A “scientist” by any other name

I’ve just started reading “The Essential Engineer“, a somewhat belated college graduation gift I bought for myself as I switch from being a “science” student as undergrad to an “engineering” student in grad school.  And just the preface has already made me start screaming yes (in my head).  Evidently one of the points the author, Henry Petroski, hopes to drive home is the difference between science and engineering.  And this strikes me as something fairly important, especially because you see it pop up ALL. THE. TIME.  Petroski writes about a story in The New York Times about the arrest of a worker at Los Alamos National Lab that switches between calling the accused a “scientist” and an “engineer”.  Or the near-universal American description of aerospace engineering as “rocket science”.  It’s also interesting, because it seems like a kind of weird conflation, given that engineering has only become heavily dependent on science in the last century.  To me, it seems kind of like calling the person who operates on you and the person who manages your medication both “doctors”, though maybe this example falls flat because people do tend to run into surgeons and pharmacists a lot.

One could claim that this is nitpicking, and to be fair, it kind of is.  But I feel like conflating two entire general professions might actually harm them.  For example, my undergrad institution’s student newspaper recently published an editorial about the career fair being too “science-focused”, but then went on to only talk about how most companies wanted engineers.  That’s certainly a legitimate complaint, but it ignores the fact that my undergrad university had very few companies recruit students in non-engineering science majors (which would be considered the ACTUAL science majors).  For some reason a lot of advisors viewed the science majors as not being in the “liberal arts” either, and while I could understand not viewing something like biology as being equivalent to art history, that doesn’t really fit the traditional view of liberal arts in my mind.  It also put science majors in this weird Twilight Zone between “practical” engineering and “useless” liberal arts fields.  Or there’s the fact that a lot of “STEM reform” seems really engineering-focused.  To use my own life as an example, I didn’t really know what engineering was until college when I was exposed to it.  I kept thinking I would do physics even though I knew I didn’t want to do theoretical physics.

Of course, there’s also some rationale for the science/engineering confusion.  If you’re in physics or chemistry and aren’t involved in fundamental theory, the distinction between science and engineering can be kind of blurred.  (Aside: ecology and the various disciplines of the Earth and space sciences don’t have this problem as much)  The research project I worked on at Rice on polymer membranes could very easily have fallen into a chemical engineering or materials science department, but I worked for a chemist.  Honestly, the main reason it might not have been engineering was how far away the research was from practical application at this stage.  But my roommate in Virginia is a biomedical engineer, and his work is a very basic science project that is also years away from practical application.  If you’re in industry, I’m not sure if there really is a clear division between, say, a chemist and a chemical engineer.  On the other end, some engineering research in academia can be very fundamental.  At one of my summer jobs in an engineering lab, one of the other students (an applied physics grad student) was working on developing a model to describe why carbon nanotubes bend during growth.  While that would be useful for manufacturing longer nanotubes, to be honest, there was a lot of mechanics he was considering in his model that we don’t understand yet.

The seemingly growing popularity of engineering science programs also blurs the distinction.  And of course, my new field also has a confusing name.  I’m in a “materials science and engineering” department, but you can also find departments labelled only as “materials science” or “materials engineering”.  Purdue has an amusing anecdote that their department is just “materials engineering” because the natural science departments objected to the engineering college using “science”.  But that’s actually one of the reasons I do find the field very attractive.  There is a very strong engineering, “practical” side of it, but also a side focused on understanding the science of how materials work.

So I realize this was kind of a rant, but I hope someone finds this interesting, because I do.

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9 thoughts on “A “scientist” by any other name

  1. I’ve been a practicing chemical engineer for 19 years now. In industry I have found that people usually identify with their formal training, rather than their job description, so I run into a lot of chemists and mechanical engineers doing chem E jobs, and vice versa. My exposure to academia is a bit more limited, but it seems lately the trend lately is to build interdisciplinary teams, this has a significant advantage over the old way of segregating chemists and chem engineers. Is that what you all see happening as well?

    • I think that’s the larger trend, but there’s still a lot of variety between institutions, departments, and even labs in the same department. At Rice, the chemistry lab I worked in had chemists and an applied physicist, and we worked closely with a chemistry/electrical engineering group. At UVA, my research group is all people from the materials science department, but our projects are actually very broad for a single group (magnetic materials for computer memory, corrosion-resistant alloys, solar cell materials, and catalysis), and we don’t seem to work with other groups that much. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if industry was a bit ahead on this trend just because I think there’s a stereotype of professors being “territorial”. Also, the way most labs I’ve seen are run is that there are lots of students working on individual projects, so I think the interdisciplinarity depends a lot on the individual worker. I feel like like proximity helps too, so while there may not be a full collaboration between really different professors,, things like the Smalley Institute definitely make people aware. I also think having a specific problem that requires lots of disciplines makes it easier to organize, so this might be why companies and the problem-focused national labs seem a bit ahead in this respect.

  2. I actually was just at a talk about UChicago’s new molecular engineering institute, and they were VERY adamant about the difference between engineers and scientists. However, they acknowledged that much of the work being done by colleagues in chemistry and biophysics could count as “engineering”. Our speaker explained that the difference (and why he wanted to get more engineers rather than bringing in those existing colleagues) is about mindset and goals. Scientists, he described, are primarily motivated by knowledge while engineers are interested in solving specific problems. So although a single project might be equally likely to be driven by a chemist or a chemical engineer, they will come at it from different angles. The interesting subtext I got is that engineers, even engineering professors, are not “academics” whereas chemists and biologists are. (For instance, the engineering professor I was speaking to brushed off questions about corporate sponsorship vs academic freedom/choice saying that engineers don’t have those issues and don’t think in a way that would create them.)

    Sorry I’ve been so delayed in commenting on posts!

    • I’m glad to see a school working hard to address the difference. I felt like at Rice, “scientists and engineers” was a phrase that always lumped in both together and we were only separated in PR speak when the engineering school wanted to talk about a cool initiative they were doing that was really only meant for engineering students. The second part of your comment worries me actually. To say that engineers cannot be academics seems to be loading a lot into the definition of “academic” and I fear it perpetuates the whole “two cultures” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Two_Cultures) system that seems to be a major problem in academia now.

      Also, did they consider their semi-engineering physics and chemistry colleagues to be “academics”? Because very few people in science departments are pure, fundamental scientists. If you have a very strict idea of what is a “scientist”, then something like half of all physics professors aren’t actually “academics” because they’re focused on various applications of physics. And it’s also important for applications of science to remain in the academy. Like the example you gave the book you read, a lot of insight into fundamental quantum mechanics in physics departments is coming from problems in quantum computing, which is definitely an engineering-influenced area of physics. Or if you want something that’s more definitely from engineering, look at chemistry. Catalyst behavior and the mechanisms involved in catalysis are now very important theoretical research areas in chemistry, and these questions came straight from industry.

      • Yes, they would argue that chemists and physicists are “academics” (and thus not “engineers”), which is why they were not being brought on as official faculty at the new institute. I think they would also distinguish (perhaps wrongly) because questions that came “from industry” (science) and questions that are being worked on “with/for industry” (engineering).

      • I am definitely going to loan you “The Essential Engineer”. He talks a lot about the distinction between engineering and science, but also the development of areas of engineering science. The engineers in academia are pursuing areas that aren’t directly applicable to industry. Like one of the professors in our department studies fracture mechanics. Most physics departments would laugh anyone wanting to study that out of the building, because it’s not “fundamental”. But the truth is while we “understand” Newton’s laws and quantum mechanics, we have a hard time translating that into actual descriptions of everyday phenomena. Saying this isn’t “science” because it’s just an application of physics is arbitrary. This logic isn’t that different than Rutherford’s: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

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