War opens on another front

October 22, 2010

So the results are in and we are all ecstatic because we have only lost an ear and not an eye. (Reminds me of a confessional post I shall write sometime). Meanwhile the wise are shaking their heads slowly, and pointing out that the The Great RCUK Carve Up is yet to come, that nothing has been said about capital expenditure, and that STFC is “particularly vulnerable”. The S-word post by Imran Khan sums it all up well.

So as usual we are expecting to be at war with the medics and lose. But now some suggest that another front is opening – war with the engineers. In the build up to the spending review, many were upset when the submission by the Royal Academy of Engineering contained these words :

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.

Woah ! Chip on shoulder or what ? Now an article by Colin McIlwrain on Nature News suggests there will be a battle coming, and that this is a sign of long standing cultural differences between scientists and engineers in the UK, and in particular the low standing that engineers have in UK and US society as compared to much of Europe. Put another way, we are intellectual snobs.

I find this hard to react to because I think it is true of UK society that engineers are undervalued, but not true of scientists – depending on what you mean by “engineer”. I wrote a couple of posts on this subject some time back – on my own blog, and as a guest on \\engtech. Anybody who has had any experience with instrumentation or software projects has enormous respect for engineers. They are a different beast from us, but just as creative, and just as clever. We have symmetrical roles to play and are both crucial in many projects. I don’t see bitterness or paranoia there. So what’s going on ?

I think where there is scepticism, it is not about engineers but about academic engineers. The simplistic view of many scientists is as follows.  “We are the folk who do the research and stubbornly pursue truth; you are the folk who solve problems and invent stuff and make things work. So what does engineering research mean ?”

In other words, many physicists are secretly thinking “Hmm, surely the academic engineers are the ones who aren’t good enough to actually be engineers ?”

Provocative enough ?

Not saying thats what I believe of course, but I detect this undercurrent.