Scientist vs. Engineer: still, again, even more so now, or not

The “World view” article in this week’s Nature amplifies an attack on scientists, focusing on a recurring debate about—by some perceived as a fracture between—science and engineering. Colin Macilwain tries to cast the debate in terms of the financial hardship and the hard choices that have to be made to allocate the diminishing amount of funding of universities’ research [1]. Regarding the funding, the argument goes that the bang-for-your-buck is higher when you bet on engineering, not on the sciences, as, it is claimed, there is much science that does not materialize into increased wealth anyway (‘wealth’ in this context, I presume, is measured in more money, profits, etc.) whereas engineering does, so therefore (myopic) government policy should favour the funding of engineering over the sciences. The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering made an official statement in that direction (more polite than the previous phrase), and Macilwain, after some deliberations, closes with:

By casting a stone at their rivals, UK engineers have, at least, demanded better. They’ve also started a scrap between disciplines that will grow uglier as the spending cuts begin.

This is a disservice to the overall debate both on spending cuts and on the scientist “vs.” engineer. It is like bringing the recurring, lamentable, poor-on-poor violence into the realm of academia.

Luigi Foschini, scientist at the INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera, already has written a useful blog post on the “two cultures” issue [2] in response to Macilwain’s article: the dichotomy is wrong and it is beneficial when a researcher knows about both science and engineering. He closes with the proposal that

[w]e have to make a Second Renaissance, with men and women able to develop an integrated culture, not rejecting any part because not in their backyard. Someone replies that today this is too complex, because the culture is too vast to be handled by individuals. This is not true. […]. The main obstacles are of social origin

Taking into account the ‘detours’ I made during my education and comments I remember over the years in research: I tend to concur that the obstacles are of social origin. Fair enough, not many people have done as many and diverse degrees as I did, principally because they think they do not have the time or money (which is, essentially, a resource allocation decision—e.g., I paid for some of the studies myself instead of, say, buying a fancy car). But it is not impossible to do both, as Foschini, I, and multiple other researchers can attest. Moreover, having been indoctrinated in more than one paradigm really does have its advantages over mono-discipline training (more about that in a separate post some time later).

The other issue I have with Macilwain’s article is that it pits one group of researchers against another, en passant swallowing and propagating divide and conquer tactics and thereby feeding infighting within academia. But in the end, casting stones will leave everyone mutilated—even if think you are in the position to pride yourself on casting the first stone. And, as the saying goes, be hoist with one’s own petard.

A more constructive step to resolve the debate on the spending cuts was made last week with the open letter to cut military R&D, not science funding, and, more generally, to cut the obscene budgets for war and destruction. The world does not need more nukes, ‘smart’ bombs, chemical weapons and the like, and significantly reducing the size of offence-armies so as to, at least, end the perpetuation of inflicting ‘collateral damage’ and occupation of foreign countries will make one’s home safer for longer. Another place where there is, on average, a lot of money that can, in theory at least, be redistributed more fairly, is the growing pile of assets of the rich, being, by and large, the baby boomers. A different way of phrasing it, is that the trend of resource concentration with a certain dominant age cohort (and their generational egoism) should be reversed so that the resources will be distributed in the benefit of society at large, the latter obviously including science and engineering research. That redistributive taxation is not in vogue anymore in the USA and most of Europe does not mean it is impossible to do.

Indeed, on the one hand, investment in research in the sciences and engineering neither will bring instant gratification nor lift the West out of the recession by tomorrow morning. On the other hand, the bank bailouts did not do the trick to bring the economy back into the zone of profit- and increased employment, the initial élan for green technologies as the magic bullet to pull us all out of the economic crisis did not quite materialize either, and the military-industrial complex destroys more than that it provides toward a healthy sustainable economy anyway. So one might as well give science and engineering a chance—after all, in tandem, they have a proven track record to be to the benefit of society.

The scientist ‘vs.’ engineer should not be a versus but a both-and. (Ab)using the economic hardship as an excuse to pit one against the other is to the detriment of both in the long run, and I am tempted to state that any academic worth his or her education should (have) come to the insight not to fall into this trap. If you do not, then you might want to learn a bit more so as to peek over that disciplinary wall, punch a hole in that wall, or take a step or two to walk through a door that a fellow colleague might just be holding open for you.

References

[1] Colin Macilwain (2010) Scientists vs engineers: this time it’s financial. Nature, 467, 885.

[2] Luigi Foschini. Scientists vs Engineers or another version of “The Two Cultures”. The Event Horizon blog, October 21, 2010.

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