Julien Scheibert & Alain Le Bot, researchers at CNRS/Ecole Centrale de Lyon share their thoughts on the respective roles of engineers and researchers
Your daughter claims, when it is not her primaballerina- day, that she would like to become a scientist? Very well, at the Ministry of Education, they will congratulate themselves that their campaign for gender equality in science is a true success! But has your daughter a clear idea of the type of scientist she is dreaming of becoming? Is she imagining herself as a teacher in high school? As a researcher at the University? As an engineer at the European Space Agency?
All of them will share similar educational trajectories, rooted in a background of exact sciences. They will also share everyday working tools including mathematics, statistics and rigorous reasoning. But what are their fundamental differences? Is there a clear way to categorise those three activities? The question is not as simple as it may seem, as many individuals will actually act as one or the other during the same working day: University professors are expected to both teach and research; the French CNRS hires “research engineers”; expert engineers in industry often serve as trainers in or outside their own company.
While teaching clearly refers to the transmission of some already established knowledge, be it fundamental or applied, the research and engineering activities are much subtler to disentangle. And research institutions themselves perpetuate the confusion: many of them feature research departments entitled “mechanical engineering” or “electrical engineering”, suggesting that there may exist an engineering science, separate from natural sciences like physics, chemistry or biology.
In our opinion, such a distinction between sciences is irrelevant and the difference between engineers and researchers is rather in their objectives. Both are dealing with challenging the limits of the state-of-the-art. However, while the goal of researchers is to understand
reality, that of engineers is to master it. Research is about pushing the boundaries of knowledge, whereas engineering is about increasing our capacity to act on our environment.
To illustrate the difference, let us consider a currently unsolved societal question. How to improve mobility in major cities? A researcher’s answer could be to increase the research effort to understand the interactions between the various users of the public space, pedestrians, bikes, cars, trains… to identify suitable circulation rules and routes networks. In contrast, an engineer’s answer could be to exploit the big data available from, for instance, video surveillance, city tolls, or parking time stamps, to find which circulation plan has, statistically speaking, offered the best results so far and generalise it. Clearly, the second solution may bring an efficient answer without any additional understanding of the origin of traffic jams.
Now that the research and engineering approaches have been distinguished, let us note that it is a common but wrong idea that great advances always start from a fundamental discovery, become an applied research topic and finally feed industrial and economic activities. For instance, engineers do master the many industrial processes involving powders and grains, although researchers still struggle to understand the physics of granular matter. In contrast, researchers had predicted gravitational waves well before engineers managed to detect them. In practice, the research and engineering activities cross-fertilise, so that any scientist should keep a constant eye on the progress made by both communities.
The research/engineering distinction can also help to clarify some human resources issues, both in the industry and at the academy level. Companies constantly face new scientific problems and wonder which type of collaborator they should recruit. Some of those
problems only require a robust solution, and engineers are the best suited to identify them. Some others reveal challenges that are deeply related to the core business of the company. In such cases, a general understanding of the problem is desired, because the future of the competitiveness of the company is at stake. This is when researchers are required.
As for public research institutions, some of them should be prouder of their basic research mission. In particular, they should prevent their laboratories from becoming some sort of externalised R&D departments of the industry, solving their engineering problems on public money. Only if the specific necessity of basic research is recognised, will our children have, in the coming decades, the full choice of the type of scientist they really want to become.