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Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue January, January 1 - January 31, 2001 | BY R. Raghuraman 


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Pressure to produce practical results requires a new breed of scientist/engineer.

The great wall separating scientist and engineer (or, if you prefer, research and development, or the lab and the factory), is tumbling down. Not because scientists or engineers suddenly recognize each other's significance and importance. It's because business and industry simply demand it.

What is the difference between a scientist and an engineer? Many of us conjure up stereotypical images of a scientist holding a test tube and an engineer with a spanner in his hand. The laboratory is the den of a scientist while the factory is the engineer's nest. Conventionally, historically, traditionally, scientists and engineers distance themselves from each other because they do different things differently. At least, that's how it was in the past.

A scientist analyzes. He works on a set of data, formulates a hypothesis, and attempts to prove or disprove it. On the other hand, an engineer synthesizes. Given a set of existing data, facts and axioms, she tries to solve problems with this repository of knowledge. Each had their own significant impact on technology, science, individuals and society as a whole. A scientist's proposition is an intellectual urge to know the unknown. An engineer has both commercial and economic motivation to develop solutions and solve problems. An engineer's solution meets the business's current needs.

Over the years, intellectual nebulosity settled over the wall between the fields of research and development. Now the wall is breaking down. Many developments -- political, scientific or economic, depending on your viewpoint -- are driving this trend. For example, look at the decision of CERN, a giant high-energy-physics laboratory straddling the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, to shut down its biggest particle accelerator, the Large Electron-Positron (LEP) collider, in October. On the brink of a possible major discovery by Higgs that could close a significant chapter of physics, CERN apparently ran out of time. The horns of its dilemma are clear enough: Continue taking measurements and maybe make a stunning breakthrough, but delay an engineering project scheduled with Swiss precision that would cost much to undo. CERN's government backers, not known for their generosity towards fundamental research, lost patience. Unless research labs like CERN show results, their options are either to close down or take on a commercial project to sustain their existence.

Another development in this direction is the Turing debate. Turing proposed an experiment in which a person and a machine are placed in a darkened room. Someone outside the room asks questions that are answered by either the person or by the machine. Turing's proposition was that over the years, we could develop a machine, using artificial intelligence, so that the person outside the room will have difficulty determining if the responses are from man or machine. The question as to whether we have achieved such computing power is under debate. As Djkstra summed up, "The question of whether a computer can think is no more interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim". People simply are not interested in building such a machine. Intellectual pursuit is one thing but business viability is an altogether different issue.

Government funding of research is a bone of contention in the House of Commons. The ubiquitous question of why should there so much spending on, say, sending a spacecraft to Jupiter, forced the Government to rethink on its expenditures on fundamental research. The government concluded that it will henceforth only fund "application oriented" research, or to put it bluntly, directed scientists to "do research in something which has some practical relevance and not to work towards an intellectual pursuit."

Organizations cannot sustain themselves without research. In an era where innovation is key, organizations should encourage research to serve their parochial interests, if nothing else. If they do not innovate, their competitors will leave them behind. In the survival of the fittest race, profit-oriented companies and organizations should spare some time for research as well, lest they be blown out of the race by a "killer discovery or killer invention." The writing is on the wall: Scientists also should think like engineers and engineers alsoshould think like scientists.

R. Raghuraman works in the VLSI Test Team of the ASIC organization in Texas Instruments (India) Ltd, Bangalore.


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