Somewhere on the road between Pasco and Kahlotus, it finally started. I should have seen it coming, but I never realized it would begin so early. Behind my right shoulder, in the back seat, my oldest teenager was lobbying for a subscription to Popular Mechanics. Behind my left shoulder, the youngest was extolling Popular Science. Quickly, the discussion descended into an exchange of barbs targeting either the esoteric wanderings of science or the terse pragmatism of engineering.
When we arrived at Pullman, we watched winter graduates of various majors parade through commencement at Washington State University. I wondered how they'd do on the battlefield of ideas and action. No doubt, many would go forth and think great thoughts while others would roll up their sleeves and build new and wonderful things. But would they ever see eye to eye?
Managing a small group of engineers that support hundreds of research scientists, I've some experience in this area. Daily, frantic researchers hasten into my office waving their hands and shaping in the air some critical instrument or software needed for research that doesn't exist. My job, then, entails extracting vague, incomplete specifications from a customer who doesn't know exactly what they need - and then building it. Likely, they needed it yesterday, and when I do deliver it, it's not quite what they had in mind. Such is typical of the interface between science and engineering. Rivalry seems unavoidable.
The skilled professionals, however, have realized that cross-disciplinary interactions succeed through diplomacy and understanding. By appreciating the challenges, thought processes, and motivations of others, a professional can best tune their exchanges to ferret out the needs to address. One shouldn't directly challenge the foundations of another's guiding principles. That just distracts from the problem at hand. Instead, one should listen attentively to the concerns and issues of the other and then attempt to educate on the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches. Nothing novel here. Unfortunately, school teaches little of this.
As the United States falls farther behind in promoting quality science and engineering education, it doesn't help when science and engineers have trouble communicating. Similarly, with all the challenges facing the U.S. in the areas of energy and environment, we may find it difficult to make headway. But it's not just that scientists and engineers have trouble talking to each other. The public is confused, too. And their support is needed to pass legislation, fund development, and challenge officials and businesses to make progress.
I don't know if my sons will reach common ground. But when they finally launch their careers, I'm hoping they'll at least make the effort. And it's not just scientists and engineers that need to get along. The important thing is to keep talking and avoid entrenchment. If we try to go it alone, we're lost.