Economic Ideas and Government Policy: Contributions to Contemporary Economic History

By Alec Cairncross | Go to book overview

18

ECONOMISTS AND ENGINEERS*

Margaret Gowing is one of the few economists of her generation who has shown a particular interest in engineering. Her study of the development of the atomic bomb is a commentary on events of the highest importance, in which technical, political and economic influences interacted in a way that economists should be particularly well equipped to explain, but rarely investigate. It is just such a mixture of influences that has come to dominate life in industrial countries; and it is increasingly futile to limit attention to any one of these influences to the exclusion of the others in explaining the past or providing for the future. Conversely, in the assessment of situations and projects and in framing recommendations for action, it is increasingly necessary for those who analyse economic, social and political factors to co-operate with those whose province is technology.

It cannot be said that there is at present much co-operation or mutual understanding between these two groups, of which the leading representatives are economists on the one side and engineers on the other. In my experience, economists commonly take little interest in engineering and engineers are apt to view with suspicion the activities of economists. It seems appropriate in a volume in honour of Margaret Gowing to ask whether this need be so and to review what unites and what divides economics and engineering as fields of study.

One thing both have in common is that they aim or should aim at a practical outcome. The engineer’s aim is to get something done, or done better, whether he is designing (or repairing) a machine or a structure of some kind. He takes over information of all kinds as to what is wanted and what is possible and uses it to build something that will work: not something abstract and logically consistent but something tangible and visible. The economist, in his own way, is also interested in getting things to work, or work better. But the things that concern him are not machines and physical structures but

* From Science, Politics and the Public Good, Essays in Honour of Margaret Gowing (ed. N. Rupke) 1988. I am indebted to Dr J.J.O’Connor and Dr A.M. Cairncross for helpful suggestions in the preparation of this essay.

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