Bridging Science, Engineering, and Public Policy

March 17, 2017

In the September issue of The Voice, OSPE’s Manifesto called on Ontario’s engineers and engineering degree-holders to participate in shaping the policy debates Ontario faces and help elevate the profile of engineers by engaging with OSPE.

The article also noted that McMaster’s Engineering and Public Policy graduate program is helping to change perceptions of what it means to be an engineer – moving from a traditional focus on serving and protecting the public to also being socially-conscious, possessing the technical, engineering know-how needed to affect societal change.

A strong advocate for the interface between science, engineering, and policy formulation is Dr. Gail Krantzberg, a Professor in the Booth School of Engineering Practise and Technology, and Director of the Engineering and Public Policy Program at McMaster University. Krantzberg is one of North America’s foremost experts on the Great Lakes ecosystem and sustainability, with over thirty years of experience in environmental science and freshwater management.

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Dr. Krantzberg is an environmental scientist by training, a Senior Great Lakes Policy Analyst by career, and has authored six books, and more than 180 articles on issues pertaining to ecosystem quality and sustainability.


Professor Krantzberg’s passion for the Great Lakes – the largest system of fresh surface water on earth - is unmistakable and infectious. Her interest emerged while completing her post-doc with the Ministry of Environment on sediment toxicity using samples from the Great Lakes region.

“The more I learned about [the Great Lakes], the more I wanted to do research on it. Its sheer magnitude and size captured my interest,” said Krantzberg. “I felt a responsibility to understand and enhance them, and work towards their preservation.”

Krantzberg’s work on the Great Lakes has evolved from applied research to public policy and governance. “The science we have on the Great Lakes is solid, but our ability to govern them is poor.” Krantzberg explains that the policies of the 1980s and 90s focused on stopping pollution from point sources like industry and municipal wastewater treatment plants. Until the mid-1990s, the Great Lakes were a place that other jurisdictions looked to for best practices for the ecosystem approach and the virtual elimination of persistent toxic substances.

A key challenge Krantzberg notes is that policies around the Great Lakes did not shift despite climate change and the introduction of invasive species. Given these and other threats, it has become increasingly difficult to identify who or what is responsible for the damage to the Great Lakes region, who is responsible for stopping these threats, or how to possibly control citizens’ behavioral choices.

“Because it’s so complicated, so many people need to be involved in the solutions – we need to look for a bi-national set of rules for how we’re going to play in a regime where top-down command and control by governments won't solve the problems,” Krantzberg stated in a 2011 video for Vital Signs.

When asked which regions are ahead of Ontario when it comes to protecting water, Krantzberg notes that the European Union has regulatory compliance under it's Water Directive Frameworks that are embedded in law, but Canada’s bi-national approaches with the US are not legally binding. She adds that other regions have realized that a collaborative rather than top-down approach is the most effective way to protect water. “If you throw oil down the drain, it affects [everyone]… All of us need to contribute to the solution and not wait for industry or government [to take action].”

How did the Master of Engineering and Public Policy emerge (MEPP)?

As a scientist, Krantzberg was negotiating with the federal and provincial governments on an agreement to share the management of the Great Lakes. However, she noticed that the Deputy Minister she reported to asked questions that were very different from those a scientist would ask. It was then that Krantzberg realized that “for policy to work, [governments and decision-makers] need scientists and engineers behind it...We need engineers to be at the [policymaking] table to fine-tune policies based on engineering principles and scientific advancements.”

The program’s webpage echoes this position:

In today's complex world, engineers and scientists are called upon to design technical systems that provide goods and services to society in a safe, efficient, and environmentally sound manner. In this context, engineers and scientists can serve as key advisors to and take the lead as decision makers in both the public and private sectors. Therefore, engineers and scientists need more than extensive technical skills; you need an enhanced understanding of public policy and the role of engineering and science in sustainable technological, social, ecological and economic systems.

What is the MEPP program all about?

Krantzberg notes this 12-month program is the only graduate program of its kind in Canada. Students complete:

  • Core courses that provide the skills necessary for understanding and analyzing societal issues;
  • Elective courses that allow students to deepen their knowledge on a range of engineering, science, and social science applications;
  • A research paper on a problem at the interface of engineering, science, and public policy; and
  • An intensive workshop/seminar week.

Those seeking to apply to the program must have a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), with a minimum B- average. As Krantzberg explains, “I’m not teaching [students] to be an engineer or scientist. Instead, I’m teaching students how policymakers make public policies and how to be an effective advisor to a policymaker.” The school is in the process of developing a Masters of Technology and Public Policy to welcome non-STEM undergraduates.

When asked whether programs like the MEPP are changing engineering education, Professor Krantzberg is resolute. “Yes, engineers need to be trained in public policy. Exposure to public policy makes engineering work grounded in societal needs… Scientists and engineers need to be heard and at the [policymaking] table because we can make society better…”

Where do graduates hope to work?

Graduates from McMaster’s program have different aspirations and come from all over the world. Professor Krantzberg notes that many international students hope to return to their country and apply their engineering knowledge to a particular social issue, like poverty or food security. Canadian engineering students are generally interested in working for the public sector or government, while some choose to work for a non-profit or non-governmental organization.

Professor Krantzberg notes that there are many policy issues where engineering degree-holders and engineers can contribute, like renewable energy, battery technology, and the transition to a low-carbon economy. “Cities are thirsty for engineering advice on how to adapt to climate change.”

This article originally appeared in The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) quarterly magazine The Voice, and was written by Catrina Kronfli, Lead, Policy and Government Relations.

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