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December 2, 2010

We need more engineers in politics

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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In Canada and the US most politicians are lawyers. But engineers are wealth generators, problem solvers and civilization builders; we need more of them in politics.

Engineers have quantitative skills, and understand constrains and trade-offs.  They are trained to manage within budgets. They know the value of teamwork, and in many engineering projects, interdisciplinary teams are necessary. They know if ethics are compromised, and in any public project, that could lead to disasters. 

And believe it or not, engineers understand economics, and its mathematical foundation, more than economists.  Engineers appreciate policies and procedures more than lawyers; in engineering design work not all decisions are purely technical.

Moreover, some say that the oldest profession is engineering; in the beginning God created the universe (an engineering act).

I have been an engineering academic for 45 years, and I have not seen too many engineering students seeking careers serving the public through politics.

One reason could be that politicians have a bad public image; being dishonest and playing dirty games to win. Another reason could be that politics mostly attracts people with low IQs, who could not find jobs in professionally competitive careers. And moreover, few honorable people go into politics.

Engineering schools in Canada and the US attract top high school students, who not only excel academically, but also have a high degree of creativity. For those reasons, many of them would make fine politicians.

In the private sector, any industry where engineers still hold the top CEO positions, (but not lawyers and MBAs) the industry flourishes. Look at the success of industries like those related to computer software and hardware, where many of the top executives are engineers, and compare those two industries to the American car industry, where most of the top executives are not engineers.

In my area of expertise, designing a microchip for a given application is a complex task. An engineering student must understand physics, chemistry, advanced math and different levels of the design process. They must be able to use computer-aided design tools, work with a team, and make trade-offs between, for example, the speed of processing data, and the energy consumed to perform at that speed. They must also meet international specs related to safety and performance. Finally, they must finish the design, review it and then fabricate the microchip and test it, all within a given timeframe.

In my own career, my peers believe that I reached the top; I graduated 1000s of engineers, wrote books, did research and advanced the state-of-the art. Many of my doctoral students are now professors of engineering in dozens of countries, including Canada. Some of my students created wealth by starting their own companies. But I also choose to do community service and advocacy work; a close cousin to being in politics.

In the US, few presidents and VPs were engineers; Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter Spiro Agnew and John Sununu. In Canada, I do not recall any of our prime ministers being engineers.

But as our society becomes more complex and dependent on advanced technology, the need for engineers turned into politicians is urgent. There should be a national effort at Canada’s top engineering schools to attract engineers to seek political office.

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