Op-Ed: Awash in Data

But don’t make it the new political weapon of the information age

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

With a shiny new emphasis on hard data made possible by the IT revolution, public policy now has the potential to become more rigorous and apolitical. Sadly, we find again and again that data seems to be just as political as the partisan opinions that have always fed policy debates. We are indeed awash in data — but are we any wiser?

Just take the tech world’s ever-recurring hot button issue: “Do we really have enough engineers and scientists?” This important policy issue lingers on without a definitive answer because the variables are so multidimensional that in the hands of a good analyst the data can provide ammunition to just about anyone with a strong viewpoint.

A case in point: the National Academy of Engineering’s twin studies entitled “The Gathering Storm” and “Is America Falling off the Flat Earth?” are some of the clearest and deeply analytical works on the subject of the engineering pipeline and global competitiveness. The studies not only make the case that we are facing a shortage of information age workers, but more importantly, those we are producing today don’t necessarily have the skills that will be important in the future. Case closed, or so it would seem.

Apparently not. In “What Engineering Shortage?” — published in Tau Beta Pi’s summer magazine — Alan Brown makes the argument that we actually have a strong supply of engineers in this country. The crux of his argument is economic and simple — if there was a real shortage, we would see skyrocketing salaries. Sounds reasonable (if not somewhat hopeful).

Let me share an even simpler example of this phenomenon. The so-called nation’s report card was issued in October. Nationally, less than 40 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders demon­strated proficiency at mathematics — dismal news for the leading technology country in the world. Well, apparently I must have missed something, because the headline on my own state education agency’s website reads, “Texas students shine on NAEP math test.” The basis for the cheerleading? As poorly as my state performed, it was happily better than 40 other states. There’s some bragging rights when our kids’ education is at stake!

To compound matters, we just learned from a new study entitled “Steady as She Goes? Three Genera­tions of Students Through the Science and Engineering Pipeline,” by research­ers from Rutgers and Georgetown, that top students in engineering and science are de­fecting to other majors. The old adage of “look to your left, look to your right ...” still applies, but it is increasingly the case that the kids who leave aren’t getting washed out; they are actually among the most able in our engineering classes.

So, what do we make of all these numbers and competing reports? I’m reminded of the debate over global warming where science was used as a surrogate for a deeply partisan fight driven primarily by economics and ideology. I am heart­ened that the same temperature has not yet been reached in the engineering workforce debate. However we should be ever mindful to not let our own agendas determine the truth hidden inside the piles of reports available today. Let’s not make data the new political weapon of the information age.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .