(25 Aug 2019) Science, engineering and technology

Recently, we had a very enthusiastic and excited bunch of undergraduate students from Mumbai visiting us at Venture Center, Pune. They were pursuing degrees in Biotechnology. In their introductions, some said they were doing a Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology while others said that they were pursing a Bachelor of Engineering in Biotechnology.  I decided to pick on that theme to discuss with them and explore what they understood by those terminologies — Science, Engineering and Technology!  Was there any difference between the degrees that they were pursuing or was it just a matter of words? (I do realise that several universities in India carelessly name degree programs based on what say AICTE will allow etc rather than truly structure the program to fit the name or -vice versa- chose the name that fits the program design.)  I feel that students should be aware of what their degrees mean. So here is my attempt at clarifying the nomenclature —

 A disclaimer — degrees and tags mean nothing eventually; they merely indicate a certain type of training and orientation. Everybody can change their training and orientation at any time in their careers or have multiple orientations.


People trained in “Science” are trained in the “Scientific Method” — a certain systematic way of constructing a view (theory) of the world based on experiments and known facts. ( I will not get into the Scientific Method here.) Scientists are explorers and discoverers of new knowledge. They do not necessarily want to design or control the world around them. They will explore the world with curiosity, try and build understanding of the phenomenon and wish to share that new knowledge with everybody. Scientists are explorers who discover new knowledge!


People trained in engineering are trained to develop mastery (in the sense of being able to design, control, optimise etc) over complex systems (like machines, factories, computers, electronic equipment, bridges, dams, aeroplanes, now even cells and tissues etc). Engineers are taught to develop quantitative understanding of systems, equipped with tools to model and analyse such systems, and therefore be able to design, predict and control the behaviour of such systems. Engineers are “masters” of complex systems and their behaviour!


You will note the difference immediately if you think of say flying on an aeroplane. You do so with confidence because you think that there are people who have designed it with care, have thought through various possibilities and planned for it, have put in place measurements and control systems etc. That is to say, you know engineers have been at work ensuring the system works with reliability.  Imagine yourself agreeing to fly on an aeroplane made by a scientist (who is keen to experiment and learn new things all the time) — very unlikely !!   Actually, engineers need to make their systems very very predictable and thus boring — and this turns off scientists!  (I find this amusing!)

Similarly, engineers can find the elegant simplicity that physicists strive for or the chaos in which biologists operate very unsettling!  Scientists are at ease exploring the world around — with all its “chaos” — and teasing out facts and insights.


Technology is an entirely different thing. Technology is all about problem solving. This is a different orientation and may often need a different training. Somebody, somewhere at some point has a problem or a need that needs to be solved. A scientist or engineer may have explored the problem (such as a disease for ex) and discover new ways to tackle it.  Somebody, somewhere and at some point has tools to address the problem. A technologist wants to solve the problem, is resourceful in finding the tools he/ she needs, sees the connect and acts to demonstrate a solution.

Scientists discover the world around you, Engineers design and control the world around you and Technologists build the world around you.

You will note that there can be scientists who are excellent technologists or engineers who also excel as scientists and so on. Boundaries exist only to the extent you allow them to exist.

So coming back to the young Biotechnology students from Mumbai —- if their degrees reflect what they learn, one could probably say that:

  • All of them were studying Biotechnology. So they are focussing on learning to solve problems using living systems (bio) or in living systems (bio). For example, producing a biopharmaceutical molecule using cell lines and bioreactors.
  • The folks studying towards a science degree are probably learning how to discover new insights and knowledge about living systems that can be useful for biotechnology. For example, discovering pathways in cell lines that influence the yield of a certain biopharmaceutical product.
  • The folks studying towards a engineering degree are hopefully learning how to design, predict and control living systems that can be useful for biotechnology. For example, being able to quantitatively design a bioreactor, predict how the reactor will perform under different conditions and situations, predict yield and control the system if it does not perform as required.

Some personal opinions and hypothesis:

  • You will note that the ability to design, predict and control gives a certain advantage to “engineers” in incremental innovation.
  • The fact that “scientists” are first to reach new knowledge, gives scientists an edge or a lead in path changing or radical innovation.
  • The fact that most large organisations today are complex systems, I believe that an engineering training is a better preparation for managing larger organizations. One often needs to put predictable and reliable processes and systems in place in large organisations and not keep experimenting with ad hoc ideas — something that engineers (in orientation)  probably understand better than scientists (in orientation).