Canadian Consulting Engineer

Engineering vs. Science In The Public Eye

In the minds of many who focus on definitions, Engineering is simply an applied Science. Others consider engineering to be a profession that relies on science as a problem solving tool. Neither of the...

January 1, 2010   By M.G.(Ron) Britton, P. Eng.

In the minds of many who focus on definitions, Engineering is simply an applied Science. Others consider engineering to be a profession that relies on science as a problem solving tool. Neither of these groups, however, represents the broad public understanding. It is probably fair to say that the majority of the population doesn’t see the distinction between science and engineering as an issue that affects them.

Notwithstanding public apathy, it is important that persons who make policy and process decisions understand the roles various professionals play. For practising engineers, being properly recognized is important because we are often just considered to be a part of the science input.

Almost every day a “leader” somewhere makes a pronouncement stressing the importance of science in today’s economy. New discoveries are said to be the engine that will lead to economic recovery. In order to facilitate the pursuit of these new discoveries, new funds are injected into “science” projects. The difficulty is the huge gap between “knowing” and “using.”

It is important — no, it is critical — for engineering to emerge from the shadow of science in order for us to exercise the leadership our profession can provide. The boundaries that separate engineering and science are not always clear. The manner in which the information is used, however, is easier to explain.

After the release of the space shuttle Columbia accident report in 2003, Henry Petroski wrote an article (New York Times, August 29, 2003) entitled “Failure is Always an Option,” in which he undertook to identify the different roles of scientists and engineers. In his opening paragraph he cites the aerospace pioneer Theodore von Krmn who is supposed to have said, “Scientists seek to understand what is …, while engineers seek to create what never was. The space shuttle was designed, at least in part, to broaden our knowledge of the universe. To scientists the vehicle was a tool; to engineers it was their creation.”

Later, in that same article Petroski noted that “Rather than following from science, engineered things lead it. The steam engine was developed before thermodynamics, and flying machines before aerodynamics. The sciences were invented to explain the accomplishments — and to analyze their shortcomings.”

To me, this provides a clear distinction that we, the engineering profession, need to champion. Why should we accept a lesser role?

“Things” come into existence through projects, and all sorts of perspectives come to bear as decisions are made. Hugo Spowers, the founder of Riversimple, an organization based in Britain that is developing a new, energy efficient “urban car” has been quoted as saying that “… the problem is automakers are focusing too much on science in a search for big breakthroughs when the basic technology already exists.” The “automakers” identified in this statement come from all sorts of backgrounds. If there is any truth in Spowers statement, projects like his would benefit from more engineering and less science. The backgrounds that lead to this sort of decision-making place science in an unrealistic light.

What do we do?

It has been stated that any individual has three options. One can lead, follow — or get out of the way! I would suggest that, far too often, our profession has chosen the middle path. We have been willing to make our technical contributions and leave the “other stuff” to other people.

How often have you heard a discussion about a project that was summed up with the comment “… in the end, I just did what I was told”?

As a profession, whether in construction or any other field, engineers possess significant technical knowledge. Those of us who are steeped in the design tradition are typically driven to solve problems, not talk about them. Frequently, however, we allow ourselves to become victims of our need to avoid risk. Like Dilbert, we allow our “pointy haired” bosses to dictate to us. We need to take charge, or at least to be heard.

If we are the users of science-based tools, if we are driven “… to create what never was,” we need to make sure our point of view is clearly seen and understood. Unless we accept our responsibility to educate others, from teachers to lawyers and managers, about the difference between Science and Engineering, we will never be seen as more than applied scientists. The difference matters to our profession, and to society as a whole. The problem is that we haven’t bothered to take on the challenge, and no-one else is going to do it.

We can lead, follow — or get out of the way.

Dr. M.G. (Ron) Britton, P. Eng. is Professor and Associate Dean (Design Education) and NSERC Chair in Design Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. This article originally appeared in the Keystone Professional, an APEGM publication.


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