The ongoing COVID pandemic has vividly illustrated how science and social context are intertwined. Early warnings from not only public health experts, but also social scientists and historians, gave clues to how the pandemic could unfold. Scientists searched for technical solutions in the form of therapies and vaccines. Simultaneously, policymakers and public officials looked for immediate, practical solutions to alleviate the excruciating burden on our healthcare systems. Historical knowledge on emergent diseases pointed to prudent approaches such as masking and social-distancing before specific scientific data supported these measures.
The vaccine: an insufficient solution
Eighteen months later, the technical solution has arguably arrived. Yet even in countries where access to vaccines is now widespread, the pandemic maintains a stronghold. Summer 2021 began with hopes for a return to normal in the U.S., predicated on assumptions of high vaccination rates and manageable variants. However, these assumptions have not held true, as we face new, more-infectious variants and struggle to expand vaccinations. The vaccine has proven to be a necessary, but insufficient, solution.
Disparate access to healthcare in the U.S. and around the world remains a persistent challenge, as does access to reliable information. Many individuals report discomfort with the perceived rapidness of the vaccine development, as they are aware of only the final 12–18 months of development, not the decades-long scientific advancement at its foundation. Others, particularly individuals from historically marginalized groups, have well-founded misgivings toward public health initiatives. Overcoming these barriers requires integrating perspectives outside of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into the problem-solving approach, as well as revisiting our assumptions.
As engineers, we are taught that our solutions and designs are only as good as the assumptions they are built on. We are trained to approach problems by first identifying our known and unknown variables, then listing and evaluating our assumptions. We know, for example, when it is reasonable to assume a gas behaves ideally.
Surpassing the limitations of an engineering perspective
But not all assumptions are codified in the technical aspects of the engineering process. My students often hear me say that “engineering does not occur in a vacuum.” As we’ve seen with the COVID pandemic, the social, political, and historical context that an engineering challenge occurs in is essential to both defining the problem and formulating a solution. In my upper-level classes, I push students to increase their social awareness through a problem definition framework that highlights the human context of the problem before considering technology as a potential solution. Subsequently, the emphasis shifts to defining our societal challenges in their socio-technical context and to recognizing that technology alone is often an insufficient answer. Sometimes, it is not the answer at all.
Embedded in this approach is the need to grapple with the limitations of an engineering perspective and realize that other voices need to be heard. I expose students to how the same problem can be viewed through different disciplinary lenses by inviting colleagues from our College of Arts and Sciences as guest speakers and assigning students the task of interviewing students or experts in relevant, non-engineering fields. Putting students in conversation with experts from other disciplines reveals inherent biases and, hopefully, trains them to listen to others and build connections between seemingly disparate ideas. These perspectives equip students to recognize the limits of their own knowledge and identify what voices they need to “bring to the table” as they engage in the following problem analysis framework.
Step 1: Identifying stakeholders
Characterize stakeholder interests and relative power with respect to solving the problem and/or implementing a solution. Consider four primary categories of stakeholders:
- anticipated or intended beneficiaries who will benefit from solving the problem (e.g., the global population and companies producing therapeutics and vaccines)
- anticipated or unintended causalities who may be harmed or excluded by the solution (e.g., those who cannot access developed therapeutics or vaccines, or those who have gained pandemic-specific employment, such as contact tracers)
- key influencers who play a role in implementing and/or preventing a solution and must buy in to the idea (e.g., public health experts, policymakers, politicians, celebrities)
- important technical personnel who hold the expertise essential to developing a solution (e.g., experts in public health, immunology, process engineering).
While only some of these individuals are directly involved in developing solutions, all are key to the actualization of a solution. Students often initially struggle to define causalities and key influencers, because it requires understanding societal mechanisms beyond the STEM perspective, as well as breaking the assumption that technological advancement is inherently positive.
Step 2: Defining context
Consider the time, place, history, belief systems, and narratives around an issue, and how these influence various stakeholders. Defining context requires exploring the topic through the lens of different disciplines. For example, historians study the critical importance and impact of historical events on modern occurrences, and social and behavioral scientists understand how our actions are influenced by our beliefs.
Time and place are particularly critical to context. In the U.S., for example, the pandemic hit at a time of deep political polarization and distrust. The U.S. had also been largely unaffected by epidemics or pandemics in recent decades, and a culture of mask-wearing or community effort to prevent the spread of illness was not in place. These factors have had a large impact on how the pandemic has progressed, as well as the success of vaccination campaigns in various communities.
Step 3: Generating and assessing possible solutions
Consider the capabilities and limitations of each solution. Then, assess the solution within the context to determine if it is appropriate for solving the problem.
A powerful technological solution is only impactful if it can be implemented, which requires more than just sound science. Viewing solutions without the broader context hinders creativity in problem-solving, as well as the ability to implement a solution. For example, the number of COVID vaccines made available in a short period of time is a huge triumph of science, but each vaccine has its own tradeoffs related to efficacy, number of shots, and storage requirements. While all of these vaccines are critical in this moment of crisis, further innovation is needed to eradicate COVID and prevent future pandemics.
Although this three-step process is simple, it is noticeably challenging for students. They have to overcome an engrained resistance to seeking other disciplinary points of view, as many have internalized a belief that an engineering perspective is paramount.
The pandemic has highlighted the need for cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration, as well as the importance of cross-disciplinary literacy. Scientists and engineers must have a basic understanding of disciplines beyond STEM. Likewise, those outside of STEM must have some comfort and familiarity with science.
The need for diversity of perspective extends beyond discipline. Within STEM, we also need a workforce with diverse backgrounds, as our individual lived experiences strongly influence how we conduct our work and collaborate. As we rise to new challenges and question existing norms, we need to critically evaluate who is involved in problem-solving efforts, as well as create space at the table for voices that are often overlooked or underrepresented.
This article originally appeared in the Emerging Voices column in the September 2021 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at www.aiche.org/cep.