Science degrees

Engineering and science are two areas of human knowledge that complement and enhance each other, but there is sometimes disagreement about which degrees we wish to encourage people to get, and which kinds of knowledge are worth more to society. I disagree with this dichotomy, and in particular with people who think that those who are currently getting science degrees should all move into engineering fields.

Science degrees at present are done suboptimally. The main filtering for PhDs and other actual scientists shouldn’t be done after so much has been spent training people to the BSc level. However, scientific thinking is important and science degrees are applicable to fields beyond the ones in which they are obtained. Scientific thinking and problem solving could be taught much more effectively without needing to teach specific classes on biology or chemistry with any pretense that it’s for purposes other than pure interest.

Many physicists and other people with science degrees end up working in engineering-type fields anyway, usually some way upstream from the work that EEs do. It’s physicists that design a lot of new computer hardware and develop the technology for things like SSDs, it’s chemists that develop drugs and all sorts of industrial chemicals, and it’s biologists that go on to develop vaccines and advanced agricultural techniques.

So while research is a small part of what people with science degrees end up doing, it’s not like all the other stuff could be replaced by engineering degrees. Perhaps the more general scientific skills like statistical analysis, empiricism and what people call “scientific literacy” could be taught in smaller chunks than the science degrees that people get these days so they can be applied to more fields, but the knowledge still has value.

Engineering degrees, too, teach a kind of thinking that is useful in a broader range of fields than it is usually applied to. The sorts of problems engineering can teach people to solve is a different set to those that science teaches people to solve. Instead of asking why things are, it asks how to do things and how to do them better. If there were ways to encourage this thinking without a full 4 year degree, more people would be able to learn those skills and apply them to more problems.

It’s a sad state that so many students have to choose between these complementary styles, and could benefit so much from knowing both. By encouraging shorter courses, perhaps using online methods to simply teach rather than to get qualifications and status to wave around, people could learn how to think in more ways, and more questions would be found by those who can answer them, and more problems by those who can solve them.


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