Politics and engineering are not mutually exclusive

Secretary of Homeland Security rightly encourages students to integrate research with policy

This past Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano delivered the 2011 Karl Taylor Compton Lecture. Secretary Napolitano emphasized the importance of the involvement of MIT minds in politics and public service for the benefit of the nation. However, it is extremely common for MIT students to greet important political issues with apathy, and for political involvement to be dismissed as irrelevant. It is time for MIT students to take Secretary Napolitano’s advice and to broaden their focus beyond the pages of textbooks and problem sets.

Napolitano joined President Obama’s cabinet in 2009 after working as a lawyer and Arizona’s governor. As governor, she focused on issues such as immigration and border control, taking a special interest in keeping our nation protected and secure. Now, as Secretary of Homeland Security, she continues to work towards safeguarding the United States from its enemies in an innovative and forward-thinking fashion.

As Napolitano emphasized, creative thinking is so important because the obstacles that we are confronting today have transformed with the modern age, making them all the more dangerous. For instance, the oceans surrounding the United States no longer act as a buffer to attack, and our adversary is not necessarily a conventional army. Instead, small numbers of terrorists can inflict major damage and do not operate according to the traditional rules of warfare. Because of the constantly evolving threat, U.S. security can be preserved in the future only through the combination of the disciplines of science and public service.

To achieve this goal, MIT students need to have a broad national and global interest. Judging by the current campus climate, however, it does not seem like this is the case.

In fact, political activism at MIT can only be described as lackluster. The college Republicans and Democrats are essentially nonfunctional, and political issues — on or off campus — don’t seem to be of much importance to the general student body. Interest in student government is particularly lacking; only one ticket is on the ballot for UA President and Vice President. Indeed, disillusionment with student government, and the UA in particular, is widespread. The UA does not seem to be guided by any specific or clearly articulated goals, and UA officers have been resigning in droves. Many students involved in student government are freshmen — perhaps because they have not yet been overcome by the disenchantment plaguing upperclassmen. Regardless, the large number of UA freshmen prevents smooth transitions from term to term, adding frustration and inefficiency to and already-disrupted process.

But to return to Napolitano’s message: MIT students need to realize that research must be applied in real time, and should not be limited in scope to laboratory benches and science journals. The research done in the lab must be transferred to the field, and engineers have to play a critical role in turning ideas into a political reality. Implementation of discoveries requires a broad skill set of leadership capabilities — research prowess and scientific brilliance is not enough. It is for this reason that Napolitano asked MIT students to broaden their focus, and consider working for an institution such as the Department of Homeland Security.

In truth, MIT students should be making decisions in higher levels of government because they have such great intelligence and potential. Often, politicians are asked to make policy decisions on issues they do not understand, and they frequently lack the qualifications to make such decisions. This can lead to disastrous outcomes because the “blind” are asked to lead the way. Alternatively, scientists and engineers with a technical background and robust experience should be called upon as experts. There is no reason that the innovations made in the lab cannot be applied on a larger scale and be implemented effectively across the nation.

For this to occur, though, apathy needs to be placed aside. What is happening in the world today affects our nation, future generations, and us; it is unacceptable to pretend that living in a bubble is the best way to make an impact. Of course it is true that MIT students care about their research, and hope to better the world through science. However, it is rare that students appreciate the full political implications and policy-making opportunities their science background and MIT degree provides them. Hopefully a change can occur at MIT, and students will become more involved politically both on campus and beyond.