New Research To Illuminate the Subjective Nature Of Engineering

A new grant awarded to a researcher from Virginia Tech illuminates an important but poorly understood fact about science and engineering – it’s all done by humans and humans are not objective creatures.

In this case, the research will be done over the next five years by Alejandro Salado, assistant professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech. He’s been awarded a $500,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development award to study “how engineers form subjective opinions from objective data.”

It’s a question long addressed by historians and philosophers of science who have been pointing out for decades that scientists do more than simply crunch numbers in a vacuum. In fact, coming up with a question to research, choosing a method, and interpreting data are all matters of judgment and skill.

With news stories about algorithmic bias, for example, becoming a weekly occurrence, more people recognize that tools once seen as objective were in fact built by humans with their own social and cultural values. If we don’t recognize those values and attempt to correct for them, we end up with flawed products that can do just as much – if not more – harm than good.

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