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Deathmatch: Scientists vs Engineers

October 22, 2010

Is engineering a science? Is science sometimes engineering? Some British guy thinks cutbacks in government spending is going to cause a rift between scientists and engineers who will continue to argue over who does better work or deserves more funding than the other. Well, I can't tell if he's really British or not, but with a name like Colin Macilwain you'd sure think he is. I can't really tell who's side he's on, or what the point is. Maybe he's blaming UK engineers for throwing the first stone via a letter from the VC of the Royal Academy of Engineering that science does not directly lead to technology. The implication being, I suppose, that engineering does.
But then Macilwain goes on to defend the lack of respect he sees engineers getting and aknowledges where engineering has the edge in output. Though his argument seems mainly to support the science side, stating that "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 wikipedia, crap like that would be followed with a citation needed comment. Because he mentions how engineers in academia have it even harder than engineers in industry (who supposedly "have other things to think about, such as their superior pay, company cars and career opportunities." Where the heck is my superior pay? Company car? What the heck is that?) I'm guessing he's an engineer in academia. And what's an engineer in academia anyways? A scientist that is better paid than his colleagues?
My point is, I don't think this is going to be the dog fight he seems to want it to be. Scientists and engineers are basically on the same side. If there's some argument over public funding it's because as societies we just don't value knowledge like we used to, and there's going to be some struggle along the way. But honestly, everyone wants the same thing. And more honestly, you need both. Sometimes academia leads industry, and sometimes it is the other way around. There's no "better" method. Since when is an engineer not a scientist? And since when does a scientist never engineer? I feel like Maria in Metropolis suggesting head and hands both need each other. I don't think it works as a justification for capitalism, but I do think it works for the betterment of society and technology.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2010 2:13 am

    I'd have to agree with Macilwain on the superior pay of those in industry. Given the difficulty of getting tenure, I'm surprised that the pay isn't higher for professors (~$110k median according to

  2. October 26, 2010 6:03 pm

    I'll have to read the article, but I'll say first that in the US there is a startling disparity in the biomedical sciences vs. biomedical engineering. I feel like engineering saw all the money in the biosciences and has strategically plotted for years to figure out how to take it away from the scientists. Of course, the one difference that stands out to me the most is that the engineers have very short postdoctoral traineeships and most of them get jobs with no problem, even though they're doing the exact same things we have been doing all along. It infuriates me, actually, knowing that someone with three years of an "engineering" postdoc can be certain of a faculty position, when they were doing the same thing I have done for more than twice as long with impossible odds against me ever getting a job. But they also tend to do minimal publishable units compared to our papers. Mine are all 8 figures plus 8 supplemental, each with 8 panels. Theirs are less than half that much data per paper, so they have twice as many. Of course that looks better, especially when search committees don't bother to read the papers. What's even scarier is, they waltz in and start making shit up, because they don't really know the biology or the chemistry at all. The cultural differences are astounding, actually. My impression is that biomedical engineers are extremely arrogant and reductionist salespeople, who tend to oversimplify in order to make promises in exchange for enormous amounts of money. This works really well with laypeople and granting agencies, apparently, but it's bad for science and dangerous for medicine. That said, they tend to be much more efficient than scientists. They don't dick around, they just get in and get stuff done. I really like that about engineering. I wish we could figure out how to merge the two and throw away the bad parts of both. Of course, it's too late to help me.

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