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Thinking in Systems: Why Public Policy Needs Dartmouth Engineers

Dec 07, 2020   |   by Kristen Senz   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Browsing the daily news headlines might lead one to conclude that we live in an era ruled by populism, fear, and misinformation. In reality, over the past 20 years, officials at all levels of government have increasingly sought data and technical expertise to evaluate and enact effective public policy. This shift is part of a constellation of factors that have set the stage for Dartmouth engineers to take a more active role in public discourse and policy.

Illustration by Mike Ellis

Such factors include record levels of public trust in engineers as professionals, greater support for interdisciplinary research, and a broadening of traditional systems engineering to include the policy landscape. In addition, both private and public sectors have increasingly recognized the value of the systems approach to solving complex problems of the modern world—from climate change, to energy, to pandemics.

Beyond Nuts and Bolts

Over the last two decades, the progression of Dartmouth engineering professor Mary Albert’s career as a climate researcher has mirrored the evolution of the field of systems engineering as a whole. For years she studied the microstructures of snow and ice, taking dozens of research trips to Summit Camp on the Greenland ice sheet. She later became involved in the ice core research community that has revealed both the speed and intensity of climate change.

“From the ice core record, we know that the CO2 in the atmosphere now is higher than it has been in at least 800,000 years,” she says. “But we also know that climate can change completely in less than ten years. A decade ago, scientists thought climate was a slow-moving animal that could only change over millions of years.”

Professor of Engineering Mary Albert
Professor Mary Albert

A public presentation of her research findings in Greenland led a group of native Greenlanders to approach Albert for help as they grapple with the realities of climate change in Qaanaaq, an Arctic hunting and fishing community in northern Greenland. Albert partnered with them to form a team of scientists, residents, students, and policymakers and proposed to the National Science Foundation a collaborative, systems-based approach to fortifying a community against an uncertain future.

Recently, the NSF awarded the team $2.6 million to spend the next four years plotting a course to sustainability and a transition to renewable energy that works in concert with local culture and values, against the backdrop of a melting ice sheet and rising sea level.

“Having an engineering background helps me to solve problems that I haven’t seen before and that are under constraints of various kinds, and that’s especially true with engineering and climate change today,” Albert says. “The environment of the future is different than the environment of the past due to the changes that we are encountering, so we need new approaches that also account for predictions of future conditions.”

The goal of the Qaanaaq project is to collaboratively design a system of simple, cost-effective innovations and adaptations that can operate effectively within the context of the local environment, Albert explains. That requires going beyond the nuts and bolts of physical engineering; it represents a more holistic understanding of systems engineering as a discipline.

“It’s not just combining an electrical system and a mechanical system in a car,” she says. “The system now, conceptually, is not only the built environment and the natural environment, but also the cultural values and the finances and the policy. All of those are elements in the system.”

Fortuitously, these efforts are occurring at a time when a nascent Greenlandic government, working toward independence from Denmark, seeks to build a new body of public policy based on research and data. Local officials are hungry for evidence they can take to Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, to advocate for policies that fit with the values and conditions in Northern Greenland, which faces different challenges than the south.

Albert sees the project in Greenland as a culmination of years of scientific study and a chance to not only improve lives, but also create a template for collaboratively addressing the effects of climate change.

“This is the dawn of a new era in engineering,” she says. “Climate change is going to get much worse before it stabilizes. It needs all hands on deck, and it’s not just the microlayer on a single solar panel. That kind of innovation is needed, but there’s also a huge need for innovation that involves the whole-systems approach, including policy, economic, and engineering aspects.”

A New Kind of Polar Expedition

In his work as a geophysicist and Arctic sea ice expert, Thayer professor Donald K. Perovich has spent much of the last decade focused on interdisciplinary research. He is currently participating in the largest polar expedition in history, a floating observatory called MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) that involves 20 countries and hundreds of scientists.

Professor of Engineering Donald Perovich
Professor Donald K. Perovich

The endeavor centers on the year-long journey of a German research vessel that set off from Norway in September 2019 to drift through the Arctic, capturing the most comprehensive data on the sea ice cover to date. These data can be used not only to predict future trends in sea ice change, but also to develop responses to challenges facing Arctic communities today.

“We will really get to see the whole evolution of the ice cover,” says Perovich, who serves as co-lead of MOSAiC’s sea ice team. “It’s as if we finally get to read the entire book, instead of just a chapter here and a chapter there.”

As the sea ice cover forms later and later in the fall, it exposes coastal communities to more autumn storms that cause coastal erosion. As the ice retreats, it makes undiscovered oil reserves more accessible, with serious global geopolitical implications. Similarly, the opening of the Northwest Passage creates economic opportunities in tourism and shipping that ripple across the world. To understand and respond effectively to these changes, policymakers need reliable information and analysis.

“We want to be able to take those observations and that understanding and develop ways to respond to the ongoing changes, which in the Arctic is really important, because the research that we do up there is more than an intellectual exercise; the changes in the sea ice cover are impacting people today.”

The far-reaching applications and legacy of the MOSAiC mission excite Perovich, who over the course of forty years of study has spent nearly three years in the Arctic. Over the last 20 years, along with a dramatic change in the Arctic landscape and climate, he has watched the research become increasingly interdisciplinary.

“The Arctic is a system with many components,” he says, “and to understand what’s going on, you can’t just study one of those, you have to study all of them in concert, and that’s really been something that has been developing over the last couple of decades. Now, we’re starting to take it one step further—we’ve got to take this knowledge of the physical system and the ecosystem and tie that with human dimensions.”

Success in this work, he says, depends on openness to collaboration and clear communication. The latter can prove especially challenging for those accustomed to narrow specialization.

“It’s easy to stay focused on your one component of the system, but I think the societal problems we have really require cooperation by different groups,” he says. “At first, it can be kind of awkward, and this relates to jargon—you say something that only makes sense to you and your friend—but once you get past that, it’s really exciting.”

As MOSAiC exemplifies, translating and transferring knowledge across disciplines broadens everyone’s understanding of the system, giving engineers in particular important insights that enable them to design more powerful solutions. Perovich says it’s imperative that engineers’ perspectives are part of policy debates, whether that means they run for office, act as policy advisors, or find other ways to contribute input to lawmakers.

The Engineer in the Room

A new Gallup poll puts Americans’ level of trust in members of Congress slightly above that of car salespeople, an improvement over last year, when members of the House of Representatives were the least-trusted of all professionals. In contrast, respondents rated engineers second in terms of honesty and ethical standards, behind only nurses and ahead of medical doctors.

Officially, only 11 of the 535 members of the 116th United States Congress are engineers by training. Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) Th’98 is one of them. He sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (and its environment and energy subcommittees) and the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Congressman Sean Casten
Rep. Sean Casten Th’98

A clean energy entrepreneur prior to his election in 2018, Casten’s understanding of the issues is grounded in the quantitative. He often finds himself explaining exponential growth—in carbon dioxide concentration, or the spread of viral infections, for example—to colleagues who are less adept at geometric sequencing. When decision-makers fail to grasp orders of magnitude, he says, “everything you do will be too little, too late.”

Because of his deep knowledge in the renewable energy space, Casten often brings a reality check to debates about the future of various technologies.

“There are the things that people want to be true about our energy system, and then there are the things that are true when you constrain them by the first two laws of thermodynamics,” he says. “For most of my colleagues, who are not trained as engineers, they don’t necessarily understand where those constraints are.”

In debates about carbon capture and sequestration technology, for example, Casten sliced through rhetoric about saving coal-industry jobs and predicted the demise of FutureGen, a now-defunct plant in downstate Illinois that cost the federal government $1 billion.

“I have enjoyed, in those conversations, being the person who says, I’m going to take a napkin and explain to you why carbon capture and sequestration is never, ever going to save the coal industry,” he says. “It’s the only technology out there that raises the capital cost of power generation and increases the operating cost… On those big comprehensive bills, sometimes it’s kind of fun to be the engineer in the room.”

Casten’s occupational orientation also shapes his overall approach to the job. Asked how he handles the politics of lawmaking, he says: “This is a political job, so you’ve got to deal with that as an input to the system and try to manage it, but it’s just an input. It’s like gas in a car.”

Like Albert, Perovich, and many other engineers, Casten views the world as a series of interconnected systems, with various feedback loops producing or detracting from desired functions. Looking through this lens, these engineers can zero in on bottlenecks and find ways to address them using the tools available to them—whether that’s through their own scientific specialty or by reaching out to others with the knowledge and skills to affect change at the policy level.

“I think engineering at its best has enough humility to it that you don’t assume that you, individually, can build the whole machine,” Casten says. “You can have an appreciation for what the machine does, how it works, and make sure you’ve got all the moving pieces in place to get something done.”

—Kristen Senz is a freelance writer based in Bloomington, Indiana.

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