Engineers in the Shadow of Science

Vannevar Bush (source)

Engineers in the United States, unfairly, are seen to work in the shadow of scientists. That is the view expressed by William Hammack, professor of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and John Anderson, president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in a recent article.

“Modern engineers” they write, “are seen as taking over their knowledge from scientists and, by some occasionally dramatic but using this to fashion material artifacts.” Ouch.

In reality, science and engineering are complementary activities. The history of the 19th century industrial revolution shows that invention spurs scientific discovery, which in turn fuels invention. This virtuous cycle has produced the technological marvels that characterize the modern age.

Ironically, engineers have no one to blame but themselves. The current preeminence of science over engineering in the US can be traced to the work of Vannevar Bush. Building on the astounding technological successes in the first half of the 20th century, especially the invention of radar, nuclear power, and computing, in which he played leading roles, Bush argued that the US government ought to fund basic scientific research.

Technological innovation, Bush wrote, is ”founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!” The US National Science Foundation was created in 1950 as a result of Bush’s efforts.

Hammock and Anderson are concerned that this “linear model,” of engineering innovation following from scientific advances, has skewed people’s understanding of the reciprocal relationship between the two activities. Without proper support of technological innovation by engineers, society cannot not receive the full potential benefit from its investments in scientific research.

Their solution is to promote greater understanding of the process of engineering innovation, as distinct from the vaunted scientific method — e.g. observation, hypothesis, test, analysis, and interpretation. By contrast, engineers build things, are goal-driven, and are often guided more by empirical results rather than a firm theoretical understanding.

While I agree generally with the points raised by Hammock and Anderson, I also think that their prescription falls short of the mark. Emphasis on the different ways scientists and engineers work obscures another important aspect that sets engineering apart from science — motivation.

Theodore von Kármán, a contemporary of Vannevar Bush, captured this difference between science and engineering in this succinct quote:

Engineers are driven by the desire to change the world in ways that improve the condition of mankind. This is codified in the ethics of the engineering profession as an engineer’s special duty to the general public.

Hammack, William S., and John L. Anderson. “Working in the Penumbra of Understanding.” Issues in Science and Technology (February 16, 2022).



A dead poet, a reformed anarchist, and an earnest engineer celebrate the 19th century revolution in science and technology that transformed Paris and conquered the world — a collection of essays on the theme.

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William Nuttle

Navigating a changing environment — hydrologist, engineer, advocate for renewable energy, currently writing about the personal side of technological progress