This opinion piece in the IEEE Spectrum, by Henry Petroski, brings up an important question that lurks behind many a discussion I find myself in. Petroski argues that the identification of fundamental scientific facts is quite a different thing from the core business of engineering – figuring out how to get something to happen, reliably, the way people need it. His main example is the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The problem was one of bad engineering, solved by good engineering. There was no underlying scientific mystery but that didn’t make the issue trivial. The same sort of thing seems to apply to many other big challenges – clean drinking water, energy, etc. etc. So far, perhaps many people would agree and it doesn’t seem too controversial. Probably the more contentious point is regarding the priority given to basic science even though it is often irrelevant, in an explicit sense, to such problems.
Petroski is drawing attention to a very real issue here. Everyone in academia has seen plenty of examples of ‘useless’ but ‘clean’ theory that gets more dignified reception than much more useful, but ‘dirty’, solutions. However, is there really a clear separating line? I suspect there is a middle ground which is worth inhabiting. The real difficulty, in my experience, is sociological – these fine lines are hard to walk and take a lot more persuasive power than to just join some established camp and ride the wave.