Science, engineering and leadership
By James E. Smith and Alex Hatch
Many successful domestic and global companies and enterprises were started and driven by the visionary, problem-solving and leadership capabilities of technically trained founders and/or principals. Historically, those skills and entrepreneurial instincts came from advanced training and education, apprenticeship programs or even self-study.
A large percentage of those companies and enterprises came into existence during a time when an advanced engineering or scientific degree was not necessarily the norm, or even available. Still, the design, decision-making and technical training inherent in today’s degrees were essential characteristics of previous generations’ learning processes through mentoring and apprenticeship programs.
In more recent times, leadership and entrepreneurial efforts have increased, as have the numbers of trained and degreed engineers and scientists to support those efforts. Since at least the middle of the last century, it has become clear that the on-going problems that America and the world face will require increasingly more complex technical solutions.
It is thus a perfect opportunity for a well-trained scientific and engineering community to come to the forefront in the decision-making process. Professionals who have well-developed leadership skills and are globally aware will have the greatest chance to leave a legacy, as history has often recorded in the past. Indeed, it was it seems to have been individuals who had early, rigorous, technical training plus leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit who blossomed most, resulting in the creation of many of the life-changing technologies that we see and use today. The fundamental question therefore might be:
Did the technical training uncover, develop or at least heighten the leadership skill sets of those professionals – or are natural leaders drawn to the rigorous and often more technical arenas?
Most likely, it is a mixture of both, resulting in a technical community that has significantly enhanced leadership and decision-making capabilities, as well as inventive and innovative impulses. But whatever the mixture or cause, a growing number of enterprises have begun to revise their organizational structure to include technical assets in their bureaucratic ranks. These skills often bring into balance the more conservative nature of the typical business community, combined with technical leaders who are often regarded as risk-takers but recognize that visionary leaders often view a path as proper and safe, when most people would regard it as risky.
That’s why governments and companies around the globe are encouraging their technically trained leaders to take a more active role in promulgating their policies and decisions, some even placing these individuals at the top of the decision-making tree.
An example of this is German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in quantum chemistry and has often been cited for her analytical method for making policy decisions. This technical-mindedness is one of the reasons Germany has become a strong innovation-driven economy, ranked fifth out of 138 countries for economic competitiveness. U.S. governing bodies have also begun to recognize the need for increasing technical and leadership competencies within their ranks, to better support entrepreneurs and the implementation of needed technical innovations.
It is unclear at this point though whether a critical mass is available that understands the correlation and contrast between: technical training and technology development; professional training and leadership skills; entrepreneurialism and economic impacts; and being a visionary but making tough decisions. There is growing evidence that the evolution, if not revolution, has started – evidenced by activities in many of our federal and state governing bodies. Perhaps more telling is the growing number of non-governmental organizations and non-profits that are seeking technically minded and trained leadership skill sets to compliment, or replace, their historical business and finance structures.
Needless to say, an ever-increasing number of situations will allow our technically gifted the opportunity to serve their local and larger communities. Most forward-looking universities and even trade schools and training centers have thus recognized that, if they are to survive and provide value to their constituency, they will need to recognize and promote the more technically skilled, while also giving these individuals decision-making and leadership training. (Contrast this to the parochial general education curriculums of the past.) While there is a place and a need for all educational degree types, as well as value in a plethora of business and organizational structures, it is the highly skilled engineers and scientists who best see past today’s risks and roadblocks to envision improved landscapes in the future.
It is clear, at least to many in other countries and several large enterprises, that the social landscape that we take for granted resulted from the direct influence of these highly skilled individuals. If we want more of the same results (and hopefully better ones) in the future, we will need their help going forward. Many of these same kinds of people find that working on current social problems or remedying past technical problems is mundane and likely a waste of their efforts. Organizations and governments that have recognized the need to meet their future fully prepared and on schedule have found ways to entice these professionals into the governance and leadership process, to their collective advantage.
For the United States, a quick look at the number of highly trained scientists and engineers serving in any substantial government or management positions makes it easy to see how our many legislators can be swayed into believing almost any technical gibberish. According to the Congressional Research Service, out of 535 members of the 114th US Congress, only 11 are trained in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, eight of them as engineers; in contrast, 29 members are professional farmers and 213 are trained lawyers. It is likely that the similar percentages of STEM professionals are found in state legislatures and even in large corporations and other business enterprises.
While it is highly unlikely that the non-scientifically trained members of Congress show blatant disregard for the universal truths that have served science and engineering so well through centuries of scientific advancement, their lack of training certainly puts them at a distinct disadvantage on technical and scientific matters, compared to their technically trained counterparts. Most notably, their lack of training can force them to have to take at face value the advice of so-called “experts” testifying before or advising them on scientific issues.
While many of these experts undoubtedly have the best interests of the country in mind, it is possible for any lobbyist masquerading as a scientist to pass off pseudo-scientific jargon and utter falsities as fact to senators and congressmen who simply don’t know any better.
Without a basic understanding of the scientific process that has been so successful and useful in getting us to this point in our collective histories, how can we expect to see a better future if similar men and women are not at the helm? Maybe a little less pandering and a lot more proper decision-making based on scientific facts will make the governance process more attractive to professionals for whom a future legacy of successful advancements is a valued outcome – and thus better for our future.
James E. Smith, PhD is a professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at West Virginia University. Alex Hatch has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from WVU and is studying for his Master’s Degree in engineering at WVU.