What’s the difference between a ‘scientist’ and an ‘engineer’?

The School of Engineering at Cranfield University (where I’m based) supports a very wide range of activities and recently, the number of people working in areas that wouldn’t really be considered engineering (e.g. my monolayer chemistry work) has increased. This sparked an interesting conversation over in my department as to what exactly is the difference between a ‘scientist’ and an ‘engineer’.

As a self-labelled scientist (see my about page for details) I felt I was only half qualified to answer this question, so I got in touch with Siobhán – who is a self-confessed engineer and can attest to her qualifications to discussed this herself;

Siobhán: I’m Siobhán, my background is in Environmental Engineering. I’m currently the Secretary General of European Young Engineers (EYE) so I should be the right person to have this conversation with! My ‘full time job’ is as a PhD student at Cranfield University, in the School of Applied Sciences rather than the School of Engineering, researching a topic which is very much based on Chemistry not Engineering! I spend a lot of time volunteering in the engineering community, with my professional association (Engineers Ireland) and Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in the UK and Ireland. My views on what engineering is (or should be) are very much shaped by participation in EWB-UK…

Matthew: Hi…

Siobhán: Hello!

Matthew: So just to fill the readers in, I asked you to join me today to discuss the concept ‘what is the difference between a scientist and an engineer?’. To start this rolling, my view is that there is no difference between an engineer and a scientist 🙂

Siobhán: Ohhhh…..

In case of annoying an engineer, break glass
In case of annoying an engineer, break glass

Matthew: I call as evidence that by any definition of science or engineer, I am both – as are numerous people I’ve worked with.

Siobhán: Well many people are both! But that doesn’t mean that there is no difference. Personally, I’d say that you are not an engineer – but neither is a person who fixes cars! Job roles like technologist and engineering scientist confuse the debate. They are good examples of people who are both.

Matthew: Many people see them as two different ways of looking at the same problem. A common view is that a scientist discovers new knowledge and an engineer puts knowledge to practical use (very simplistic summary).

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Siobhán: Yes I’ve seen similar definitions. My personal favourite definition of an engineer is ‘a mediator between people and technology’.

Matthew: Okay, but where I think the line between these two has blurred into non-existence is that the Government is pushing for all research to be practical, to solve real world problems or produce tangible things – which most people seem to consider the domain of an engineer.

Are scientists all slowly becoming engineers!

The rarely seen transformation of a scientist to an engineer
The rarely seen transformation of a scientist to an engineer

Siobhán: Yes, political discussions and public policy debates seem to think that they are the same thing! It’s a pity that research funding is being directed at ‘easy outcomes’.

Equally, there is increasing pressure on Engineers to specialise by gaining Masters degrees (separate to the MEng – an undergraduate engineering degree awarded after four years study), resulting in engineers becoming scientists! My Master of Science degree is in ‘water and wastewater engineering’.

I think a major part of this problem is public understanding of the difference between Science and Engineering. The science community have done an amazing job in communication, but the engineering community doesn’t have it right yet!

Matthew: I absolutely agree with that, more engineers need to shout about what they do, Twitter is good but very heavy on the science (and even more narrowly health care and ecology).

What makes me a scientist in your mind?

Siobhán: I think engineering is very much about solving problems. And science is about examining the details of the world around us, to an absolute level. Engineers often make ‘assumptions’, use ‘rules of thumb’ and include ‘safety factors’ – scientists want to find truth!

Also, I feel like engineering is a ‘vocation’ where as science is a job….

Matthew: *shocked face*

Siobhán: Sorry, maybe ‘career’ is a better word than ‘job’!

Matthew: *even more shocked face*

Science is clearly an obsessive mental illness…

Siobhán: LOL

Matthew: As a scientist, I make plenty of assumptions and frequently do things by my best judgement.

Siobhán: That makes me feel a bit more confident about my own lab techniques!

Matthew: For example, if I have a set up with two variables to test, then I can have an impressive grid of conditions to examine.

But to find the best optimised condition, I never start at the first box in the top left I always guess (never guestimate, I hate that word) where is the best place to start.

Siobhán: You mean ‘make an educated assessment of’ not ‘guess’ – right!!!?

Matthew: Ha, yeah that sounds better!

Siobhán: I think when you use the term ‘obsessive’ is clarifies my view of a scientist! Engineers look at the bigger picture – we need to understand the role of society, humans, technology, regulation, politics, the environment, etc

Tweet1Matthew: In all my work I have always considered at least 3 of the things on that list for everything I’ve worked on. Heck, I spent 5 years making devices to interface with users and fit within regulations and politics of the cancer testing regime. All while still doing science 🙂

Siobhán: Equally there are career engineers, however I think that this is an older generation of engineers. There are so many possibilities for engineers today that anyone can find their niche!

A major part of being an engineer is the ethics behind it, a commitment to continual professional improvement and a responsibility to society. In my opinion if an engineer isn’t a member of an engineering institution then they are not an engineer!

Matthew: Again, I attend courses and constantly learn new techniques – continued professional development is a critical thing for any engineer or scientist.

Also, considering the ethics and responsibility to society is a big part of science – despite some bad PR we don’t all live in Ivory towers! 😉

Siobhán: I’m quite harsh on scientists! Any criticism for engineers?

Matthew: I’d love to go toe to toe for criticism of engineers but a) my office is in the School of Engineering and I don’t want to get beaten up and b) see earlier statement – I think we’re all the same so I just want us all to hug.

Actually, thinking about it – I’m British and quite frightened of physical contact so maybe just a curt nod.

Siobhán: Lucky I didn’t go in for a hug and get a ‘curt nod’! Well, I can say that I know a lot less science than anyone who has a science degree. Educating engineers is very much based on forming graduates who have a particular skill set, rather than specified knowledge. Hence the big focus on maths when studying engineering – math skills are great for training your brain to solve problems!

Matthew: You need to meet more scientists – I’ve known cement bricks to have more science knowledge than some people with science degrees! Although for the sake of balance, I should add that I’ve met plenty of engineers who I wouldn’t trust to add up my shopping list!

But again, in science you get very specific degrees such as Forensic scientist which are very skill based.

Siobhán: I think the move towards requiring engineers and scientists to be more interdisciplinary and holistic is confusing the situation. Maybe 100 years ago the answer was more obvious? What will happen in another 100 years?

Matthew: Indeed, perhaps I’m just ahead of my time – scientists and engineers are not quite the same yet (mostly apparently due to their respective stubbornness) but current policies seems to be pushing them together whether they like it or not.

Siobhán: Wait, so we’re ‘not quite the same’ – have I just won the argument?!

Matthew: Absolutely not! I still think they’re the same but I’m willing to concede that some old-fashioned-stick-in-the-mud scientists and engineers are not ready to admit the inevitable 🙂

Siobhán: Yes, pride of their respective professions may ensure that there is always a divide, but pride in your profession can only be a good thing if it means commitment to continuing professional development, to ethical work and to society.

Scientist-engineering mutant hybrids.... what monster have I created
Scientist-engineering (Scigeneer) mutant hybrids…. what monster have I created

Matthew: And one day hopefully people will have pride in being a Scigeneer.

Siobhán: Maybe we’ll end up with just ‘technologists’ who specialise in science or engineering?

Matthew: I hope not – ‘technologist’ is a terrible name (sorry to all the technologists but seriously your job title sounds like something a bad sci-fi writer would make up!)

Siobhán: How about Engitists?

Matthew: Better…

4 Comments for “What’s the difference between a ‘scientist’ and an ‘engineer’?”

julien colomb

says:

hey guys.

I am a scientist.

I think the big difference between the scientific approach and the engineering approach lie here:
let’s imagine you build a theory that your designed machine would give a result X. You build the machine and get X+a or X-a, as a response each half of the time.
The engineer will run the machine multiple times and take the mean to get the wanted result X.
The scientist will reconsider his whole theory, rebuild the machine, etc…, until he understands why he is not getting X.

I am sure there are moments where scientists do engineering work and vice versa, but the goal being different, the work process is also different…

says:

I like the analogy. Having worked with a lot of engineers I can see that different approach in thinking. But I don’t think that’s exactly right. I know manage engineers that are amazing at drilling down the causes of problems rather than just accepting a minor fudge.

Personally I that that it’s been 2 years since I put this post up and I may need to have another more up to date crack at it 🙂

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