One only has to look at how we dress to see that engineers are not a very faddish lot. But engineering has roots in the sciences. That science may often be driven more by fashion than by need is one of our disturbing realizations of the past two centuries. Science is sexy, and sexiness begs fashion. Many such fashions revolve around societal myths about the scientific nature of things, fed by the science fiction fantasies of our youth — ideas like the speed of light. If you can sniff that neutrinos might travel faster than light, it’s important to start the presses rolling.
We in our horn-rimmed glasses and plaid shirts see ourselves as having one foot firmly planted in the concrete, the girders, or the silicon mazes of production. We respect the laws of physics for how they temper sensationalism. But our few sensational successes owe more to project management than to science, such as the supply chain management that enabled the Empire State Building to be built in a year. Maybe that’s because the bulk of engineering is about management, contract administration, and project management (It’s Not Engineering, Jim).
We are also accountable to real markets that expect concrete deliverables. We derive credibility by bridging science to practice. Those around the edge of engineering, like so-called software engineers, so envy this credibility that to co-opt the name and to carry on cargo cult imitations of engineering practices become elements of fashion in their own right.
Nonetheless, engineering has close ties to the scientific community through the research that we sponsor. And our accountability to the market hones our sense of fashion; unconstrained by deliveries or economics, our research partners redouble their pursuit of fads. Research funding depends on it.
Doug McIlroy mused (ca. 1991):
Many illustrious computer scientists have given summaries of results in [STOC, FOCS, and SIGGRAPH] proceedings papers and then never fleshed them out; more than once it has happened that the result is wrong, at least in detail. Thus a surprising theorem announced in proceedings should be regarded with skepticism. If you regard your work as of more than transient value, and hope that others will too, you will go the extra mile for archival publication. Conference proceedings keep the pot boiling on the stove; the archival literature provides the floor for the stove to stand on.
Also check out http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118972683557627104.html
This leads us to the golden concept of innovation, so embraced by the science-meets-application world today. Oh, that would be us. Innovation is killing us: the good of innovation drives out the perfect of invention. Optimizing those innovations that the market yearns can cause entire companies, or perhaps entire nations, to lose their vision. Consider their government’s urgent call for action to Finnish industry back in 2009 (http://www.aka.fi/Tiedostot/Tiedostot/Arviointitoiminta/SIGHT_Summary.pdf):
A disproportionate amount of research at universities today focuses on application and product development at the expense of basic research. Key policy documents over the past few years have placed scientific research primarily in a technological and economic context. Other relevant factors probably include the large proportion of doctoral students within the research community, the standard of the science infrastructure, the research system’s low level of internationalisation as well as defects in the principles of research funding and scientific management.
You know the rest. The right approach requires balance and courage. Innovate, but nurture invention as well. That means focusing on the long term, and on a world ecosystem, instead of just the market you are being paid to research and develop.