Guest Blog Post: Eli Pollock

2/14/2018

Last month, SPI hosted its annual Science Policy Bootcamp, taught by former head of the MIT DC Office Bill Bonvillian. Starting with discussions about the fundamental role of technological advancement in economic growth, students developed an understanding of the historical forces that have shaped the way the United States funds science and engineering research. The class emphasized participation, with students leading discussions about the many course readings. As a student in the class, I was surprised by some of the things I learned, especially about how misconceptions about manufacturing have cost the US its competitive edge (here I feel obligated to include a recommendation for Bill’s recently-published book, Advanced Manufacturing, now available from MIT Press). I had thought, like many Americans, that manufacturing will happen wherever it is cheapest, much like agriculture. However, this is not always true: integrating manufacturing into the research pipeline can help countries maintain expertise and prevent high-paying jobs from leaving.

Another interesting aspect of the class was how many of the people we discussed were MIT faculty or alumni. Perhaps the most central figure in the class discussions was Vannevar Bush, the MIT president whose vision for government-supported research has shaped science policy since the end of World War II. To me, it was fascinating to learn that MIT has not only produced so much incredible science but shaped the way that science is funded and used by society.

The course also touched on more human topics. One session was a series of case studies of individuals and small groups that have made technological breakthroughs, reminding us that it is ultimately people, not policies, that create innovation. In the final class session, we heard from a panel comprised of Prof. Christine Walley, George Westerman, and Prof. Thomas Kochan on the future of work and education. The panel addressed the often-ignored side of innovation: the people whose lives are upended by economic change and do not share in the resulting growth. Prof. Walley talked about how her father was one of thousands of workers in the Chicago steel mills who lost his job when they closed. Her personal account of the local community’s struggles drove home the importance of policy aimed at helping everyone share in the benefits of technological advancement.

I believe it is important for scientists and engineers to have an understanding of the knowledge imparted by this course. Science is not done in a vacuum, nor should it be. Understanding the relationship between individuals, governments, and scientific progress is part of being a good citizen scientist. I am proud to be part of an institution that has so much history of producing good citizen scientists and hope to be one myself.