Engineering Research

John Kelly makes a plea for more funding for engineering research in the IT recently and I imagine that the ‘basic researchers’ will be quick out of the blocks to put him in his place. Prof. Brian Lucey, of Trinity was quick to reply but I couldn’t quite follow his argument which was muddied somewhat by the placing of ‘translational research’ somewhere between ‘basic research and ‘applied research’. I can see where John Kelly is coming from because it always been a mystery to me as to why the State has never had any funding programmes specifically designed for engineering research. By the way, John Kelly, to his credit, was one of the few research active chemical engineers in Ireland in the 60s and 70s.

That said, I think this whole basic versus applied stuff is a nonsense. At the risk of repeating myself, here’s my view of research:

 (i ) There are some researchers, self-styled ‘basic researchers’, who pursue knowledge for knowledge sake. They like to follow their interests, however esoteric, and believe that they should be funded to do so. Many would claim to be ‘pushing back the envelope’, creating more space for the applied researchers to exploit. They claim that failure to fund them will stop the expansion of this envelope, causing the work of the applied folk to stagnate with dire consequences for all.

In fact, many ‘basic researchers’ are just filling in gaps, fine tuning and making incremental steps forward. Very little envelope pushing is going on at all. Furthermore, the work of such researchers is highly dependent on the work of engineers and the so-called ‘applied researchers’, who develop crucial tools for the ‘basic’ work – not to mention the added insights that the ‘applied researchers’ often provide.

(ii) Then, we have researchers whose work is more goal-oriented; biomedical researchers studying specific disease states, chemical engineers studying reaction kinetics, physicists developing new sensors, electronic engineers studying the non-linear dynamics of circuits, mathematicians developing more efficient numerical methods etc. These researchers use the work of the ‘basic researchers’ but very often find that the basic researchers have failed to venture into key areas where knowledge is needed. Or, they find that the basic research, based on idealised models, is fundamentally flawed when applied to the real world. They then do their own ‘basic research’ because they have to in order to progress. There are loads of examples of this in engineering.

 (iii) Then we have the developers. These are people who are, or should be, working in the commercial sector and who are exploiting existing knowledge to create new processes and products. The danger here is that there isn’t sufficient appreciation of the limitations of the existing knowledge. Perhaps the financial meltdown is an example of this.

Most University researchers are in the middle category and trying to classifying them as ‘basic’ or ‘applied’ is nonsense.

They key question in all of this relates to funding. What should a bankrupt state do? It surely must demand as much return on its investment as possible and if one project is good science (or engineering) that just might have a commercial benefit, and if another is fantastic science but will almost surely  lead nowhere commercially (e.g. world class research in string theory), at least in the short to medium term, surely the better approach is to fund the former?

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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2 Responses to Engineering Research

  1. Not an enraged scientist says:

    The thing that most struck me about John Kelly’s article was whet felt like outdated tribal stereotyping of ‘scientists’ and ‘engineers’. I would presumably be seen by John Kelly as a ‘scientist’, but on campus in 2012 I just see researchers who work on a diversity of problems using approaches from different domains. I too would feel that there are SFI projects that are probably not worth the punt, while there are others deserving of funding, but I don’t feel the answer is in science vs. engineering or basic vs. applied.

    One conundrum for SFI is that the strategy for consultation would like to encourage prize winners to Ireland. This brings into focus your last point, where I agree that we probably don’t need the Nobel prize winning string theorist, but would we be able to turn such a person away?

    • foleyg says:

      No I wouldn’t turn him away. I certainly think we need to encourage (and fund) people to do really fundamental research even if it has no apparent practical use. Such people are vital, in an intangible sort of way, to the atmosphere, ethos and credibility of a University. I also think that very basic scientific research should be seen in a cultural context in the same way that art or literature or opera or whatever should be seen. I just wish that people wouldn’t keep implying that the country is going to go down the drain economically if we don’t fund them!

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