We Need More Engineers in Congress

People with technical backgrounds likely can enhance legislation.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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Where is America's equivalent of Ashok Kumar? A chemical engineer who worked extensively in industry, he was the first and only chemical engineer in the U.K.'s House of Commons. In 1997 he was elected as a Member of Parliament for an area that's a major chemical production center. His sudden death in March prompted the Institution of Chemical Engineers, Rugby, U.K., and the North East of England Process Industry Cluster, Sunderland, U.K., to launch a fellowship in his honor to provide chemical engineering insights to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (see: www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2010/140.html).

Do chemical engineers have an innate aversion to running for office?

There actually are people with technical backgrounds, not just lawyers, in Congress. It may surprise you that even a few engineers serve on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, Ted Kaufman (D., Del.) was appointed to fill the seat vacated when Joe Biden became vice-president. He holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Duke and worked for several years for DuPont. He serves on the Committee on Homeland Security, which is involved in reauthorization of the Chemical Facilities Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) (see CP's Chemical Security Action Blog.)

In the House, I identified five representatives with engineering backgrounds: Todd Akin (R., Mo.) has a B. S. in management engineering from Worcester Poly, and serves on the Science and Technology Committee; Joe Barton (R., Tex.) holds a bachelors in industrial engineering from Texas A&M and an M.S. in industrial administration from Purdue, and serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee; John Shimkus (R., Ill.) has a B.S. in general engineering from West Point, and serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee; Cliff Stearns (R., Fla.) holds a bachelors in electrical engineering from George Washington, and serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee; and Daniel Lipinski (D., Ill.) has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Northwestern and a masters in engineering-economic systems from Stanford, and serves on the Science and Technology Committee.

If you're aware of any others, please let me know.

I couldn't find a single chemical engineer who ever has been elected to Congress. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Sure, some chemical engineers do play significant roles in Washington. For instance, President Barack Obama has just appointed Rafael Moure-Eraso as chair of U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2010/071.html). And other federal bodies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with oversight of the chemical industry certainly do have chemical engineers on staff. Whether such groups have enough chemical engineers and have them in the right positions are questions worth serious discussion. Consider, for instance, a recent article "Prepare for More Safety Inspections," which notes that few of the inspectors who will visit plants are engineers or have operations experience in the chemical industry.

But, let's get back to Congress.

I'd welcome more engineers of whatever discipline running for election. However, given the nature of some of the overriding issues facing the country — including the environment, energy and security — it's time for chemical engineers finally to step up. Indeed, I wonder why members of the professional haven't already heard the call.

Do chemical engineers have an innate aversion to running for office? Does the nature of the political process go so against our training to be analytical and logical that we can't bear becoming legislators? I certainly hope not. After all, the profession has long touted a chemical engineering education as one that provides unparalleled career flexibility. Shouldn't that even apply to politics?

Involvement by chemical engineers is all the more important because the policies and regulations that come out of Washington profoundly impact the profession and the chemical industry. Federal mandates on the environment, health, safety and energy, for instance, have transformed how plants operate. The outcome of current discussions on Capitol Hill as to whether CFATS should require consideration of inherent safety might add a new regulatory wrinkle to how plants are designed.

Professional organizations and trade associations do strive to provide technical inputs to inform the legislative process. I applaud their efforts — however, realistically such groups boast neither the resources nor the clout to markedly influence Congress. Obviously, it's far better to be an insider shaping bills.

We need at least a few chemical engineers in Congress.

If you decide to run, you might even wind up with an endorsement from Chemical Processing.


Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at MRosenzweig@putman.net.

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