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Letters: A rigourous analysis of the engineer’s world

Viaduc de la Dordogne

Civil engineering: Not applied science

Mark Hansford asks “Why do we put such weight on academic achievement when so much of the engineer’s work is practical?” (NCE 20 November). He is right to ask - the issues are deep seated in our culture. A substantial answer is long overdue.

The simple answer (to the question posed) is that academic rigour is necessary but not sufficient for practical rigour. Over the centuries practical rigour has been pushed aside and we need to understand better the complex reasons why.

In the West, we have lost sight of practical wisdom as expressed by Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics he wrote: “Some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.”

The Ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, gave total priority to theory and this idea still survives in the academic/vocational distinction. The Greeks believed that theory was universal, necessary and eternal, whereas practice was variable, finite, contingent and hence uncertain and inferior.

The word academic derives from being a follower of Plato - theoretical, not practical or directly useful. Hence in our everyday language academic means irrelevant.

Engineering is often attacked as being non-rigorous because we use approximations and judgements. That is why many people, especially those in research and education - the academics - aspire to “superior” theory.

In fact, practical people like engineers must be rigorous - but in a different and largely unacknowledged way.

Rigour is the strict enforcement of rules to an end. Mathematics is the ultimate form of reasoning with absolute rigour but with only one value - truth as deduced from axioms. Likewise science is systematic, testable and objective with one value - truth as correspondence to observation. Science works - it is successful but it isn’t complete - as it is a set of partial models of what we think we know set in a given context.

Science as knowing and practice as doing are intimately related - to do we must know, but to know we must do.

When practitioners use science they must fill those incompleteness gaps - requiring practical wisdom and intelligence. But practical wisdom is more than filling the uncertainty gaps - it involves creating solutions using appropriate models and having foresight based on evidence. It includes the rigour of the meeting of needs by setting clear objectives involving many values (some in conflict) and reaching those objectives in a demonstrably dependable and justifiable way. It involves collaboration, reflection, learning and improving derived from practical experience.

We must always remember that engineering is not applied science. Neither is engineering the handmaiden of science. The STEM initiative, laudable as it is, confuses engineering and science and does not adequately distinguish engineering from technology. Engineers use science to turn an idea into a reality. They do it to improve the human condition.

Like our sister profession, medicine, it is a people business done with practical rigour by people for people. We need to broadcast that message to inspire young talent - heaven knows we need them as we face up to an uncertain 21st century.

  • David Blockley,

The issue highlighted by Chris Hughes in his letter (NCE 4-11 December) is one that resonates with many in the profession. As a supervisory civil engineer for a contractor with an active training scheme and a current ICE Reviewer, I remain baffled as to why the main differentiator between chartered and incorporated engineers is their university education.

We employ many extremely competent engineers who, because they graduated with a BEng, cannot progress to Chartered level without gaining an MSc or undertaking the foreboding (especially for contractors) Technical Report Route. Professional qualification is rightly based on the demonstration of a number of attributes, so why put up such an additional barrier for some of our best engineers solely on the basis of their education a number of years earlier? We should be assessing output rather than input; surely this is something that needs to be addressed with the Engineering Council.

  • Philip Brown (F),

Last month I was invited to speak to biosciences undergraduates about how I got my first job and how I became a civil engineer with a BSc in biological sciences. A number of students spoke to me after the event, and it became apparent that they have received little guidance on what they could do with their degree that doesn’t involve teaching or remaining in academia. It was generally news to them that the construction industry involves numerous specialisms, and I hope some of the students left the talk inspired. It seems that the whole construction industry needs to promote itself to the next generation, not just civil engineers.

  • Stephanie Wood,

Do possession work in summer

Why do we insist on continuing with engineering works on our railway network in mid-winter when the weather can be disruptive, daylight hours are at their shortest and when families around the country want to visit each other?

The argument used by my colleagues in the railway industry is that this is the least disruptive time for business and commuter customers. I put it to them that blockades centred around the August Bank Holiday would be less disruptive and more efficient.

Well planned and well communicated summer closures would enable those affected to at least have the option of taking time off during the summer holiday period. The better weather and longer daylight hours would reduce the risk of possession/blockade overruns. During the Christmas period, the railway would then be able to provide an alternative to the overcrowded road.

  • Paul Dawkins,

Is rail regulator pushing Network Rail too hard?

I wonder if the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) is the correct body to conduct the truly independent inquiry into Network Rail’s overrunning engineering works at Christmas.

If the ORR was really doing its job, should it not have known beforehand what was intended and robustly challenged Network Rail to ensure that the works were feasible in the timeframe, and that sufficient contingency arrangements were in place if things did not work out?

The sad fact is that the regulator is preoccupied with economics and efficiency savings and is ill equipped to understand the engineering and operational requirements of the industry it regulates.

No doubt this will all conclude with the imposition of a fine, which will just come out of the taxpayers’ subsidy anyway.

  • Nicolas Philipps

Spend aid cash on infrastructure development

It was very refreshing to read Mario Donnetti’s common sense letter regarding the waste of aid donations (NCE 20 November 2013).

Many millions of pounds have been raised for disaster relief by events like Live Aid and Band Aid, as well as other worthy campaigns. Within the economies they benefited, these large amounts of money should have solved many of the problems. Instead, the scale of suffering seems to be getting worse.

The solutions aren’t simple and many of the difficulties are brought about by population expansion and wars. Also, I wouldn’t want to denigrate the excellent work done by charities or the generosity of more affluent countries, but there does appear to be a lot of misuse of funds by corrupt governments and poor management of reconstruction programmes.

There must be a better way of providing sustainable aid that will improve the future prospects of vulnerable countries as well as alleviating their immediate distress. I think Donetti’s proposal to offer aid in the form of reconstruction assistance and infrastructure development, rather than just doling out money, would be a great improvement. That way, people could be rehoused in buildings designed to resist the prevailing conditions and, at the same time, be provided with better opportunities for self-development.

As Donnetti says, it’s not rocket science. No, it’s more difficult than that.

  • Geof Caudwell (M Retd)

Law needs no reminder

The European Court’s reminder of our obligations to cut nitrogen dioxide levels should be taken seriously (NCE 27 November). Respiratory disease is the third leading cause of death in the UK and puts a huge strain on the NHS. European Union air quality improvement targets were rightly signed-up to by the UK government and it is a shame that a court is required to remind us that action is required to meet these targets.

Full regard is required for the wellbeing of the public and the environment when considering transport schemes and far from being a threat to the roads programme, good quality road projects can relieve choked roads, and if integrated with public transport infrastructure, be of real benefit to air quality targets.

How about considering park and cycle schemes, particularly where facilities are located adjacent to parkland and existing cycle paths that lead to city centres? The integration of green infrastructure alongside road schemes incorporating sustainable drainage (Suds) would be of great benefit for a multitude of health and environmental reasons.

  • David Bell

Mega-project cost comparison

The article on the proposed construction of the Nicaragua Canal, sets the mind to thinking back to the construction of previous major pieces of global infrastructure (NCE 27 November). And it raises a question of why a canal of 230m wide and 27.5m deep and over twice the length of High Speed 2 can be built for half the cost of that proposed line.

  • Terry Cowley (M), Tipton,

It’s all about people skills

Chris Hughes shows some old fashioned common sense about acquired skills (NCE 4 December).

When I first began work in a county highways department most of my colleagues were qualified or qualifying under the former Municipals’ Testamur, for which they had attended “night school” for study and were “articulated under agreement” to the County Surveyor.

This system produced practical well-rounded engineers for whom I had respect and from whom I learned much.

My university civil engineering course had been wide-ranging, including practical surveying, and emphasis was placed on using the summer vacation to gain practical experience with a firm or a local authority technical department.

Nevertheless, it had not taught me any of the personal skills about interacting with people. These skills are vital as you progress up the ladder of employment. This is brought out clearly in the excellent Future Leaders pages of the same edition of NCE.

  • OJ Oliver (M retd), 9 Campion Close, Aylesbury HP20 1QG

We need ‘celebrineers’


Crossrail: We need “celebrineers” to raise the profile of major achievements

Think of a famous civil engineer. That one was dead, right? Now think of a famous living civil engineer; I mean a properly famous one that people in the street would know. Stumped? And yet we’re building projects that rival Bazalgette and Telford right now in London, so who’s behind them? If we had a “celebrineer” to attribute, say, Crossrail to, it would do the reputation of our profession wonders. So, stand up you wallflowers, and be counted.

  • Matt Humphrey (M),

Get road pricing back on agenda

I have learnt over the years that many promises made by politicians turn out to be aspirations. The current transport infrastructure proposals appear to me to be those aspirations yet again. So many promises made without results - because we cannot afford them.

Off the agenda but surely feasible is road pricing, especially taking into account our crowded motorways. Never mind variable speed limits, we still need those, how about variable road pricing?

At peak times the road price goes up and off peak it goes down. With mobile phone technology, GPS and number plate recognition it must now be feasible to apply road pricing to our congested roads.

In, say, selling off our motorway network, with a national motorway network scheme for investors, we could perhaps raise enough capital for those out of reach promises and collect more tax at the same time.

  • Stewart Hillen (M retd),

Lobbying distorts rail perspective

Having read that ministers are to produce High Speed 3 plans by spring (NCE 30 October) I find the lack of perspective astounding from those parties who wish to have the journey time between Manchester and Leeds “slashed” to 26 minutes from 48. Compare a similar journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh both in mileage and in time. The 48 minutes is not unreasonable and nor is it harming the business that the transport link facilitates between two of the UK’s major cities.

More value, I believe, would be achieved by implementing the plans to connect Manchester to Glasgow via a high speed rail link. The journey between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly covers around 300km in around two hours while a similar journey in mileage through to Glasgow takes over three hours.

Plans for HS3 between Manchester and Leeds may be a by-product of the North shouting loudly for a rail link. However politicians should be qualified to identify the solution most required.

  • Martin Kirkpatrick,

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