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Engineering Research in the Context of the University
- With few exceptions, engineering education and its associated research in Canada occurs in multi-faculty universities. Engineering professors and students are therefore subject to the general policies of these universities.
- The ability of engineering faculties to carry out their education and research objectives is constrained by some of these policies and practices. An understanding of these constraints is important in arriving at more effective policies for the future.
- The objectives of research in engineering faculties differ in significant ways from those of many other university disciplines. In the pure sciences and in much of the arts and the humanities, research and scholarship are characterized by an emphasis on contributing to basic specialized knowledge. The target audience for the results of such research is the world research community in the pertinent specialty. Peer groups in each specialty review research results to ensure integrity and provide judgement of quality. While the knowledge discovered may ultimately be made useful, utility is not normally a basic criterion. An additional feature of such basic research in the sciences is that its focus is often on the seminal breakthrough which opens up new areas of investigation. These seminal breakthrough concepts usually come from a few gifted individuals.
- In contrast, the emphasis in engineering research should be, and, at its best, is characterized by:
- a contribution to the solution of a particular real or perceived problem or opportunity in society
- a focus on the timely and economic meeting of the needs of the user
- a close linkage and sensitivity to the industries that are manufacturing the products and using the processes, and to the agencies that are operating the engineering systems
- a distinctive body of innovative operational principles related to the design, synthesis, optimization and control of the hardware and software of processes, products and systems
- an application of existing knowledge to create and improve the physical systems that serve society
- a combining of knowledge and experience derived from many disciplines to meet the needs of a variety of groups or individuals in the user society in the most effective manner
- a different view of specialization. While specialization is usually necessary to pursue particular foci of research, the end objective requires integration of the research results into a generalist approach to the user's problem
- a different view of publications. Engineering research publications should be motivated by progress toward eventual practical application. The eventual primary audience for research publications in engineering should be the members of the engineering profession who have the potential to use the results in their designs and operations. Communication to other research specialists is also required for the same reasons as with basic sciences, but this should not be the sole or even the primary objective.
- a different view of team efforts. Much of engineering research and development must frequently be done by groups or teams.
- the view that leadership in engineering research is likely to come from the gifted generalist in perceiving the needed direction for effort to serve the developing needs of society
- the conviction that the significance of engineering research depends on the impacts that newly developed or improved operational principles have on the long term quality of life in society
- Universities have set up policies and processes to measure and promote quality in the professorate. Criteria, common to all disciplines, are established for the initial recruitment of faculty, for the review processes prior to achievement of academic tenure and for promotion to full professorship. These criteria tend to be dominated by the values of the majority, i.e. the basic sciences, the arts and the humanities. It is frequently difficult in the university community to argue successfully for criteria suited to the character of those disciplines which have professional objectives arising from their close interface with areas of society. Generality in policy is favoured by central administrations, both of universities and of faculty associations.
- Although the policies of many universities may call for equal weight to be given to teaching and research in the evaluation of professors, accomplishment in research is almost always the dominant factor in practice. A major reason for this fact is that research efforts are normally well documented as an essential and funded part of the research process and can readily be measured by the acceptance of research papers in properly reviewed journals. Education is arguably the university's primary role. However, documentation of educational accomplishment, is much more subjective and therefore more difficult. Some universities have included in their policies an evaluation category of creative professional accomplishment. The same difficulty arises in providing documentation of such accomplishments acceptable to university committee personnel who are frequently not familiar with the profession.
- Since success in the university environment has become so identified with research accomplishment, the emphasis on recruiting new professorial staff tends to be focused on the doctoral research which normally precedes faculty appointment. The search is primarily for potential research stars.
- New staff members experience pressure to produce research results quickly in the first few years of their appointments in order to ensure the granting of tenure and a continued growth of research funding. This circumstance favours specialization and the production of a sequence of small research contributions in the chosen specialty. In the current university environment, junior engineering professors would be ill-advised to address engineering research problems requiring the acquisition of major additional breadth, experience or facilities which might delay the production of evidence of research accomplishment.
- The pressures for research production are such that engineering professors must restrict the time that they can allocate to interaction with the profession, with industry, and with the user communities. Consulting, which is recognized as an excellent means of useful interaction, is discouraged by the system, particularly in the important early years.
- The perceived criteria for success in the university tend to lead engineering professors into producing research results which will be accepted by the reviewers and editors of journals, most of whom are academics or are closely related researchers. The primary target audience has become the research peer group rather than the user group. Utility of the results has too often become a neglected objective.
- To understand the effect of these university pressures, it is important to recognize that most of those being recruited to professorships in engineering are very able people who generally have outstanding academic records. They expect to succeed in their new roles and, accordingly, they act within the existing rules to advance their chances for success. If this process does not produce the results desired by those setting the objectives, the fault is not with the junior professors, but rather with the rule makers and the systemic preconceptions in applying the rules.
Engineering Research in Canadian Universities - 15 JAN 97[Next] [Previous] [Top]