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Innovators at work and in the classroom

Keeper of the Flame

“You’ve got to have patience” when politicians ignore science, says M. Granger Morgan.A veteran professor gets engineering students fired up about public policy.


By Thomas K. Grose


Can America ease its dependence on imported oil with a “drill, baby, drill” energy policy? Can carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) cut greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to permit heavy reliance on coal? These questions demand science and engineering know-how, clearly. But complete answers will also tap into economics and the behavioral sciences. And that will require researchers who are comfortable working in areas where the quantitative and the qualitative meet and merge.

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) came to that realization back in the mid-1970s. That’s when it started an undergraduate program that allowed engineering students to earn a dual major in public policy. By 1977, that program became the full-fledged Department of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP), and M. Granger Morgan was named its first head, with a remit to add a doctoral program. Thirty-three years, 700 undergraduate degrees, and 200 Ph.D.’s later, Morgan, 70, is still there, and the department continues to grow. This fall, it will have more than 100 full-time Ph.D. students. “That’s an absolutely astounding figure,” raves Robert Morgan (no relation), a professor emeritus who created another pioneering public-policy department, at Washington University in St. Louis. “It is just amazing what he’s accomplished.”

EPP focuses on four technology-driven policy areas: energy and the environment; information and communication technology; risk analysis; and managing technological innovation and research-and-development policy. “He’s kept things close to engineering, and has kept a strong technical presence in the department,” explains Robert Morgan, who gave a guest lecture there earlier this year.

CMU’s was the first of a handful of engineering-public policy programs in the United States, and it remains the leader of the pack. That’s because CMU has a history of being both a vocational as well as a top research university. It traditionally took a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research that focused on real-world problems, where the physical and social sciences overlap. As such, although EPP resides in CMU’s College of Engineering, its full-time faculty have joint appointments in both engineering and the social sciences. That would “be a disaster” for young faculty at most schools, Granger Morgan says, but at CMU, joint appointments aren’t a roadblock to promotions and tenure.

EPP appeals to graduate students who are committed to solving public policy problems. Their research ranges from online privacy to the environmental impact of nanotechnology, to life-cycle analyses of transportation fuels. Forty percent of its Ph.D.’s become academics, while the other 60 percent have careers at think tanks and consulting firms, in government, and in industry (including Westinghouse, AT&T, and IBM).

Morgan’s own career has crisscrossed disciplines, too. He earned his doctorate from the University of California, San Diego, in applied physics, but before that, he spent a year doing graduate work in modern Latin American history at the University of California, Berkeley. And after he landed at CMU in 1974, he morphed from physics to electrical engineering. Morgan’s research areas include the integration of renewable energy sources to power systems, regulatory hurdles to CCS, and climate-change decision making.

Last June, Morgan was awarded ASEE’s Chester F. Carlson Award for innovation in engineering education. The citation noted, in part, how EPP under his tenure has produced engineers “who are competent and comfortable working at the boundary of engineering and society on real-world, complex problems... in an interdisciplinary way.”

Is Morgan disillusioned by the current political environment, one in which political figures freely dismiss the science of climate change and question evolution? Not really. “These things come and go,” he says philosophically. “If you are a politician trying to get elected, it’s easy to ignore the science.” He’s confident that, ultimately, the physical realities of global warming will force decision makers to accept scientific advice. “You’ve got to have patience.”

 

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in London.

 



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