Guest Column by George Donohue - Capital Newspaper April 13, 2017
Many scientists and engineers are planning to march on Washington this coming Earth Day. It should come as no surprise that many of us who have chosen science, engineering or mathematics as a profession feel that we are an embattled species. We represent only about 5 percent of the overall U.S. population.
It takes many years of advanced education — an investment of both time and money — to allow us to practice these professions. Most of us do not make these investments to earn huge salaries or to make large sums of money as investment bankers.
Frequently, as teachers, we tell our students they will be investing their time and talents to learn the truth of the natural laws of the world and to use these laws and the language of mathematics to create new devices and procedures to make the world a better place.
As engineers, we have not always lived up to this goal. I worked as a defense analyst in the Reagan administration estimating the marginal cost of a space-based missile defense system. The analysis clearly indicated that building the proposed system would be as much as six times more costly than it would be for Russia to saturate the defense by just building and launching more ICBMs.
It would, in fact, have created an “arms-race instability.” This is not what the Reagan White House wanted to hear, but it was the truth.
My work was classified at the time, but I followed with great interest the public debate led by the physical sciences community. Those scientists spoke out on what I could not say in public.
I was always interested in why these scientists, who prefer to speak in peer-reviewed journals, would speak so publicly on what was clearly a political issue. My conclusion was that it was a mass expression of guilt for being the ones who designed nuclear weapons in the first place.
Today, we engineers should be the ones speaking out on the facts of global climate change. We are the ones who have designed the energy production systems and the machines that turn this energy into heat that stays in our atmosphere.
Admittedly, we did not think of it this way. We were responding to many clients who asked us to enable new capabilities for mankind. Only in the last 20 years have I become aware of the effects of our work.
I was formally educated as a mechanical engineer with a specialty in thermal-fluid sciences. My technical education allowed me to understand the causes and the consequences of global warming and climate change. Many similarly educated climate scientists want to demonstrate to the public and political leadership the extreme danger of global climate change, which I believe is comparable to the dangers of a global thermonuclear war.
Some scientists argue that it is a bad idea to join such a mass march on the capital. They reason it will confirm a growing public perception that we do our research and speak out only for political reasons. They argue we should be quietly talking to our friends and neighbors to try to educate them on the scientific evidence and the great peril that we have created.
While President Reagan never changed his mind about the Star Wars defense shield, Department of Defense officials sponsored and understood our analysis. Wisely, no space-based, layered strategic defense system has ever been developed. Our current system is potentially effective only against an attack by a small rogue nation.
The climate change issue does not have a similar dynamic. A rally on the Mall will probably not change many minds. Consider this my open letter, however, to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to talk to the many chemical and mechanical engineers he must know from Exxon Mobil Corp., to get their professional reading of the technical facts.
George Donohue is a professor emeritus of systems engineering at George Mason University and the president of the South County Democratic Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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