What is the Difference Between Science and Engineering?


My apple didn't fall far from the tree, but it ended up on the wrong side of the fence. My family is filled with chemists. My mother has a BS in Chemistry, while my father and stepfather both have PhDs in Chemistry. My step-grandfather is an emeritus professor of Chemistry at Northwestern. I, uh, liked physics and math in high school, so I became… a chemical engineer. Instant black sheep status.

I still sit at the kids' table for Thanksgiving (it's more fun there anyways!). Chemists and chemical engineers remind me of siblings; they're so very similar, but their differences make them fight like cats and dogs at times. This does beg the question: What's the difference between scientists and engineers?

It seems that the way it used to be defined is that scientists did fundamental work that was fairly far removed from an application. For example, maybe they figured out a new way to make a molecule (or a new molecule to make). Yay! Unfortunately, they could only make a gram or two in the lab, which was never terribly relevant to industrial scales (often requiring millions of tons per year). Thus, a chemical engineer would come along and tell the scientists, "It's great that you did that, but we can't scale this process up. Figure out a different way to do it that we can actually use." Thus was born great animosity.

So, envision a line that stretches from fundamental research to applied research. On this line, fundamental research represents really, really basic research, like CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) Higg's Boson search stuff. Applied research is somebody running a machine in a factory that makes products sold to consumers. So, in the past there was some line drawn in the sand between applications and fundamental studies, and engineers stayed on one side and scientists stayed on other (see figure below).

science, engineering

I think a lot of that has changed now, especially in the academic research world. There are many professors in science fields (e.g. chemistry) who spin off companies from their research, and engineering professors who couldn't care less about end-use applications.

In light of this, I've redefined science and engineering (how nice of me). Start with the line from fundamental research to applied research that we drew earlier. But, let's erase the "line in the sand" division between scientists and engineers (see figure below).

science, engineering

So, let's think about somebody at CERN who is trying to fix one of the magnets that accelerates particles. I'd call him an engineer. I'm not sure what his title is, and for me, it doesn't much matter. He's trying to make something happen. On the other side, let's take a look at a researcher working in a plant that makes teddy bears. He's studying the fluid mechanics of how the stuffing blows into the body of the bear. He's trying to learn something. I'd call him a scientist.

Through these two examples, I'd say that you can have very applied scientists and very fundamental engineers. So if fundamental and applied no longer define scientists and engineers, how do we define them? I suggest the following method. If a person is asking, "why does this happen?" they are a scientist. Thus, no matter where on the spectrum they stand, they are looking toward fundamental issues. If a person is asking, "How do I make this work?" they are an engineer, and are looking toward the applied end. Therefore, your mindset in doing work determines whether you are a scientist or an engineer, not whether you are applied or fundamental.

For what it's worth, by this definition I'm much more of a scientist than an engineer as I love to understand why things happen, but am not terribly driven by end-use applications.




As explained above, it's more

As explained above, it's more shades of grey than black and white, but in essence, science is about exploring the universe (physically and mathematically) to learn more about it. 

Engineering is about learning, inventing and developing solutions to real problems.  In the latter, more often than not, it is to meet human needs for food, shelter, transportation, healthcare, etc.  

A researcher might determine that a certain compound is effective in fighting a disease.  Engineers would design the delivery systems as well as the production methods and machinery so that the researcher's discovery can actually be applied to help people.  A microbiologist might determine that a certain microbe will digest a toxic chemical and turn it into something benign.  Engineers would design the systems and machinery that would make it possible to process those chemicals using that microbe.

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><p>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Refresh Type the characters you see in this picture. Type the characters you see in the picture; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.  Switch to audio verification.