Carnegie Mellon research, polar bears assuage Congress

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The new school year has just begun and an exciting American election is around the corner, but many might say that we are in bad times as both students of Carnegie Mellon and citizens of the world.

In mid-August, Dean Mark Wessel of the Heinz School resigned amid scandal. Soon thereafter, Jeffrey Hunker, a former Heinz dean, was reported as a public nuisance due to indiscretions involving alcohol and vehicular travel (both stories were front-page news in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). To top it all off, our beloved professor Randy Pausch passed away earlier this summer.

Confounding our problems here in the Paris of the Ohio River Valley are the more far-reaching issues of soaring energy costs and global warming. The debate this past summer over climate change legislation in the Congress stalled (for one reason, at least) over too much superficial discussion of the harm to polar bears and the general need for federal response and not enough substantial dialog on the actual provisions and details of proposals on the floor. As such, it seems that all we need to do is simply produce more polar bears in the hope that once a sufficient quantity of white, furry, iceberg-loving mammals make their way to our nation’s capital, then lawmakers, satisfied by the sight of plentiful and contented bears, would finally be able to focus on and fix the real issues at hand.

With the price of gas reaching record highs this past summer, many politicians suggested increasing domestic oil production to increase supply and thus ease pain at the pump. It follows, then, that we could simply drill for more — polar bears that is — to increase their production and assuage a concerned Congress.

Innovation, problem solving, and the entrepreneurial spirit are just as much a part of Carnegie Mellon as its yellow brick buildings, questionable public art, and not-so-intimidating Scottie dog mascot. Can’t we then solve all of the country’s energy and climate problems in one fell swoop with this innovative and entrepreneurial bear-production solution?

In spite of all the recent controversies surrounding, improprieties committed on behalf of, and general bad luck experienced by Carnegie Mellon, I am here to say, “Yes, we can.”

Of course, regardless of all of the robots created on this very campus, we cannot literally drill for more polar bears to instantly fix everything and be immediately praised by a grateful nation. But in these seemingly grim times, it is important to remind ourselves that Carnegie Mellon still has the superior intellectual capital to tackle many of the problems facing our nation and the world. (Inferior social capital, on the other hand, is another issue. Ladies: White skirts after Labor Day and sweat pants in public — Really? Guys: Man-pris?)

After all, we developed the Lycos search engine, invented the smiley emoticon, and housed many Nobel-laureate economists and some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century (not to mention the ones that currently grace us with their presence).

I could wax intellectual all day about the achievements and fame of Carnegie Mellon faculty and students, but in advance of this piece reading like a paid commission by the admissions office, I defer to Congress. Yes, the U.S. Senate (“the world’s greatest deliberative body”) and the House of Representatives (the keeper of the power of the purse).

While school was out and students were on vacations of varying degrees of exoticness or otherwise employed in summer jobs of varying degrees of gainfulness, Carnegie Mellon’s good name and research were being discussed in the chambers of the legislative bodies of the most powerful country in the free world. For those of you who have yet to bone up on your summer C-SPAN, let me paint a

I’m one of many students here who often begrudges the amount of work and level of academic rigor that so characterize this university. You could imagine my chagrin, then, in watching a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on the siting of electrical transmission lines (an important but fairly complicated issue in the energy space) and witnessing Senator Maria Cantwell (D–Wash.) suggesting (by name and unsolicited) that Carnegie Mellon and its Electricity Industry Center could perhaps suggest solutions to fix many of the problems and concerns with the current system as outlined by Pennsylvania’s own Senator Bob Casey (D).

“Like all states,” Senator Casey replied, “we are proud of our institutions of higher learning. Carnegie Mellon is one of the leading lights ... that can help us both on the policy and the research and also on the way the law gets implemented.”

Oh, there’s more.

In a House Energy and Commerce hearing on the capture and sequestration of carbon from coal-fired power plants, our very own Engineering and Public Policy professor, Edward Rubin, testified on the need for real-world deployment of this crucial technology over obscure research — a point with which the other distinguished members of the testifying panel agreed.

There are countless other examples from this summer as well as years past in the particularly pertinent area of energy and climate policy in which the name, the work, and the reputation of Carnegie Mellon were put into the Congressional record.

Our expertise, however, is not limited to the environment. Last summer, I had the privilege and honor of watching (now former) Heinz Dean Mark Wessel testify in front of the House Science and Technology committee on the globalization of research and development. He held his own against other members of the panel, which included the president of Cornell University, and deftly deflected many nativist insinuations and inappropriate questions by members of Congress.

While academic knowledge, he told the committee, may originate in one location, it isn’t any one country’s sole property, and should be shared on a global scale. We may have the technology here in Pittsburgh, but its use and implementation should — and will — certainly affect those in Shanghai and elsewere.

With sound science and practical technical guidance lacking in many energy-related issues,we should take advantage of our captive audience in the Congress. Through our cutting-edge research, innovative approach, and good old-fashioned American know-how, Carnegie Mellon is well poised to fix many of the important problems of our time. We should all be proud.

Drill for more polar bears? Yes we can.