Impact vs. breakthrough

Last week I was at a meeting to recommend the award of research grants to scientists and engineers at universities.  Weighing the relative merits of research proposals from physical scientists and from engineers is a little like trying to compare chalk and cheese.  The scientists at such meetings tend to argue that none of the engineering research proposals will lead to scientific breakthroughs, which is one criterion for the awarding of grants; while engineers might suggest that the societal impact of scientific research proposals are intangible and remote.  There is an element of truth in both perspectives since broadly speaking engineering is about the application of science for the benefit of society.  Scientists need to make breakthroughs so that there are new ideas for engineers to apply; however often it is not clear how to apply the breakthrough beneficially, reliably, safely and cheaply, thus engineers also to perform research to establish the best route to the application of existing breakthroughs.

Or to quote Einstein: ‘scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been’.

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