X Close

UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


PhD Episode III: The Rise of Engineering Advice

By laurent.liote.19, on 10 October 2022

Laurent Liote is a fourth year PhD student at UCL STEaPP. Follow him on LinkedIn (Laurent Liote), Twitter (@LaurentLiote) or ping him an email (laurent.liote.19@ucl.ac.uk).

Hi there, yes, it’s still me… and yes, I’m still working on my PhD! It’s been a few months since the last update so I figured I’d let you all know that, as promised, I’m working on the final part of my PhD trilogy (Episodes I and II can be found here and here, respectively). The overarching story arch, if you’ve missed the two previous instalments, is about understanding how engineering advice is deployed in energy policy practice. This post picks up where we left off, outlining what I’ve been up to since January and where I’m going next.

PhD Episode Three image in the style of Star Wars

Episode II: A recap

It all started two years ago, taking an ethnographic look at BEIS, a UK government department not so far away. I set out to understand how different engineering advice and policy teams collaborate across the energy ministry. Through observations, interviews and focus groups I have uncovered how teams work together as well as what content and actors are involved in engineering advice creation and communication. Comparing the data collected with the academic debates on the topic (the dreaded ‘literature review’) proved difficult as engineering advice was often grouped with science advice and most of the literature focused on independent agency advice to central government. The problem here is that it becomes hard to know if the discrepancies spotted between my data and the literature are the result of differences in discipline (engineering vs. science) or context (intra-ministerial advice vs. independent agency advice).

The plot for Episode II centred on overcoming this challenge and focused on the ministry’s climate science advice team. The science advice team sits in the same directorate as the engineering advice team holding most of the contextual variables equal and enabling a deeper analysis of discipline-related discrepancies. In non-academic lingo, it surfaced interesting differences in content between engineering and science advice.

So, what’s the verdict on Episode II then? Well, lucky for us, the advice process followed by the mitigation workstream of the climate science team and the engineering team is the same. They collaborate with policy teams in similar fashion, and for those lucky enough to be at UCL, here’s an illustrated example. However, the content of science and engineering advice is different – yet compatible – on ontological and epistemological grounds. Don’t worry, I’m going to translate and unpack this statement below!

Engineering vs. Science Advice: The ontological force(s) at play

The good thing about working within the confines of the same planet ministry is that, after a while, you start to see the dots connect. By that I mean that not only do the science and engineering advice teams work within the same directorate and follow the same advice process, they also collaborate on certain projects. And when both teams work on the same project, it becomes possible to see who works on what, essentially answering ‘how do engineering and science advice differ’ in that context.

In my case, the collaborative project is the UK Biomass policy, and according to my research science and engineering advice differ in two main ways. The first set of differences between engineering and science advice is tied to the idea that engineering is more focused on the physical and technological than science. Science is more focused on the biological (ex: biological features of the anaerobic reactor like type of insects and amount of gas produced) and engineering focused on the physical features of the technology (ex: how the reactor and engine are built). Engineering is about objects and their performance whereas science is about bio- and ecosystems. This shows a difference in ontology between engineering and science advice, or very simply put a difference in the object of study (if you have a background in philosophy, please don’t hate me!).

The second set of differences is epistemological, science and engineering advice have different ways of ‘knowing’ about their respective object of study. Science advice, because it is concerned with biological and eco-systems, is methodologically driven by a hypothesis that measurements can validate or invalidate. Engineering advice on the other hand is outcome-driven or solution-oriented, where measurements help achieve a goal that best meets project design criteria.

With that said, although both types of expertise are different, both are needed to design good biomass energy policies that rely on technologies, like anaerobic digesters, with significant biological components and ecological impacts. I promise to write a detailed academic article about this, in fact it’s currently in draft form, but for now I’ll keep this light (well done for making it this far!).

Episode III: The rise of engineering advice

So, what’s next then? Episode III of course (theme music ensues)!

Through Episode I and II we explored different components of intra-ministerial engineering advice and their relationships: actors – who is involved; process – how is the advice given; and content – what knowledge is drawn upon and specific to engineering advice. Now all those components influence/are influenced by structural factors, like the institutional set-up and policy culture of the ministry, and that’s the focus of Episode III.

In the coming months, pulling on some threads that emerged during the last two years, I will explore structural factors that impact engineering advice giving and receiving at BEIS. This includes questions about the history of BEIS and the remit of the engineering and science teams as well as the structure of the civil service more broadly (outsourcing of research, staff turnover). I will do that through interviews with current and ex-senior civil servants as well as document analysis. This is the way.

By the end of this third phase of research, I will be able to share with you all a framework to understand intra-ministerial engineering advice which I hope will prove useful to policy and academia. I promise a final update in January before I disappear to write my thesis!

Leave a Reply