“Researcher” versus “Senior Technologist” – what are these animalcules?

First of all, what are animalcules? This was the term used by Anton van Leeewenhoek (1632 – 17223) to describe what he saw under his crude lenses of the day. In much the same way, I wish to examine the two job titles in a little more detail in academic context. This context relates to job titles in a University of Technology which has a unit such as the Agrifood Technology Station. This is an interesting situation which had a arisen during decisions on making a new appointment in either of the three Stations at CPUT, the other two being the TS in Clothing & Textiles and the AMTL Adaptronics TS.

For the uninitiated, the Technology Stations are DST funded vehicles to service the technology innovation and other needs in the SMME sector per the industry serviced by each Station. The question had arisen: Do the Stations require a Researcher or do they require a Technologist? You may at this point want to aver that a rose is a rose no matter by which name you call it! But, hold that thought right there.

A little more context: CPUT as an institution does use the word “Researcher” and has appointed persons with this job title. On the other hand, “Technologist” is less used and not necessarily a preferred term. In both instances, there is no fixed job description for the titles and they are used flexibly based on the need by the appropriate unit or department. And to muddy the waters even further, the term “Technician” is widely used at CPUT. This will be touched on later as well. However, in my mind, the first term is generally reminiscent of academic research of a nature that involves long-term studies leading to the publication of peer reviewed outputs in appropriate journals. This, as much academics know that it is not always true, is further reminiscent of research conducted in the chase for outputs and subsidy. This may be perceived, and sometimes in fact is, with less concern for the application of the knowledge or where the outputs are on the Technology Readiness Level (TRL)1 as an indicator of closeness to commercialization (see footnote to this blog). The TRL is probably something closer to the outputs of a Technologist. And that is where the difference between the two essentially ends i.e. purely a contextual and perceptual one. What does the public see when we use either of those two terms? And what would we like them to see?

Let’s look at formal definitions for these two terms and then also mix in the Technician. All three have slightly varying definitions but generally are defined closely over a range of references. In the interests of brevity, and hopefully objectively, I chose as follows:

  • A Researcher is someone who conducts research i.e. an organized and systematic investigation into something. Scientists are often described as researchers. This is also loosely translated as the person who sees a big picture, sometimes in an abstractor theoretical form and who then designs hypotheses which is tested in the laboratory.
  • A Technologist is deemed to be the person who takes the outcomes from the big picture above and applies it in the practical domain, this requiring a lot of intimate detail and knowledge regarding the research area as well.
  • A Technician is a person whose job relates to the practical use of machines or science in industry, medicine, etc. (someone who has mastered the basic techniques or skills in the field of expertise).

There is also much acknowledgement of the fact that the two titles need each other and, in a few cases, one person could be described by both names. More importantly for me though is the distinctive character of the Technologist i.e. the hands-on, practical, applications approach rather high up on the TRL (close to commercialization). This is one of the key outputs of a University of Technology and it is also one of the key mandates of Technology Stations. This is explained by the diagram below which shows where we are in the innovation value chain (represented by the TIA block):

Innovation Chasm

At the end of the day though, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. But, if you are in the Rose Garden in Durbanville, you would very often need to know your Genus from your Species!

Larry Dolley

1A simple description of Technology Readiness Levels

1 Basic Technology research Basic science. Not application-focussed. Principles are observed and reported on.
2 Concept formulation Some practical applications identified materials or processes required and confirmed. Technology and hypothesis formulated. Research plans and protocols are developed, peer reviewed and approved.
3 Analytical and experimental critical function or research proof of concept established Laboratory measurements validate analytical predictions of separate technology elements. Hypothesis tested.
4 Validation in laboratory environment Test results confirm design and meet technical performance. Hypothesis refined. Formulations tested.
5 Laboratory scale validation in relevant environment Validation under relevant operational conditions, mimicked in the laboratory.
6 Integrated prototype system verified in relevant environment Prototype demonstration in the operational environment. E.g. Phase 1 trials
7 Integrated pilot system demonstrated in operational environment Integrated full scale pilot systems demonstrated in an operational environment or site.
8 Actual system completed and validated through test and demonstration Actual product completed and qualified through certification, tests and demonstrations.
9 Proven system and ready for full commercial deployment Product proven ready through successful operations in operating environment.