Science versus Engineering?

I suppose it was inevitable that there would be infighting as academics jostle for an increase intheir share of what is likely to be a diminishing level of research funding to be announced at the end of the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review.  The first professional society to try to barge its way to the front of the queue appears to be the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has written to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in terms that make it clear that they think egineering should prosper at the expense of research in fundamental physics.

To quote the RAEng:

we believe that research should be concentrated on activities from which a contribution to the economy, within the short to medium term, is foreseeable. I recognise that this calls for significant changes in practice but I see no alternative in the next decade. This may mean disinvesting in some areas in order properly to invest in others.

And where should the axe fall?

BIS should also consider the productivity of investment by discipline and then sub-discipline. Once the cost of facilities is taken into account it is evident that ‘Physics and Maths’ receive several times more expenditure per research active academic compared to those in ‘Engineering and Technology’. This ratio becomes significantly more extreme if the comparison is made between particle physics researchers and those in engineering and technology. Much of particle physics work is carried out at CERN and other overseas facilities and therefore makes a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines. Additionally, although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation.

Obviously whoever wrote this hasn’t heard of the World Wide Web, invented at CERN – precisely the place singled out for vitriol.

I couldn’t agree less with what the RAEng say in their submission to BIS, but instead of going on a rant here I’ll direct you to John Butterworth’s riposte, which says most of what I would want to say, but I would like to add one comment along the lines I’ve blogged about before.

The reason I think that the RAEng is precisely wrong is that I think the Treasury (on behalf of the taxpayer) should only be investing in research that wouldn’t otherwise be carried out. In other words, the state should fund academic esearch precisely because of its “blue sky” nature, not in spite of it.

Conversely, engineering and technology R&D should be funded primarily by the commercial sector precisely because it can yield short-term economic benefits. The decline of the UK’s engineering base has been caused by the failure of British companies to invest sufficiently in research, expecting instead that the Treasury should fund it and all they have to do is cash in later.

I’m not calling for the engineering and technology budgets to be cut – I don’t have such a blinkered view as the RAEng – but I would argue that a much greater share should be funded by private companies. This also goes for energy research. As Martin Rees pointed out in a recent Reith Lecture, the UK’s energy companies spend a pathetically small proportion of their huge profits on R&D. The politicians should be “persuading” industry to get invest more in the future development of their products rather than expecting the taxpayer to fund it. I agree that the UK economy needs “rebalancing” but part of the balance  is private companies need to develop a much stronger sense of the importance of R&D investment.

And, while I’m tut-tutting about the short-sighted self-interest displayed by the RAEng, let me add that, following the logic I’ve stated above,  I see a far stronger case for the state to support research in history and the arts than, e.g. engineering and computer science. I’d even argue that large commercial companies should think about sponsoring pure science in much the same way as they do with the performing art exhibitions and the Opera. We need as a society to learn to celebrate curiosity-driven research not only as a means to economic return (which it emphatically is) but also as something worth doing for its own sake.

Finally, and most depressingly of all, let me point out that the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Philip Greenish, sits on the Council of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, an organisation whose aims include

To promote and support, by any means, high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related post-graduate training in astronomy, particle physics, space science and nuclear physics.

Clearly, he should either disown the statements produced by the RAEng or resign from STFC Council. Unless he was put there deliberately as part of the ongoing stitch-up of British physics. If that’s the case we all have the dole queue to look forward to.

30 Responses to “Science versus Engineering?”

  1. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Didn’t Martin Rees also point out in his Reith Lecture series that CERN takes up some 2% of the science budget? As you say Peter, it is precisely because fundamental research has no obvious commercial benefit that Government should support it, not private industry. I’m sure the RSEng would have cut funding to Faraday’s Blue Sky research on electromagnetism. And, as you say, the author of the piece obviously doesn’t know where the World Wide Web was invented. Who knows, MAYBE results from CERN could help us solve some of the problems in getting controlled fusion to work, we just don’t know.

  2. Rhodri Evans Says:

    That’s a great quote Phillip.

  3. […]it is evident that ‘Physics and Maths’ receive several times more expenditure per research active academic compared to those in ‘Engineering and Technology'[…]

    Well, I’ve always suspected that one physicist can do the work of several engineers…

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I have tried in the past to find as early an occurrence of the Gladstone-Faraday story as I could. The earliest I have been able to find is from 1899 from a book “Democracy and Liberty” by somebody called W. E. H. Lecky, vol. 1, revised edition, page xxxi :

    The story is not well sourced there.

    I haven’t found anything as early involving Disraeli.

  5. telescoper Says:


    If the RAEng’s statement is true than it probably reflects that fact(s) that doing physics is rather expensive and that we as a country don’t have all that many physicists. Most universities have some sort of engineering/technology departments whereas only about 40 do physics. In any case, particle physics represents a very small fraction of the UK’s STEM research so cancelling our CERN subscription would not make much difference to the overall budget, although it would require tearing up an international treaty.


  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Hole, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Science versus Engineering?: […]

  7. Looks like everyones at it in a mad scramble to get at the few crumbs of money that will be left:

  8. telescoper Says:

    I think the government will either cut funded places or cut the unit of resource (or both) but the loss of income will be offset by raising the tuition fee for those remaining. That’s in England, of course, Scotland, NI and Wales decide their own HE priorities.

    Cutting research would be traumatic across the entire country but it is, I fear inevitable. The only question is whether it will be more than the 25% average. Even if the STFC budget is only cut by 25% on top of what we’ve had already then it will be an irreversible disaster for UK astronomy and particle physics.

  9. telescoper Says:

    Well, places like Oxbridge, Imperial and UCL would probably prefer to have fewer students with more money per student. That way they can spend more time doing research.

    • Garret Cotter Says:

      Peter, that’s both unfair and, especially in the present climate, divisive. 😦

    • telescoper Says:


      I didn’t mean to be either divisive or unfair. I think you’ll find that’s what the VCs of those institutions actually think, although I should have specified that by “students” I meant undergraduate students. The link above supplied by mark has UCL’s Malcolm Grant saying precisely what I suggested.

      I’m not even arguing that it’s an unreasonable stance. If there is greater concentration of research funding including PG funding in the “Golden Triangle” it seems inevitable that UG numbers there will be cut there.

      In fact, I think if you ask most Heads of Department around the country they would much prefer to take in fewer students and teach them better rather than overcrowd lecture theatres and labs like in order to make ends meet.

      Given the choice, would you recruit 60 students per year at £10K per head or 120 at £5K for the same income?


    • Garret Cotter Says:


      Apologies for being brusque, I am a bit touchy about the “Oxbridge academics don’t care about teaching” line which one gets hit with far too frequently from all sides. And while I don’t disagree with everything Malcolm Grant says, some of his views do anger me and it’s not nice to feel that one is being allied to them.

      On the bald extremes of the argument of course you’re correct, but with more realistic numbers I’m not so sure… for example holding total fee income constant I’d be prepared to take the personal time hit if we could take 5% more home undergrads rather than 5% less. At that sort of level you wouldn’t be stretching labs or lecture theaters.

      Much as many of us would love to work somewhere like Caltech with its tiny (and ultra-eiite) undergrad population, I certainly don’t think it would be healthy for the country if the majority of our science research effort were based in such institutions. Keep universities as, um, universities. Maybe my old-fashioned roots are showing…



    • Rhodr Evans Says:

      I worked at Chicago for 6 years and it, like Caltech, has a tiny undergraduate population.

      But my most extraordinary experience during my 9 years working in the States was a year lecturing at Swarthmore College on the outskirts of Philadelphia (www.swarth It’s a TINY undergraduate liberal arts college with only 1200 students when I was there (this has since grown to 1600). And yet 5 of it’s graduates have won Nobel prizes, John Mather (class of 1968) being the most recent. All the students there could have gone to Harvard or Princeton or Caltech, but choose Swarthmore for its small college nature. The lecturers there are dedicated to undergraduate teaching (very different from my experience as an undergrad at Imperial where most of the lecturers didn’t give a damn about undergrads).

    • Garret Cotter Says:

      Good point Rhodri about Swarthmore. We really don’t have anything analogous to the elite liberal arts colleges do we? Would they work here? While I have found myelf in a position where I’m spending more time on teaching than on research I don’t think I’d want to forgo my research to the extent needed by some of the liberal arts colleges. At least, it’s always been my impression that the faculty there put their all into their teaching. Would you go back to somewhere like that permanantly? (issues like living overseas, etc, aside of course…)

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      I would go back to Swartmore tomorrow. You get a year off from testing every four years, so research is supported and expected.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      …. from teaching, not testing. I was doing “typing” that in on a moving bus on my iPhone (at least that’s my excuse).

  10. The tories are looking increasingly anti-science:

    What exactly is the economic problem,” he said in a major speech at the Royal Institution in London on 9 July, “if the next scientific discoveries originate overseas, rather than here?” – David Willets

    We hardly spend any money on science in this country as it is, and now it seems they want to make sure they destroy what we do have left.

    • telescoper Says:


      To be fair to Willets I think you should quote the whole section, which makes it clear that this is a rhetorical question which he then attempts to answer…

      But that’s not the end of the story. There are other issues as well. Consider the spur of national pride – the pride, so to speak, of planting our flag on Everest first. There are, of course individuals – whether Olympic medallists or Nobel prize winners – whose achievements can be regarded as a vivid reflection of the health of the country that produced them. We all take pride in them. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to achieve something for your country. And fame, competition and pride are human motives that we find in every walk of life. But none of this is an economic argument for being the first person to make a scientific discovery. Why does it matter economically that we should be first or that something should be discovered by a Brit? What exactly is the economic problem if the next scientific discoveries originate overseas, rather than here?

      I think that the answer is that we need enough good science so we have the capacity to tackle a new problem, to react effectively to scientific breakthroughs however or wherever they may arise, and to capitalise on those breakthroughs via research programmes and business initiatives of our own. Some 95 per cent of scientific research is conducted outside the UK. We need to be able to apply it here – and, in advanced scientific fields, it is often necessary to conduct leading-edge research in order to understand, assimilate and exploit the leading-edge research of others. It is this absorptive capacity which is crucial. Indeed, Griffiths, Redding and Van Reenen have shown that higher domestic business R&D spend also leads to greater productivity being generated at home from foreign R&D spend as well. And there are powerful feedback mechanisms on top of this – foreign companies cite the quality of the public research base as one of the main reasons for locating their own internationally mobile R&D here.

      At least it’s not as bad as question as you can find being asked today by Silvio Berlusconi about Italian science..

      Why do we need to pay scientists when we make the best shoes in the world?


  11. ok fair enough….serves me right for not reading the original speech and reposting someones quote of a quote… certainly sounds better now reading the full quote….


  12. Rhodr Evans Says:

    David Willetts seems supportive of science. I note his degree is PPE from Oxford (who in government DOESN’T have a degree in PPE?). Have we ever had a science minister with a degree in a science subject?

  13. telescoper Says:


  14. Rhodr Evans Says:

    I thought she was schools minister.

  15. Rhodr Evans Says:

    Before leading the party that is, under Ted Heath’s premiership.

  16. telescoper Says:

    Margaret Thatcher was Minister for Education and Science for 4 years during the Heath government. Although portfolios have changed a lot since then, her role then is not dissimilar to Willetts role now. Let’s hope he makes a better fist of it than she did.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      So when was she schools minister? When did she steal the school milk??

      Willetts couldn’t do a worse job.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, Margaret Thatcher was Secretary of State for Education and Science throughout the Heath Government, that is from 1970 to 1974.

      Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I came across this transcript of a speech she gave to the Royal Society in 1972. There is free access to it at the present time (without the need for an institutional library subscription), but that may change soon.

  17. telescoper Says:

    Education includes schools, in theory at least.

  18. […] time ago I posted an item explaining how, in the run-up to last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the Royal Academy […]

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