These graduates in chemical engineering may have been given a sound scientific and mathematical education, and have been trained in all of the skills necessary to follow in the footsteps of their teachers, but their teachers were not chemical engineers. They have been taught to be scientific researchers like the people who now staff our Chemical Engineering departments.
As practising engineers, we have failed in our duty of oversight of chemical engineering education so comprehensively that this wrong-headed approach is now the entrenched norm in academia.
There is now profound confusion in academia between science, engineering science and engineering; practice and research; engineers and scientists. This is both the cause of and the consequence of a circular self-reinforcing problem: In order to enhance their research profile, university departments have employed people carrying out the scientific research published in high impact journals.
Universities specify a PhD and publications as a requirement for the most junior lectureship. The overwhelming majority of such candidates have first degrees in science, not engineering.
There is however no mechanism to employ a proportion of staff who have significant experience as engineering practitioners and even if there were, a lack of understanding of and respect for professional knowledge, and a large difference in pay make recruitment of practitioners more or less impossible.
What is the confusion? Firstly, let’s differentiate between pure and applied maths, science, engineering science and engineering:
Mathematics is a human construction, with no empirical foundation. It is made of ideas, and has nothing to do with reality. It is only “true” within its own conventions. There is no such thing in nature as a true circle, and even arithmetic (despite its great utility) is not empirically based.
Applied mathematics uses maths to address some real problem. This is the way engineers use mathematics, but many engineers use English too. Engineering is no more applied mathematics than it is applied English.
Natural science tries to understand natural phenomena. The activity is rather less rigid than philosophers of science would have us believe, but it is about explaining and perhaps predicting natural phenomena.
Applied science applies natural scientific principles to solve some real world problem. Engineers might do this, (though mostly they don’t) but that doesn’t make it engineering, more related to technology.
Engineering science is the application of scientific principles to the study of engineering artefacts. The classic example of this is thermodynamics, invented to explain the steam engine, which was developed empirically without supporting theory.
This is the kind of science which engineers tend to apply. It is the product of the application of science to the things engineers work with, artificial constructions rather than nature.
Engineering is completely different from all preceding categories. It is the profession of imagining and bringing into being a completely new artefact which safely, cost effectively and robustly achieves a specified aim.
The role of an academic “engineer” tends to include all but this last crucial category. As one of the few people who has full professional competence in both fields, I am clear that Engineering Practitioner and University Professor are very different professions, requiring different skills, training and experience.
We may hold university lecturers in high esteem, but we have been foolish to give them our highest grades of institutional membership without the relevant qualifications and experience, as this has removed a number of checks and balances on engineering education.
The scientists who make up the majority of UK chemical engineering department staff offer pure scientific research PhDs whose recipients are often considered to have “a degree in chemical engineering” as it was awarded by a school of chemical engineering. These PhDs themselves become university lecturers, despite their having no training or experience in chemical engineering, and so it goes.
Many of our academic “engineers” are therefore really research scientists. That they are not professional engineers does not, however, prevent them nowadays from becoming Chartered Engineers.
The Masters year which is now more or less required to become chartered is largely about engagement with research. The phrase “advanced chemical engineering” used throughout the IChemE accreditation guidelines is usually taken by academics to mean scientific research.
I am not aware of anywhere interpreting this as meaning advancing towards a greater understanding of chemical engineering practice. Engineering is a practical profession, which is advanced almost entirely through practice rather than the laboratory research or computer modelling which "chemical engineering" academics engage in.
Chartered engineers are supposed to be completely aligned under the Washington accord with the requirements for professional engineers in countries where the use of the word “engineer” is regulated by law. This means for chemical engineers that they are supposed to have a level of education and experience which makes them competent plant designers, or supervisors of plant operation. No amount of research and teaching will make you a PE in the US.
When I was first chartered, there was little point in submitting an application for CEng unless you had an accredited degree in chemical engineering, and could demonstrate application of safety principles on full scale plant, and design or operation of full scale plant. (I still have my 1995 version of the requirements for anyone who doubts this)
All other experience (including any amount of teaching or research) fell into the optional and non-equivalent “other” category. We understood then that the job of a university lecturer, (whilst estimable) was not the job of an engineer. This is no longer the case. There is no longer any differentiation between the categories, and you can become chartered with no experience of the formerly mandatory categories of practical application of safety, and plant design or operational experience.
The “Chartered engineers” IChemE are counting in University departments are mostly people who would not have been allowed to carry the title twenty years ago. In addition, since the introduction of a little-known senior route to institution fellowship for academics (skipping MIChemE but incorporating CEng) an academic scientist could now easily hold a higher grade of membership than a Principal Engineer. In fact, it has arguably become easier to reach FIChemE status with an academic background than one as a practitioner.
Such “Chartered Engineers” are consequently no defence against loss of focus on core chemical engineering, and they can in fact work to counter the input of any engineers present as if they were equals. This measure, which was presumably taken to acknowledge our esteem for educators, has instead made them lose esteem for our professional knowledge and experience, making it even harder for practitioners to enter academia.
Accreditation teams have some difficulty finding what they call industrialists (often in practice retired researchers or managers as opposed to current engineering practitioners) to serve on their visit teams and committees, and any who are present will be greatly outnumbered by academics. Our university accreditation guidelines are consequently policed largely by non-practitioners, and we have lost much of our ability to correct misinterpretations by non-engineers of the guidelines.This is important, because misinterpretation is rife.
What many outside academia do not realise is that, in a modularised degree, "academic freedom" means that individual module conveners can interpret the guidelines any way they please. A green PhD graduate in a completely unrelated field has the right to decide what they want to teach, and no real obligation to understand its context either within the overall course, let alone as part of the academic formation of a chartered chemical engineer. It is therefore possible for a degree course to meet the accreditation guidelines only at module level without any systematic coherent vision.
Universities often have an industrial panel of some kind to advise on curriculum changes etc. It is however in my experience usually the case that the people on this panel are selected from companies with which the staff have research links. Rather than being designers or operators of process plants, they are frequently researchers who happen to work in a privately funded lab instead of a university one. They are exactly the same kind of people as the academics, and they are working in collaboration with them in other spheres. This is not a proper oversight mechanism.
I am grateful that non-engineers have stepped in to fill the leadership positions within the IChemE which it seems professional engineers are too busy to take up, and I wish to cast no slur on their abilities, education and contribution to academia, but this state of affairs has consequences.
Without engineering practitioners in leadership roles, how can IChemE maintain credibility and alignment with what is internationally understood to be the proper role of a chemical engineer?
So what have been the consequences of allowing research scientists to take over the education of engineers? Many of the academics I talk to (and I have talked to a lot) think that engineering just is an unintelligent application of natural science and pure mathematics, and that they are as scientists in possession of a better understanding of the fundamentals of our profession than we practitioners. To quote “The Big Bang Theory”, they think that engineers are just “the oompa-loompas of science”.
They interpret the IChemE’s requirement to teach "underpinning science" as a requirement to teach their “purer” subjects, and consider visiting engineers as a source of an amusing anecdotal sideshow by someone who doesn’t really understand the basics of their own subject.
To quote a UK academic on this subject
“Industrial input is a valued optional extra. Most practitioners are great at telling tales, but can’t be relied on providing the, yes, scientific backbone that differentiates a good graduate from a plant operator, technician or draughtsman.”I regularly see lab and academic research skills being represented as transferable skills, as if engineers ever donned a white coat again after leaving university. I have even seen a situation in a leading UK university where the capstone design project has substituted lab experiment design for process plant design.
A focus on research is the foundation of the MEng year, but much of the research done in university departments by non-engineers has nothing at all to do with engineering practice. Which practitioner ever said “this problem is too hard for us, let’s go ask our old university professor how to do it”?
We have changed IChemE rules to favour the academics who largely staff our committees and secretariat. Academic scientists are overrepresented in our committees as practitioners do not have the paid time to serve on committees which academics do. (Neither are we generally as keen on committees as they are.) We have removed the checks and balances which prevented university curricula from drifting too far from the needs of the profession, and we have replaced those who should be guarding the guardians with those who should be overseen.
The ultimate consequence of the IChemE rules being changed unwisely is that scientists and researchers now hold many key IChemE leadership positions, and are inclined to support changes which favour people like themselves. They are only human, and this is how humans are.
All of these effects combine, such that the overwhelming majority of UK university chemical engineering department staff have no idea what chemical engineering is about, (though being academics they may well hold strong opinions on what it is/should be) and there is no longer any effective mechanism to correct their misunderstandings.
This effect is so strong that the article which this text is drawn from was pulled on the day of publication as a result of a campaign by academics on IChemE committees who did not want the issue even to be raised. Please could I ask you to share this post so that their wishes might be frustrated, and we might have an open debate on the issues.
What do academics think of this viewpoint? If backed into a corner, a few stock arguments come out. These are all what philosophers call straw men, and engineers call something less polite.
“The need to teach underpinning science”We do indeed need to do this, but natural science and pure maths do not directly underpin engineering. We may need to teach some of these subjects early in the course in order to get students ready to learn engineering science and professional practice, but this is the equivalent of pre-clinical medical education.
“We are educating engineers, not providing industrial training for technicians”This argument reliably comes out as soon as I propose to academics putting practice at the heart of the curriculum. They don’t mind a visiting “industrialist” amusing the students with a few anecdotes, but the idea that an engineer might know more about engineering than a non-engineer with an academic title is a mortal insult.
There is in academia the commonly held but infrequently voiced idea that the natural sciences and pure maths are cleverer than engineering practice. It is as if, having jumped through the hoops which clever academics held out to us, the rest of our careers as practitioners were a long slow intellectual decline.
Of course such an idea is only tenable by people with no significant experience of practice - chemical engineering is quite a challenging profession. Experts might make it look easy in a way which might confuse people with no relevant qualifications or experience, but if it really was easy, it wouldn’t be the second best paid profession in the UK, would it?
This is my call to arms: we need to look at redefining what constitutes Chartership – and indeed Fellowship with the emphasis on realigning CEng with PE. We need in my opinion to go back to the old definition of what makes a Chartered Engineer.
The practicing engineers among us also need to get more active in the institution. More of us must volunteer to help IChemE turn around the future education and careers of the next generation of chemical engineers.Leaving it to academics turns out to have been a grave error.
Academics in their turn need to start taking their responsibility to provide the academic formation of chartered chemical engineers more seriously. They might start by reading my last book.