The author, Santosh Harish graduated in 2010 with a BTech in MME. He’s currently a doctoral student in the department of Engineering and Public Policy at CMU.
On hearing “Engineering and Public Policy” (EPP), people inevitably express surprise or incomprehension. Despite the importance of many areas that technology policy addresses, people are still confused by it. This article briefly talks about the area I have entered after my B.Tech and will hopefully help folks interested in doing research in policy analysis.
The underlying premise of programs like this is that you need people from an engineering or science background to work on or to study government policy related to technology and science. These programs developed primarily because policy making in these areas is restricted to politicians and bureaucrats, who usually have no technical understanding about the issues. The ongoing climate change “debate” in the US is an unfortunate example. EPP at Carnegie Mellon is one of the few programs that exist in this domain. Some comparable programs are offered by the Engineering Systems Division at MIT, Management Science and Engineering at Stanford, and Engineering and Policy Analysis at TU Delft.
The broad research question that I work on, is developing an assessment tool to identify methods of providing reliable electricity to a given village in India, and studying the relevant national policies. The program stresses on multi-disciplinary skills. Over the last two years, I have taken courses in fields like power system networks and optimization, microeconomics, econometrics, and survey design, in addition to the core policy analysis courses dealing with research methods and quantitative tools in this domain. As part of my research on rural electrification alternatives, I interviewed companies in the solar lighting systems area and rural banks, and spent most of last summer, interviewing households in different villages across Karnataka. The most enriching lessons have been about how not to frame research questions, how not to do interviews, and what not to ask people. Moreover, the freedom to chart your own research approach is a wonderful experience in itself.
The public policy sector is still heavily understaffed, and most of our think tanks and research institutes have some way to go in terms of quality output. A major problem is that unlike in countries like the US, there usually isn’t enough data to perform a rigorous analysis. Hence, doing field work becomes essential for a wide range of areas, and this requires time, effort, and experience.
How would an advanced degree in policy analysis add value? For instance, if the intention is to “do something for the country”, how would this be better than joining the IAS and “directly” having impact? Administration and policy research are two very different, complementary functions, and there is a need for both. While an administrator would no doubt have a good feel of the real world aspects of design and implementation, the analyst’s job is to provide specific information needed to solve the problem. Why should the analyst have a degree? While experience and learning on the job certainly reduce one’s armchair-ness, they don’t really replace formal training- especially in structuring a problem or in using the right tools and methods. Many problems are incredibly tricky and difficult to analyze. Formal programs will go a long way in helping out with these, they can’t be solved without experience
A note of caution though – the reason to join a particular program should not be that you want to get away from the previous area; it must always be about genuinely wanting to get into the new one. This is particularly true about joining something like my program where you are necessarily in the middle of two boats. You are unlikely to emerge as an expert in the technical discipline or in the social sciences. With there being no such thing as a public policy industry (thank God?), you will likely become an academic of some form- either formally doing research in a university, or in a think tank or consultancy. While there are many opportunities, there will not be a very obvious career path to follow and it would depend completely on you. As far as I can tell, the rewards far outweigh the risks and this is the perfect time to enter this space.