Quick—count up all the engineers you can think of in high-ranking government jobs. You might need only one hand, though. Jimmy Carter and New Hampshire's two Sununus are the only politicians who come quickly to my mind, and only one of those is currently employed in Washington!
While nearly everyone abhors politics at work, engineers in particular seem to abhor politics as work.
That point was blatantly obvious in a recent presentation given by Diane Steed, who was top administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1983-1989. Steed filled the audience of mostly journalists in on recent doings at the agency—including a reorganization that's created several new engineering positions.
That's the good news. The bad news is that NHTSA doesn't have as many engineers as Steed thinks it should. NHTSA spokesman Ray Tyson agreed, theorizing the agency must compete with the private sector for qualified engineers. One might think money is the issue, although the salaries for several open engineering positions at NHTSA range from $68K to $138K. (Interested? Go to www.nhtsa.dot.gov.)
The real reason more engineers don't go into government, asserts an administrator for MIT's Technology and Policy Program, has nothing to do with paycheck size. "The traditional undergraduate engineering curriculum is focused on engineering science, rather than the public policy issues emerging out of the practice of engineering," he says.
The aim of the two-year graduate program is to expose students to other problem-solving paradigms that are better-suited to coping with public policy issues. "There are certain classes of public policy programs—such as the Internet and clean air—that cannot be solved without a formal technical education," he told me. "Solutions to these complex issues emerge only from a detailed appreciation of the underlying technology."
Programs like TPP are on the right track. Washington needs more policy-makers that can explain why, say, Pi = 3 cannot be legislated. In other words, Uncle Sam needs you.