Science vs. engineering for policy: What is the difference?

As part of my PhD research, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of Civil Service engineers  whose role is to advise policy analysts on technical questions. An interesting finding of this emerging work concerns  the difference between science and engineering for policy. 

For many people outside of the two fields, engineering and science are synonymous. However, engineers working in policy see themselves as doing something different from scientists. According to the engineers I interviewed, engineering is more applied whereas science is more fundamental.

One of my research participants, a scientist by training, now working in an engineering team, shared the following reflexion on the difference between science and engineering:

“I think that being a scientist taught me how to ask questions, construct experiments and then decide what conclusions you can and cannot draw. Science is more of a process or a method, there is less focus on the outcome, in science the answer can be yes or no

Engineering on the other hand is outcome-driven:

Engineers have a goal they are trying to reach, we want a yes answer and until we get it we’ll keep chiselling! Engineers are more like ‘I want to build a bridge that strong and cheap and so what material is just strong enough to be strong enough and just cheap enough to be cheap enough? I probably  won’t get the cheapest and the strongest all in one so I’ll have to compromise a bit. Where is an acceptable compromise point?’”

Now this distinction between science and engineering seems to hold true when talking about ‘pure science’, i.e. science generated in research settings like academic labs and concerned with extending knowledge and competence with limited regard for practical applications. However, the line between science and engineering gets blurrier when talking about ‘regulatory science’.

‘Regulatory science’ is the academic term used to describe the science used to produce scientific techniques that further the task of policy development. Unlike pure science, regulatory science is concerned with practical applications and used by governments to tackle and regulate health and environmental issues. By virtue of being more practical and concerned with solving particular problems, regulatory science’s goals align with those of engineering. In other words, the “regulatory” brings science closer to engineering.

With that said, there are still differences between regulatory science and engineering for policy. Looking at my research as well as Dr. Adam Cooper’s study, policy analysts turn to engineers for advice on the technical performance of physical technologies. Where regulatory science is more concerned with health and environmental issues, engineering advice deals more with physical infrastructure and the built environment.

But more than just a difference in subjects covered, there is still a fundamental difference between regulatory science and engineering for policy. As my research suggests, regulatory science is typically involved in regulatory decisions (encouraging/allowing/reducing/banning use or production of something) whereas engineering advice is sought when infrastructure/technology needs to be built, changed or deployed. Because engineers working in policy are involved when a physical object needs to be built or deployed, they advise on the trade-offs between building the object and economic and physical constraints.

Of course, these are conclusions of a research in progress, and based on the fieldwork and literature review carried out so far. I would love to hear your feedback! Do you agree or disagree with the points above? What do you think the difference between engineering and science is for policy? Let us know your thoughts!