations for the National Academy of Engineering, acknowledged the dark tone of current dialogue on climate change. “The problem seems too big and people (including policymakers) just throw up their hands,” he said via email. “I think we need to raise public awareness about technologies that could provide a way to engineer ourselves out of this mess. Climate change is now a major issue in political campaigns — finally. For years, as scientists warned of an impending crisis, candidates largely ignored it — in part because there was little public call for action. There are probably many reasons for this, including a tendency toward short-term thinking, but probably also because solving the climate change issue just seems too hard. This multifaceted problem involves science, economics, politics, and more.”

Consistent, clear communication — with the public and with policymakers — is key to shaping the policies that affect everything engineers do to solve big problems, such as the climate crisis. How can engineers better inform the public and help shape policy? As it turns out, a lot, and it starts with coming out of the STEM comfort zone — and getting comfortable in areas that may be unfamiliar.

Finding Your Voice and Using It

Elizabeth Bierman headshot
Elizabeth Bierman, F.SWE, director of engineering for Comcast Cable, Twin Cities Region and SWE FY15 president

Elizabeth Bierman, F.SWE, director of engineering for Comcast Cable, Twin Cities Region and SWE FY15 president, grew up in a politically active family and minored in political science at Iowa State University. “I realized there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on it in engineering, probably due to a lack of representation of engineers and STEM in politics,” she said. “And when SWE decided to put more of a concentrated effort on that, it was something that drew me in.”

Bierman believes that policy knowledge can help engineers solve some of the great problems the world faces. “With climate change, for example, it’s the policies that are in place that will send us in either a positive or a negative direction,” she said. “If engineers aren’t more involved in the process of setting those policies, then the misinformation that’s out there is going to overwhelm our ability to showcase solutions.

“Policy processes, especially in terms of federal government, can be overwhelming, and that can deter a lot of people from getting involved,” she continued. “But if we don’t continue to push our messaging out there, no one else is going to do it.”

Bierman offered SWE’s messaging as an example. “SWE’s emphasis is on getting more women and minorities into STEM, the avenues and programs we have for doing that in the K-12 space, and increasing opportunities for women in universities and in the workplace. Sometimes people can get frustrated or disengaged because you’re repeating the same things over and over again and not seeing ‘concrete policy results’ coming out of it. But it’s that messaging that we deliver year after year on Capitol Hill that is influencing some of the wording and rhetoric going into policies that help the STEM workforce and education system.”

Influencing at the Local Level

A society of engineers can make a difference, but so can one engineer’s voice. Bierman shared an example of individual messaging in her local school district, which was weighing cutting a middle school introduction to engineering class due to budget concerns.

“I reached out to all of the school board members to let them know the research shows that middle school is a very critical point in students’ lives to be exposed to STEM, to interest them in pursuing it,” she said. “Speaking as an engineer, I asked them to rethink taking this class away, because what other exposure were their students going to get? It was a small win, but they kept the class, not just because of me, but I was able to reach out as an engineer, letting them know why this was important.

“With any subject matter, whether it’s climate change or another major concern, be active at the state and local level, because when engineers speak up, people listen,” she continued. “Engineers have credibility because of the way society perceives us. They know engineers have the knowledge and education to back up what they say. We can use that to our advantage, and we should be doing more of it. You’re more of an expert than you think — you have the education and the professional experience. You know what you’re talking about, so just say it.”

Weaving Engineering and Science Into Policy

photograph of Meagan Mauter
Meagan Mauter, Ph.D., associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Stanford University

Meagan Mauter, Ph.D., and most recently an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, where she ran the university’s Water and Energy Efficiency for the Environment (WE³) lab, is newly an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Much of her work in water desalination technology research is done at the intersection of environmental engineering and public policy.

“As women engineers and researchers, the work we do on a daily basis is quite policy relevant,” Dr. Mauter said. “So it’s a good idea to peruse the federal register for places where there’s new policy being made, and contribute to anything that’s comments related, for instance, to that work.

“Meeting with the local department of environmental protection, state department of transportation, any number of state and federal level agencies and sharing our expertise and our knowledge can be a really good way to get an engineering perspective into the policymaking process,” she continued, adding that contributing to amicus briefs and other policy-related documents, either in the legal realm or through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, are also very good outreach opportunities.

Dr. Mauter’s concentration is on water availability and water quality as a huge challenge for engineering, along with issues related to climate change, sanitation, and air quality. “A big challenge of public policy is weighing the risk/risk trade-offs associated with making progress in one challenge without compromising the others,” she said.

“It takes energy to treat or desalinate water; we use chemicals, primary energy like natural gas, and electricity,” Dr. Mauter explained. “All those inputs to the water-treatment process have climate emissions and air quality implications. One of the things I ask in my research is, ‘What are the air emissions damages associated with treating water, and what are the water quality benefits? And how do we think about maximizing human health and environmental sustainability, given those two competing objectives?’ That’s one example of the interface between an energy system and a water system. The role of policy is to set efficient regulation that helps us maximize the benefit to society across many different objectives.”

One of the ways Dr. Mauter believes wrong information and poor understanding can be countered is through publishing, because those reports are used by policymakers, companies, and industries looking for guidance on water treatment and power plants and other water-treatment-related issues. “For example, I’ve done a couple of papers related to the risk/risk trade-offs between improving water quality and the consequences of those processes,” she said.

Dr. Mauter and her colleagues have published 10 to 15 papers a year on average in academic journals. She has taken part in numerous National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports, on topics ranging from produced water from oil and gas drilling in South Africa to water and agriculture and unconventional natural gas development in the United States. She also contributes work to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and publishes and contributes in nonacademic outlets.

“Policy isn’t made in a scientific vacuum,” Dr. Mauter emphasized. “The process involves science, politics, practical constraints on the pace of change that’s possible. We need to understand how important all those factors are in how the final policy decisions are made. As scientists and engineers, we can get better informed about the process, to better understand and contextualize our role in building models that support the policymaking process.”

From Small Wins to Grand Challenges

In 2008, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) rolled out 14 goals for improving life on Earth, identified by four themes: sustainability, health, security, and joy of living. These Grand Challenges for Engineering range from making solar energy affordable, to increasing quality and quantity of water, and from cybersecurity and medical technologies to reverse-engineering the brain.

Inspired by the NAE Grand Challenges, the Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) will convene in September for the fourth time, this time in London, and is jointly hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the NAE.

“A key goal of 2019 GGCS is to drive home the fact that the world is facing a range of unprecedented challenges and that engineering and engineers are crucial to the design of approaches to address these complex issues in order to meet the needs of people and the planet,” Atkins said. “In service of this goal, the GGCS and its constituent events bring together international leaders from industry, government, universities, and other sectors with the next generation of engineers. The summit series helps build a ‘community of practice’ that inspires collaborations and builds approaches to address the needs of a planet predicted to have 10 billion people by the middle of this century.”

Mobilizing Young Engineers for Global Roles

GGCS summits include a pre-Summit Student Competition and Collaboration Lab where students from the UK, the U.S., and China present their ideas and business plans for addressing the NAE Grand Challenges. Winning teams receive monetary prizes and are recognized during a special session of the GGCS.

One young female engineer, a graduate of NAE’s Global Grand Challenges Scholars Program, related her greatest takeaway in a 2017 minidocumentary of the event. “It’s recognizing that people have different roles to play in the world. I worked as an engineer, but somebody needs to convey to nonengineers what engineers are discussing, so why not be a person who can do both?”

Engineering students at the 2017 Global Grand Challenges Summit
Engineering students from The University of Sheffield present their idea for an accessible, recycled, mechanical (ARM) prosthetic at the 2017 Global Grand Challenges Summit, where 900 engineers, students, industry leaders, and policymakers gathered in Washington, D.C. The 2019 summit takes place in September, in London.

At a dinner session, engineering students were asked to brainstorm answers to the question: “What can you do as a constituency to further the global Grand Challenges movement locally, and/or globally?” Among the answers were: “engaging professional organizations, use the grand challenges to promote diversity, engage with corporate leaders, develop a comprehensive media platform to reach the public.” Two of the top answers were “using the grand challenges to change your conversations about what engineering is, and, be ambassadors.”

Atkins sees the Global Grand Challenges Summit as a unique opportunity “to begin an international mobilization of engineers — maybe particularly the students who have the most at stake — to communicate with the public about potential technological solutions to big engineering issues of our time, including climate change.

“Ultimately, climate change is a problem with technological roots that will require engineering solutions — probably many of them,” Atkins said. “We need to engage engineers and the public in a new ‘moonshot,’ or several of them. Only through hope, grounded in realistic visions, will we inspire the action and support needed to take on the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering. To do that, we need to get engineers speaking publicly — to the media and to policymakers — and in an accessible way.”

Atkins is also considering ways to connect engineering students in NAE’s Grand Challenges Scholars Programs (there are more than 70 active programs at universities around the world) with journalism students. “This will help future engineers who are focused on world-changing goals to become better communicators, and for future journalists to become more informed about and interested in today’s Grand Challenges for Engineering,” he said. “We simply must activate the next generation of engineers and journalists who, after all, have the most at stake.”

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, and the importance of women engineers’ voices — and that they be clearly heard by policymakers and the public — has never been greater. When the challenges are daunting, and the deluge of information constant, it can be tempting to simply retreat. But when you least want to engage could be just the time when you should.

“Keep showing up,” Bierman said. “People need to see what engineers do and the problems that we are solving. Whether it’s in public policy or on the local level, we need to be more visible.”

Interested in engineering and public policy? Here’s Dr. Mauter’s one-page primer on ways you can contribute to the policymaking process.

Want to add your voice? See the issues open for public comment.

SWE Magazine Feature: Constructive Voices in Turbulent Times


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