Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Scientists Versus Engineers

It seems that the severe budget cuts in the UK has cause a long-standing crack between the perceived importance of science over engineering to surface.

Science is mainly concerned with unearthing knowledge. Engineering seeks to deliver working solutions to practical problems in the form of technology. Yet the terms 'engineering' and 'technology' have been increasingly subsumed into 'science' — in the names of institutions, in discussion of 'science policy', in media coverage and in popular parlance. The situation upsets engineers and their leaders, but they tend to keep quiet for fear of being accused of having chips on their shoulders.

Now that public money is scarce for both the science and engineering communities, the fault line between them has started to creak. In the run-up to this week's UK Comprehensive Spending Review, Martin Earwicker, a vice-president at the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng), wrote to The Times to point out that engineers are needed to turn a scientific discovery into hard cash. It was a "logical leap that is not in general supported by experience", he wrote, "that a scientific discovery, however important, will automatically turn into economic success."

I must admit that I have been totally ignorant of the sentiments reflected here by engineers or the engineering profession. So I can't really comment on the validity of such sentiments. However, from my perspective as a scientist (physicist), there are two major points that should be pointed out:

1. Engineers as a profession tend to have a greater degree of employability than scientists, and the tend to make more money as well. So this is not a suppressed, down-trodden, poor profession. In fact, they are quite well off when compared to the physics profession. So to hear this type of comments from the engineering profession of not being given any respect is like Donald Trump complaining that he isn't given the same level of respect as, say, Steven Chu.

2. I can also see why government spending would tend to favor spending on science rather than engineering. I'm not saying there shouldn't be any spending on engineering. That would be silly. However, spending on science tends to be "riskier", and it isn't something the private industries generally are willing to invest in. This is where the government can step in and fill such voids. Now, once a discovery has been made, then turning a scientific idea into something useful and commercial can and should be done by private industries, where profits can be made. This is where engineers step in where they take a science idea, and then refine it to turn it into something useful. I do not see this as a denigration of the engineering profession. In fact, it clearly shows the vital link between science and engineering, where an idea turns into a useful product. In fact, one could argue that the amount of money put into engineering research and effort dwarfs money spent on science, as indicated in the article:

The RAEng said in its submission that each active research academic in physics and maths gets 'several times more expenditure' than those in engineering and technology. But industry spends twice as much — about £15 billion (US$23.8 billion) — as the UK government on research and development each year, and most of that industrial money supports engineering, not science. In addition, state programmes that concentrate on applied work — such as the European Commission's Framework Programme — tend to be more politicized, less meritocratic and less efficient than science programmes such as those of the US National Science Foundation.

In fact, advances in engineering allows for the ability to advance science. Better detector and measuring devices are crucial aspects in the ability of scientists to study even more difficult subjects to greater precisions. So this is almost like a closed, feedback loop where there is a symbiotic relationship. I don't know of any scientist that I work with that do not value the impact of engineering on our profession. But then again, we're experimentalists.


1 comment:

Tom said...

Perhaps they should look at it this way: If funding is cut for scientists, both scientists and engineers will be out of jobs when the basic science discoveries dry up. Basic research funding is the seed corn.