On Friday, Feb. 19, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko spoke about his perception of the value of an engineering mindset in government as part of the Mechanical Engineering Seminar speaker series.
Tonko represents the Capital District in Washington, and last Friday, he gave his perspective on the inner workings of policy-making from the point of view of an engineer in Washington.
Tonko went to school to become an engineer and worked in the field after college to put bread on the table, but was drawn to public service in the early ’70s.
According to Tonko, this was to the disdain of people like his mother, who would have liked to see him make a decent living with the supposed monetary safety that comes with being an engineer. One thing led to another, and Tonko wound up in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Tonko’s path to such an influential position in public service was paved, in his opinion, by having the mind of an engineer and the persona of a politician.
He is a different breed in Washington, where most of his counterparts have backgrounds in law.
The difference between engineering and law mindsets, he said, is that, “Lawyers must defend any case; it is their trade. Engineers look for the best solution that will work given the problem at hand.”
Not too strikingly, Tonko was speaking to a room consisting of mostly engineering students and professors, as it was a Mechanical Engineering Department talk. To the students in the room, he reiterated, “Engineers should be at the table in government.”
Tonko raised a topic relevant to our liberal arts and engineering college — that engineers should not limit themselves to science and math, and liberal arts students should not limit themselves to their fields of study.
Tonko’s thoughts on governance are very much like an advertisement for Union: an interdisciplinary approach is the key to success.
Following this sentiment, he stated: “The art of politics is the science of connecting with people. And it is an art and it is a science.”
Analytical thinking, Tonko argued, is sorely lacking in how policies are formed in Washington.
He said that there is a void of integrity in how politicians consider problems and produce unbiased solutions; money and personal beliefs often trump logic and reason.
He cited examples of this dilemma, mentioning that vast infrastructure issues often go overlooked, like in the example of the Flint water crisis. He also believes that, in general, data is ignored due to emotion, ignorance or both, like in the example of climate change denial.
Tonko specializes in energy policy, serving on the House Subcommittee on Energy, and is quite qualified for the position as a former industrial engineer with vast experience in the field.
He is a proponent of renewable energy, sponsoring bills that have brought in millions of dollars to the Capital Region for green energy research.
Tonko gave a talk on Friday that is relevant to Union’s interdisciplinary approach to education. And, in his own words, Tonko is, “Proud to represent Union College in Congress.”
In fact, his official website displays an ivy-covered picture of Nott Memorial as one of its featured photos.