Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

On the Job: Sean Casten

Sean Casten. Photograph courtesy of Sean Casten.

A clean-energy entrepreneur, Sean Casten Th’98 hopes to bring an engineer’s approach to policymaking as he vies for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in the 2018 Democratic primary in Illinois (castenforcongress.com).

You have said running for Congress is a lot like running a business—in what ways?
The first job of an entrepreneur is to identify an opportunity and articulate a vision that motivates people to come work on a project that is statistically likely to fail—and layered on top of that is the psychological requirement that you be comfortable taking risks. And it’s exactly like running a political campaign. You have to make a decision to go without a salary for a year. You have to get very good very quickly at things you haven’t done before. You have to have a strong enough vision of what you want to achieve to be able to ignore the inevitable negative things that will be said about you by your opponents.

What is the value of having a more scientific approach to governing?
Scientists and engineers are trained to look at big, diverse sets of data, identify a problem, hone in on the root cause, and solve it. We don’t waste a lot of time talking about “alternative facts” or worrying about the political fallout. To the contrary: We pride ourselves on being the first to identify and correct problems with a flawed paradigm. For example, Svante Arrhenius explained more than 100 years ago how higher CO2 levels will increase atmospheric temperatures. A review of energy consumption data shows that 50 percent of all the CO2 we have ever released has been in the last 40 years. That correlates closely with the sudden ramp in global temperatures. Those facts demand urgency and action—and yet the political pressure will always be to move slowly. Political laws may pace the rate at which we can act as a species—but the laws of thermodynamics have no such patience.

Can you describe an issue that would benefit immediately from a more fact-based approach?
Look at immigration: The overwhelming majority of undocumented immigration to the United States is from visa overstays, not from illegal border crossings. Consistent with this data, Texas has seen virtually no increase in its undocumented immigrant population during the last decade. Whatever views one may have on our immigration policy, there is no reason why a border wall solves anything—and yet that discussion is consuming most of our political bandwidth on that front. If we were using facts and data to inform our policy discussions, we’d be having a much different conversation.

—Interview by Theresa D’Orsi

Categories: Alumni News, On the Job

Tags: alumni, climate change, public policy

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