New Leadership May Mean New Opportunities for Engineers

 

Jan/Feb 2009

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
New Leadership May Mean New Opportunities for Engineers

BY SARAH OGDEN

The 2008 general election saw the Democratic Party regain control of the White House and strengthen its majorities in the House and Senate. Democrats added 21 seats in the House for a majority of 257-178 and gained seven seats in the Senate for a total of 58 (including the two Independents, who tend to vote with the Democrats). Democrats have not reached the 60 seats needed for a filibuster-proof majority, but with two Senate seats unfilled, it remains a possibility. With most seats filled or promised, it appears that the Democratic count in the Senate will stand at 59-41, denying Senate Democrats a "filibuster-proof" majority.

Pundits agree that the sea change was driven more by voter discontent with the ruling party than an ideological shift, so the pressure is on for the Obama administration and the 111th Congress to prove themselves to the American public in order to maintain approval and their majority. The president's biggest challenge may be finding a way to fund his ambitious agenda in order to keep his many campaign promises.

While the Republican Party is often considered to be more pro-business than the Democratic Party, President Obama's agenda is on track to provide new opportunities for engineers. He has declared technology a primary issue, and two of his cabinet picks have scientific backgrounds: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is a chemical engineer and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. After years of neglect, the nation's infrastructure has commanded the attention of both the president and Congress as a means of economic renewal. And the president's focus on energy policy will provide opportunities to explore and develop alternative sources of energy.

The Obama administration's technological initiatives include:

Energy. The U.S. is the world's largest consumer of energy. There have been no nuclear plants built since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, though existing nuclear plants produce a quarter of America's electricity. While President Obama has been skeptical of offshore drilling and has been cautious in supporting nuclear power, he is prepared to make a $150 billion investment in clean energy technology over the next 10 years.

Infrastructure. As part of his plan to boost the economy, President Obama plans to make a major investment in infrastructure, especially "green" infrastructure such as high-performance buildings. He has pledged to create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, which would be funded at $60 billion over 10 years to fund transportation infrastructure projects nationwide. These projects are expected to create up to two million new jobs and stimulate approximately $35 billion per year in new economic activity.

Obama has also proposed a national infrastructure protection plan for critical infrastructure, which would be executed in cooperation with the private sector. The plan includes modernizing the electrical grid and upgrading highways, rail, ports, water, and aviation.

Education. President Obama has already declared education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics a "national priority," citing the statistic that among industrialized nations, U.S. scores on international science and math tests rank in the bottom third and bottom fifth, respectively. Over the past 30 years, federal STEM funding has declined, while other countries have substantially increased their research budgets. President Obama plans to fund scholarships to increase the numbers of K?12 STEM teachers and college students studying in STEM fields. He is also working to coordinate STEM education policy through a STEM Education Committee in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Research. President Obama has proposed making permanent the research and development tax credit. He also plans to introduce a $500 million Technology Investment Fund that would build on existing federal education technology programs by offering matching grants to ensure that technology is integrated in public schools.

While President Obama's technology-friendly agenda should provide new opportunities for the engineering profession, his view of contracting and procurement is unsettling. According to www.change.gov, "The Obama-Biden administration will realize savings by reducing the corruption and cost overruns that have become all too routine in defense contracting. This includes launching a program of acquisition reform and management, which would end the common practice of no-bid contracting." While seeking to end corruption in the contracting process is good for everyone, qualifications-based selection, which is supported by NSPE, may be caught in the reform net. NSPE is planning an outreach initiative to educate Congress and the administration about the importance of QBS and its important role in the ethical practice of engineering.