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.

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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.

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