Engineering and Research: which one comes first?

by Mohammad Mayouf

Engineers are one of the major facilitators of human needs through applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to achieve and solutions. The journeyof becoming an engineer is commonly understood to be taking a standard route with selected approaches and methodologies that have been tested and approved based on existing theories (e.g. Newton’s laws in physics). However, the undergoing research clarifies that current approaches to solve engineering problems can be enhanced or even new solutions can be invented, and yet contradictions take place on whether to follow the engineered approaches in solving problems or investigate new knowledge to enhance current approaches or develop new ones. The focus of this blog is about the potential routes to take when engineers decide to solve a problem – whether to choose an engineered approach (direct solution) or research approach (investigate solutions). The argument is reflected in the dialogue between two first year PhD students. It is important to mention that both of them are engineers where one is a mechanical engineer doing his research on engineering simulations (here referred to as ENG1) and the other is a civil engineer conducting his research on sustainability for buildings (ENG2).

ENG1: What are you doing?

ENG2: I am considering wheth

er to use a questionnaire or interviews for my data collection.

ENG1: I thought you would be experimenting with something?

ENG2: I will, but I need to collect data first, and based on the findings I will select the best method.

ENG 1: But this is a social scientist’s approach!

ENG2: I am going down that route so I can better understand the problem I am trying to solve. What about you?

ENG1: I am doing serious engineering research where I apply an experiment on different conditions then derive results, just like scientists do.

ENG2: That’s nice, but isn’t this a goal orientated approach that does not really help you to understand the problem.

ENG1: No, because I am using the perfect approach to solve the problem.

ENG2: So you did carry out some research about it, right?

ENG1: No need because we know it is the best approach!

ENG2: Well, good luck then.


Life-cycle figure of engineering solutions - Develop Apply Enhance
Figure 1: Life-cycle of engineering solutions

This conversation illustrates disagreement regarding the methodological approach to a problem; this then is develops into an argument comparing ‘hard’ science and social science approaches to the problem. This happens quite often: researchers are being judged based on their methodological approach to the problem -whether they use ‘soft’ methods or a ‘hard’ science approach. The truth is that science itself has many different branches such as natural sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.), social sciences (economics, sociology, etc.), creational (engineering and technological) or formal (mathematics, logic). Both ENG1 and ENG2 are under the category of creational scientists, but their approach differs. While ENG1 had a pre-defined method, ENG2 has yet to decide which method constitutes the best approach.

Rosenhead and Mingers’s (2007: p62) book offers an answer here as to what the essence of an approach is: “the selection of an appropriate means to achieve an end which is defined at the start and thereafter taken as given”. In a professional engineer’s world, making sense is through meeting a set specification (e.g. a valve for an oil rig) in the most efficient, economic, and elegant way. And the best way to find efficient methods is through research by devising, testing and comparing different approaches. The emergence of soft systems methodology (SSM), which resulted from systems engineering thinking, provides suitable evidence here. It is a problem solving approach developed from systems engineering when normal engineering approaches fail. This implicates that the approaches developed resulted from valuable research which is an on-going process. Therefore, as an engineer, no matter what method you use or which approach you take, it goes through a life-cycle (see figure 1) which is mainly based on research and should lead to more integrated solutions through enhancing existing methods or developing new ones to create more specific evidence-informed engineering approaches. ENG1 demonstrated a goal-orientated approach that only aimed to solve the problem using a particular method. It must be acknowledged that this approach might become inferior as level of complexity develops. Thus, considering a problem from different angles will encourage more innovative solutions which can draw on multiple perspectives to answer more queries.

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