Engineering a Conflict

I don’t have time to post much today so I thought I’d just put up a quick item about something that the e-astronomer (aka Andy Lawrence) has already blogged about, and generated a considerable amount of discussion about so I’ll just chip in with my two-penny-worth.

Some time ago I posted an item explaining how, in the run-up to last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the Royal Academy of Engineering had argued, in a letter to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), that government research funding 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.

They went on to say that

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.

I had hoped that this unseemly attack on particle physics would have been seen for what it was and would have faded into the background, but a recent article by Colin Macilwain has brought it back into the spotlight. I quote

UK engineers have started a scrap that will grow uglier as the spending cuts begin.

I should add that MacIlwain isn’t particularly supportive of the engineers’ position, but he does make some interesting remarks on the comparitively low status held by engineers in the United Kingdom compared to other countries, a point alsotaken up on Andy Lawrence’s blog. In my opinion this bare-faced attempt to feather their own nest at the expense of fundamental physics isn’t likely to generate many new admirers. Neither is the fact – and this is a point I’ve tried to make before – that the engineers’ argument simply doesn’t hold any water in the first place.

The point they are trying to make is that research in engineering is more likely to lead to rapid commercial exploitation than research in particle physics. That may be true, but it’s not a good argument for the government to increase the amount of research funding. If engineering and applied science really is “near market” in the way that the RAEng asserts, then it shouldn’t need research grants, but should instead be supported by venture capital or direct investment from industry. The financial acumen likely to be available from such investors will be much for useful for the commercial exploitation of any inventions or discoveries than a government-run research council. To be fair, as MacIlwain’s article explains, a large fraction of engineering research (perhaps 75%) is funded by commerce and industry. Moreover some engineering research is also too speculative for the market to touch and therefore does merits state support. However, that part that needs state support needs it for precisely the same reason that particle physics does, i.e. that its potential is long-term rather than short term. This means that is in the same boat as fundamental physics and shouldn’t keep pretending that it isn’t. If engineering research needs government funding then ipso facto it’s not likely to generate profits in the short term.

I think scientists and engineers would all be better off if they worked together to emphasize the amazingly successful links between fundamental physics and technology, as demonstrated by, e.g., the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the mutual interdependence of their disciplines.

United we stand, and all that…


10 Responses to “Engineering a Conflict”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    My feeling about the reason for the relatively low status of engineers within broader society in Britain is the confusion between advanced academic engineering and skilled mechanical work: it is the dual use of the word “engineer” within society (as stated in that article by Colin Macilwain that Peter mentioned above).

    The recent statements by the Royal Academy of Engineering advocating switching research funding from basic science are very unfortunate.

    The funding of basic sience is justifiable for reasons of advancing knowledge as well as its indirect economic benefits (through developing knowledge that is subsequently applied in industry, pioneering engineering developments required for basic research, interesting young people in science who will later take up careers in industry, and others).

    Funding engineering research is justified for the direct applications it produces, including in commerce, but this hits the difficult problem of choosing winners. Which projects in engineering are worth backing most? Are government bodies able to select the most commercially productive programmes? This is reminiscent of the choices governments tried to make in the 1960s and 1970s. Attempting to select between developing computer hardware or supersonic passenger airliners did not always with hindsight produce the economically correct answer, even if Concorde was such an engineering success.

    Indeed, it might be argued that constructing and commissioning the Large Hadron Collider is a better way of developing superconducting electromagnets than funding projects within university laboratories. CERN has to get this new equipment to work in a practical sense. We can expect these technologies being used routinely in hospitals with a decade or so. Building the European Extremely Large Telescope may be a better way of developing advanced optical technologies and ultra-high-precision control of large structures than funding projects within industrial laboratories. Both examples involve and promote industry. Neither involves having to make a decision about commercial value: both are justified in full because of their value to basic science. Other European countries understand these issues and are enthusiastic about committing funding to these basic science projects. They understand the industrial benefits, as well as the intellectual ones.

    I hope Britain does not make the mistake of trying to choose to back some commercially relevant applications in a gamble to get a quick industrial return, rather than broader activities within science and technology, both basic and applied.

  2. telescoper Says:

    “Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain.”

    (Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, 1862.)

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Hole, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Engineering a Conflict: […]

  4. If the engineers start arguing for a reduction in physics spend, and the physicists start arguing for a reduction in engineering spend, the obvious outcome is that both arguments will be accepted.

    In a dog-eat-dog scrap, you’ll just end up with two dead dogs.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Is it true that the words “engineer” and “genius” have the same (Norman French?) root – ‘ingenious’?

    • telescoper Says:

      The OED gives the origin of “engineer” as Middle English engyneour, but the etymology of this is “uncertain”:

      may be ad. Fr. ingénieur, or perh. ad. It. ingegniere, which is a distinct word = Sp. engeñero, Pg. engenheiro, OF. engignier: }L. type *ingeni{amac}rius, f. ingenium.

      However, the word “engine” does seem to be related to the word “genius” which has a latin root (in the verb gignere, genitum; to beget) with original English meaning being the tutelary god alloted to each individual at birth. The meaning of “engine” in Chaucer is “mother wit” or “genius”, but “genius” didn’t have that meaning in English at the time. Early meanings of “genius” in England are to do with general innate characteristics of people and it is only number 5 that gives the most common modern sense. There is a lengthy discussion of it in the OED, in fact:

      This sense, which belongs also to F. génie, Ger. genie, appears to have been developed in the 18th c. (It is not recognized in Johnson’s Dictionary.) In sense 4 the word had come to be applied with especial frequency to the kind of intellectual power manifested by poets and artists; and when in this application ‘genius’, as native endowment, came to be contrasted with the aptitudes that can be acquired by study, the approach to the modern sense was often very close. The further development of meaning was prob. influenced by association with senses 1 and 2, which suggested that the word had an especial fitness to denote that particular kind of intellectual power which has the appearance of proceeding from a supernatural inspiration or possession, and which seems to arrive at its results in an inexplicable and miraculous manner. This use, which app. originated in England, came into great prominence in Germany, and gave the designation of Genieperiode to the epoch in German literature otherwise known as the ‘Sturm und Drang’ period. Owing to the influence of Ger. literature in the present century, this is now the most familiar sense of the Eng. word, and usually colours the other senses. It was by the Ger. writers of the 18th c. that the distinction between ‘genius’ and ‘talent’, which had some foundation in Fr. usage, was sharpened into the strong antithesis which is now universally current, so that the one term is hardly ever defined without reference to the other. The difference between genius and talent has been formulated very variously by different writers, but there is general agreement in regarding the former as the higher of the two, as ‘creative’ and ‘original’, and as achieving its results by instinctive perception and spontaneous activity, rather than by processes which admit of being distinctly analyzed.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I thought you’d know – many thanks.

    • telescoper Says:

      I didn’t know, but I have access to the OED Online!

  6. telescoper Says:

    Here’s a quote from Chaucer:

    A man hath sapiences thre, Memorie, engin, and intellect also

  7. Rhodri Evans Says:

    As Bryn rightly points out, when pursuing the development and construction of large “basic science” facilities like the LHC and, over the decades, large telescopes, many engineering breakthroughs are often made. I remember reading the excellent book “The Perfect Machine” on the construction of the 200-inch “Hale” telescope on Mount Palomar and being struck by just how many engineering challenges had to be overcome in its construction, many of which I am sure then found their way into everyday use outside of the field of astronomy.

    Physicists need engineers to help them build their facilities, including their instruments. Many astronomers actually work in the field of instrumentation, so are they astronomers or engineers? Hopefully, a little (or a lot) of both.

    Similarly engineers need physicists, for example to develop new materials. I am sure graphene will be used by engineers over the coming years, and yet it was developed by physicists doing basic research.

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