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Scientists vs. Engineers

By H. Steven Wiley Scientists vs. Engineers One prefers the unknown, the other can’t stand it. Now more than ever, we have to find a way to get along. We are starting to get to a point where the engineering sciences can make a real impact on our progress. In the past, I have heard there was conflict between the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. I don’t see a lot of evidence for that type of conflict today, mostly because my

By | July 1, 2010

Scientists vs. Engineers

One prefers the unknown, the other can’t stand it. Now more than ever, we have to find a way to get along.

We are starting to get to a point where the engineering sciences can make a real impact on our progress.

In the past, I have heard there was conflict between the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. I don’t see a lot of evidence for that type of conflict today, mostly because my scientific friends all are big fans of the arts and literature. However, the two cultures that I do see a great deal of conflict between are those of science and engineering.

Being at a national laboratory, I am probably exposed to this cultural dissonance more than my university colleagues. Here, the engineers are not off by themselves in another department, but are working at our sides.

Much of the work my research organization does is basic research on systems that have potential practical applications and thus engages a spectrum of different types of investigators. At one extreme, you have basic scientists, who seek to discover entirely new processes and knowledge. At the other extreme, you have applied engineers who use the knowledge to build useful devices.

When working with these multidisciplinary groups, I have observed a definite cultural difference between scientists and engineers. Basic scientists seem to be very comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Applied engineers, however, depend on and expect established knowledge and certainty. Of course, there is a continuum between these extremes with respect to specific technical fields as well as the people who work in them. However, there is a definite difference in the comfort zone of people who identify themselves as scientists or engineers.

I remember a software project I initiated to integrate different types of high-throughput data. The engineer I placed in charge of the project had no trouble designing the basic software architecture, but could not understand how we expected to actually combine different types of data. When I explained that we had no idea how to do it and this made it a fun project, she immediately quit. Giving up on the idea of using an engineer, I brought in a scientist to take over. The final software was buggy, but it did successfully integrate data.

Of course, I also have stories where a scientist took a very simple problem that should have required a week of work and turned it into a 6-month research project. Simplicity seems to be boring for most scientists. However, the seemingly miraculous performance of the new generation of DNA sequencing machines is a testament to how engineering can greatly accelerate scientific progress. We really do make a great team. Too bad there has frequently been a lack of respect between the two groups.

All fields of science seem to experience tension between those who want to generate basic knowledge and those who want to apply this knowledge, especially as the fields develop. The field of chemistry evolved from being dominated by research chemists to eventually include industrial chemists and chemical engineers. Physics expanded from those investigating the fundamental nature of matter to material scientists and engineers who created the electronics industry. This evolution is natural. After all, you must discover and understand the basic rules of a system before you can apply this knowledge.

Basic knowledge in biology has been slow to develop because of its complexity, but we are starting to get to a point where the engineering sciences can make a real impact on our progress. For example, a deep understanding of engineering control theory is helping biologists understand how small changes in signaling pathways can give rise to diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Unfortunately, funding issues have created real tension between the two groups. The scientists control most of it and seem to begrudge engineers the money necessary to contribute to biology. This became such a problem with the National Institutes of Health that it created the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering in 2000 to ensure funding in these areas.

There will always be tension between different groups competing for the same limited resources. But rejecting engineering proposals because they “lack a hypothesis” reflects an unfortunate prejudice that only basic science projects deserve support. Basic science is not inherently superior to engineering or vice versa. We need both to advance as a field and to create the practical applications that will justify public funding of biology.

H. Steven Wiley is Lead Biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Comments

Avatar of: Ajit Chaphalkar

Ajit Chaphalkar

Posts: 1

July 7, 2010

The article is very interesting. The relationship between Scientists and Engineers is Love-Hate style for ages. Can't live without you but Don't need you. But look at the wonderful things that they create for people on this planet earth to enhance Quality of Life.\nHats off to both of them...

July 7, 2010

I could not tell from the sub-title which group Dr. Wiley was thinking of that could not handle ambiguity. Both groups suffer from this weakness. The engineer he worked with who quit may have quit because she, personally, could not handle the ambiguity associated with her task. But as an engineer myself, I think that engineers can and do handle uncertainty well. We call this risk, and build in safety factors and such like. \nBoth groups handle different types of risk differently. The scientist may want to elegantly answer the wrong question (spending 6 months on a weeks work), but engineers do this, too. We typically have a compulsion to quantify everything, and often the wrong things. The scientist may do one simple experiment that will save a weeks worth of quantitiation. I have learned balance from my co-workers. \n\nI've enjoyed working in an area that has both scientists and engineers doing the same job. We approach the problem differently, and I am a better scientist AND engineer as a result.
Avatar of: Matthew Putman

Matthew Putman

Posts: 2

July 13, 2010

You may very well be right about your assessment, and in some ways it is a shame that engineers are ambiguity adverse now. When you consider great inventors of the past, like Edison, he was willing to accept results, even without full recognition of the reasons for those results. Engineering can be an exploration like theoretical science, even if results are not always clear.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

July 13, 2010

George Orwell wrote an excellent essay on Kipling in which he pointed out what makes Kipling so unusual for a poet, he tried to take the view of someone who has to make actual decisions and take actual responsibility. Scientists set out to explore the unknown, but engineers have to set budgets and timetables, cut purchase orders and live with the consequences. Can you imagine the LHC if no one was willing to commit to the depth of the hole or its radius. "We'll just move a bazillion metric tonnes of rock if it doesn't fit.", says the scientist. Wouldn't that be nice? Now stand up there in front of the PM and say that. Engineering is where science hits the real world, whether it is being done by an engineer or by a scientist. The real world has a low tolerance for ambiguity, at least at the metazoan scale we work at.\n\nAlso, you have some of the sequences backwards. Physics grew out of attempts to understand the well measured heavens, the earth and machines that people had built. Thermodynamics started out as steam engine science after the engineers started building steam engines. In truth there is a cycle alternating between advances in science and engineering. Look at superconductors with the science in the lead, and now the engineering, and so on. That's how we advance.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

July 15, 2010

It is all a mater of opening the mind, and being respectful to the way other people approach problems, and what they think is important for them to solve the problem. \nIf you do not try to force the person in the other discipline to do things your way, and still provide him with EVERYTHING he requires, it will function. If you do not provide what is needed because you think is too much, it will not function. It is not only about providing material and equipment, you also have to trust the other person?s approach, give him the time and respect and still provide him with what is needed. Probably it is similar as driving in the same car with your significant one, sometimes you do not understand why they have to take this route when you can go by ?a better one?, but you should be trustful and respectful enough to sit and watch.\n
Avatar of: RON HANSING

RON HANSING

Posts: 20

July 15, 2010

I look at the issue as a team. And both benefit from this approach.\n\n"Hey, lets send up the space shuttle." \n\nEngineer, "But should not we at least test the "o"rings at this temperature? \n\n..... "Good Idea. Let's do it."\n\n----------------------------------\n\n"Whew!!!!, thanks for saving my butt."\n\nron hansing
Avatar of: ron fong

ron fong

Posts: 3

July 15, 2010

In my 40 year career, I have migrated from science to engineering. The two disciplines are really just different sides of the same coin, science is heavier on the theoretical (they ask 'why?') whereas engineering is more on the application (they ask 'how?').\n\nThe occasional friction between these two groups stems from the apparent lack of understanding of each others limitations. On paper many ideas in science appear possible. However, to engineer it from conception to a fully operational device may prove to be extremely difficult, costly, and maybe impractical.
Avatar of: JAN KOBAYASHI

JAN KOBAYASHI

Posts: 1

July 15, 2010

One thing is leisure, another - work. Leisure is laissez-faire, while work is a matter of philosophy.\n\nWhat the author seems to imply, is that it is apt to compare the humanist leisure-time proclivities of the scientists to their strained work relationships with engineers.\nMeanwhile, both scientist and engineer predominantly work within a Popperian paradigm of strict falsifiability of hypotheses, whereas the humanist usually applies what is termed, in German, as Verstehen, or, as some put it, *meaningful understanding" (usually unacceptable to Popperians).\nI know a lot of scientists and engineers who engage in humanistic studies in their leisure time, and several humanists who indulge in advanced mathematics, just for fun. They never work together.\n\nIt is certainly worthwhile to read S. Nassir Ghaemi on this, especially his thoughts on empiricism, Darwinism, and "the two cultures".
Avatar of: Marek Zielinski

Marek Zielinski

Posts: 1

July 15, 2010

You do not have to be a scientist, an engineer or even a rocket scientist as Shania Twain sings in her 'That Don't Impress Me Much' song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqFLXayD6e8, to use a 'c'mon' - sense.\n\nThose two fields, scientists and engineers, they do not and can not exist without each other. Somehow and most of the hows as known, they do and always will complement each others work. \n\nIf they remain in 'versus' condition instead of in 'cooperation', the only way to get along is to establish a platform based on a common sense where the both will coordinate their efforts, create together with respect, praise each others for the final achievement - 'This natural evolution.' \n\nAs also said in the article: 'We really do make a great team.' \nSo continue being a great team but simply use the common sense.\n\nWith respect to the unknown and the other\nMarek Zielinski
Avatar of: Petra Moessner

Petra Moessner

Posts: 10

July 16, 2010

I have a MS in biology, all but finish a MS in chemistry, and worked for years as a biomedical sciences research assistant. I am training now as a computer scientist by working on a PhD in computer science. So far I see no conflict between being a basic science researcher and a computer science researcher. My area of research is bioinformatics. I am taking a computer science course this summer, Data Modeling and Analysis, that deals with that question of ambiguity. Perhaps your computer scientist working on your software was not advanced enough in the discipline to address what you want. The future is interdisciplinary study.
Avatar of: Mark Riggle

Mark Riggle

Posts: 3

July 16, 2010

1. Engineers can do math (Physicists excepted)\n2. Good (really good)engineers make a lot more money.\n3. At the high end there is also a different mindset for many that is epitomized by Theodore Dobzhansky, a famous evolutionary biologist. He said "Scientists often have a naive faith that if only they could discover enough facts about a problem, these facts would somehow arrange themselves in a compelling and true solution". For me that is almost the opposite of real creative problem solving and new discovery.\nYou need real insight into possible true solutions as you search for data. Exploration is better done as theory driven than as phenomenon exploration driven.
Avatar of: Caitlin Burke

Caitlin Burke

Posts: 2

July 18, 2010

CP Snow himself backed off from the "Two Cultures" dichotomy in the second edition of the book, adding an essay about closing the communication gap.\n\n"Basic scientists seem to be very comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. Applied engineers, however, depend on and expect established knowledge and certainty."\n\nIn my social circle?which contains a LOT of engineers?saying that someone "is very comfortable with ambiguity" is code for "is intelligent," so I found this comparison rather startling. \n\n"We really do make a great team. Too bad there has frequently been a lack of respect between the two groups."\n\nI'll say.\n\n"The engineer I placed in charge of the project had no trouble designing the basic software architecture, but could not understand how we expected to actually combine different types of data. When I explained that we had no idea how to do it and this made it a fun project, she immediately quit."\n\nIn my experience, engineers derive tremendous satisfaction from getting what they need by using whatever they happen to have at hand?or at least figuring out what else they might want, and how to get THAT from what they already have. Every engineer I know LOVES solving puzzles, including the sometimes agonizing process of debugging. \n\nYour anecdote makes me wonder how well your specification handled the unknowns of the project, and what the plans were for closing the gaps. In 1963, CP Snow imagined that this kind of communication problem would require another layer, but that notion has given way to an understanding that members of any number of cultures must take up the challenge to get their ideas across effectively on their own.
Avatar of: Caitlin Burke

Caitlin Burke

Posts: 2

July 18, 2010

Too bad the web page shows "?" where the comment page's text area showed em dashes! A timely example :D
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

July 19, 2010

See the post and comments at\nhttp://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/engineering-vs-science
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

July 19, 2010

While I grant that the author speaks from his own limited experience, he seems to promote a stereotype that is perhaps not well-grounded and is even misguided.\n\nSure I'd agree there are broad differences between people who wish to classify themselves as engineers versus scientists.\n\nBut note that 'engineering research' in universities is mostly about trying to accomplish something which we do not quite know how to do. In this sense, engineering is as much about exploring the unknown.\n\n

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