On the origin of a new knowledge exchange species: engineering evidence in policy

Author: Adam Cooper

This post was originally published by the Evidence & Policy blog on December 8, 2021.

We have re-issued the article that has already been published by the Evidence & Policy blog. We would like to express gratitude for the kind offer of the editorial board of the Evidence & Policy blog.

Original article URL: https://bit.ly/3yeaem0

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article ‘Engineering advice in policy making: a new domain of inquiry in evidence and policy’

Every day in government ministries, decisions are being made that shape the world. Literally, not figuratively. Decisions are made that can move mountains, make holes in the ground, cause buildings to appear, decide where other things can land, park or moor. This shaping involves a profession of highly trained and skilled individuals known commonly as ‘engineers’. Most engineers work in the private sector but a small fraction work in government, providing advice to policy officials and ministers. In the UK, engineers in government are a hidden species, commonly clustered into the STEM acronym. Science and engineering are often used interchangeably, which may explain why there is a body of research on science advice but nothing explicitly on engineering advice.

In addition to the common failure to distinguish between scientists and engineers in policy is the way in which science advice is commonly understood: as a regulatory function that helps monitor the presence of toxic elements in the environment, and work out what to do about them. The work of Jasanoff in her book The Fifth Branch is an example of this, and it also tends to exemplify the ‘at a distance’ approach of the majority of science advice research. Engineers aren’t normally involved in this kind of ‘regulatory science’ – in the UK at least they are involved in implementation (though of course engineering, if nothing else, is a discipline of standards, as Yates & Murphy show). Instead, discovering this new evidence for policy species took a more ethnographic moment to reveal it.

My career trajectory took me from academia into government for over ten years, then back out into a new area of research. Part of my experience in government highlighted to me the uniqueness of engineers in policy – that I had worked in three different areas, across eightyears of government before encountering a single engineer. But when I got to DECC (the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change) they were difficult to miss. In part this was because I was placed into a team some desks down from them, but also because of the way in which engineering pervaded the ministry. There was a distinct sense of ‘we know what we need to do, we just need to build it’ which left me, a social scientist by role and training, feeling distinctly useless. But the longer I spent time in the ministry the more it became clear that this mindset was part of a problem. It was then that I undertook a series of interviews with officials working with the engineers to understand what the problems were.

Around seven years later, and a change of job (from government to academia), I finally found time to do a proper, theoretically-grounded analysis of that qualitative data. The problems with policy arose from the distinct practice-oriented tradition of engineering. Engineering is not about discovering ‘truths’, but discovering solutions – things that work. That pragmatist perspective, and problem-solving orientation meant their way of working was similar to policy. Even the name of what policy officials do – policymaking – echoes the ‘making’ nature of engineers. This overlap in professional styles and practice – coupled with the very distinct methods, assumptions and approaches meant that engineering advice could either be complementary – closely supporting policymaking in a way that science often finds difficult (such as suggesting solutions, not just framing the problem or highlighting uncertainties). However, when not managed well – as happened at times in DECC – it can be a source of conflict, rooted in ideas of policy ownership, territories and – ultimately – power.

These observations provide the basis for a new line of inquiry in evidence-based policymaking, with a new species in play: the engineer alongside scientists, economists and modellers. My future programme of work aims to expand on that, together with PhD candidate Laurent Lioté on my team and others in STEaPP. One element is taking advantage of work I’ll be doing with the UK’s Government Office for Science in developing their approach to improving science (and engineering systems) in government from February 2022, and the new Engineering in Policy Network. If you are interested in working in this area, I’d love to build a wider global network, so please get in touch.

Dr Adam C Cooper is an Associate Professor in Engineering Policy. His background is in applied interdisciplinary social science rooted in 10 years direct experience of the UK Civil Service. His research focus is on ‘engineering policy’: both engineering for policy (the use of technical advice for – mainly energy – policy), and policy for engineering, which includes developing new field methods for socio-technical research.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Cooper, A. C. G. Marvulli, L. Black, K. Holmes, J. and Mehta, H. (2021) Engineering advice in policy making: a new domain of inquiry in evidence and policy. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X15852883943798.

Image credit: Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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