Technologists are scientists too

I think of myself as a scientist.  My degree even has the word “science” in it so I must be.  Yet no job title I have ever had has the word “science” or “scientist” in it.  I have been described as a “technologist”, or the word “research” has been involved, but never have I been described as a scientist.  Part of that is because I went straight into industry after my PhD and no-one really thinks people in industry “do science”.  That’s what people in universities do.  Or is it?

There is another piece of verbal shorthand that gets in the way.  Scientist is often used as a catch-all title for scientists (such as physicists, chemists and biologists), engineers (including mechanical, chemical, electrical, civil and many others) and mathematicians.  Like the jargon we all use to make internal discussions easier, this generic description hides a rich variety of skills and experience – and sometimes even reduces us to “boffins”!

I have been thinking a lot about this over the last few weeks as headlines have been about how the “science base” has fought off cuts.  I have followed the activities of the “Science is Vital” campaign with admiration.  I have taken part in numerous meetings and conferences where the various lobbying that enabled the funding for UK universities to avoid the worst of the predicted cuts has been praised.  I have even read the papers liking the pre-eminence of our knowledge base to economic growth.  I have listened to the Government Chief Scientist talk about the need to protect the science base so that it can contribute to future UK economic growth.  What has worried me – just a little bit – is that all the attention is focused on what goes in in the science base.  If you actually talk to any of the people involved in the “science base” they all acknowledge that the universities are only part of the knowledge supply chain, but somehow the whole picture has been simplified to the point where I think we are in danger of missing something.

At this point, it is probably worth establishing whether I am a scientist or not!  My first degree is in polymer science and I stayed on to get a PhD in the area – although its title now looks horribly narrow, it taught me much about the process of research.  I then joined the research centre of a large global corporation – BP.  There I did fairly basic research into new materials, conducting polymers, ionic polymers and non-linear optical polymers (it goes with the degree title!).  In each area, we worked with universities to underpin our work to investigate the potential uses of these new materials, we gave papers at conferences and we generally worked alongside academic from around the world.  It is useful to note at this point that these areas are only now beginning to make it into commercial reality.  After 8 years I moved into another large company – Courtaulds – to be part of their new corporate laboratory.  The role here was to investigate new science for relevance to the markets we served and adapt and develop it into new products.  I moved again – into ICI – and spent more time in this area between universities and factories.  As far as my academic colleagues were concerned, I was too focused on outcomes and profitability but as far as my business colleagues saw it, I was a hopeless dreamer who only wanted to put new things on their smoothly running production lines. As my career developed, I did less and less “real science” and got more into the specification of new products and services, but even now I find it hard to shake the “hypothesis-experiment-new hypothesis” approach to life.  Throughout this whole time I have had friends from both ends of this spectrum – some have become very successful business people and some might well be in line for Nobel Prizes one day!

Are they different?  The drive of the academic scientist is to understand whatever problem they are working on.  They compete with their peers to be the first to understand and explain how a piece of nature works.  They choose their area of activity – although they do have to convince a plethora of funding agencies that their quest is of some kind of value to get the necessary financial support.  For them, success is when that understanding is validated by experiment and acknowledged by their peers.

The industrial scientist tends to have their problem space defined by the activities of their employer.  Their goal is still to understand a piece of nature, but their success is measured by their ability to turn that understanding into a product or service that their company can deliver to a set of customers for a price that is higher than the cost of producing it.   They are not driven, or sometimes even allowed, to follow their work to full understanding.  As long as they have enough information to make the product or service work, their job is done – and then they move on to the next product or service.

From where I sit they are more similar than different, but almost inevitably they grow apart and lose the ability to interact.

When I started as an industrial scientist (there, I’ve said it!) industry recognised the value of the links between commerce and universities.  Large corporates in particular had “corporate laboratories” where scientists worked with their colleagues in universities to translate the ideas of universities and the needs of commerce between the 2 communities.  Over my career, they have almost entirely disappeared.  The likes of Sunbury, Runcorn, Wilton, Epsom, Hirst, Caswell, Martlesham, Redhill, Murray Hill, San Jose, Yorktown Heights are shadows of their former selves – if they exist at all.  There are probably as many scientists and engineers in industry as there used to be, they are just allocated to more directly profitable activities

Some academics can envisage how their fundamental work can lead to a product, but many do not want to.  Many in business lose touch with the training and knowledge base that they had when they were young and so cannot assimilate new knowledge.  The communities grow apart and lose the ability to interact and here is where I see a problem.

The question of how much you should invest in the generation of knowledge and how much on its exploitation is an inevitable one but, I would assert, a meaningless one.  Knowledge in itself does not make money.  Knowledge has to be codified into products and services to enable customers to buy it.  Without knowledge, however, it would not be possible to develop new things at all.  From what I have seen, fundamental knowledge is always a contributor to exploitation, the only doubt is in the timing.  Nothing I have ever worked on that was in any way disruptive took less than 10 years to go from idea to commercial reality.  Many examples that are used have over-delivered but only after several decades of development.

But the development activity is important too.  With all the attention on building new knowledge and how its impact will lead to economic growth, I worry that we have forgotten the need for development, translation or innovation – whatever you call it – and therefore we run the risk of not doing it!

We have based the argument on the link between knowledge and commerce on history and the system that delivered that link has changed.  If we are to deliver on the investment in science the UK has consistently made over many decades, then we need to pay attention to the next stage of its development.  Given all the other changes and challenges we face, we need to build a new way of organising the various skills and experiences into a capability that can deliver what we need to satisfy the needs of our own society and supply the competitive advantage we need to prosper in a rapidly evolving world.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:07

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