What Is the Difference between Environmental Science and Technology?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 02 July 2017
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The primary difference between environmental science and technology is that environmental science is mostly involved in theoretical research to discover underlying causes for environmental changes, though this research can also sometimes be applied research that looks for solutions to problems down the road. Environmental technologists, on the other hand, are focused on offering practical solutions to environmental pollution or degradation that exists in the present, and they only have a secondary interest in what the underlying causes are. Both environmental science and technology work hand-in-hand to find solutions to environmental problems caused by past or current human activity, and both the science and technologies themselves rely upon each other to develop a better understanding of complex cause-and-effect cycles that occur in nature.

The field of environmental science and technology often creates an atmosphere where research scientists and technology engineers work for the same company. This can be found in a wide variety of industrial arenas, from crop research to oil exploration and drilling, and alternative energy development such as in the manufacture of solar cells. Together, the scientists and engineers are often grouped under the title of research and development, where the scientists use experimental or empirical data along with past field knowledge to suggest potentially better processes or systems. The engineering teams then take this knowledge and apply it by building new machines, systems, or biological controls to test in the real world.

Science is generally broken down into two broad disciplines: the life sciences and the physical sciences. The life sciences include research into fields such as biology, botany, and entomology, or the study of living things and organic processes such as those of plants and insects. The physical sciences involve research in physics, geology, and mathematics, which are often referred to as the pure sciences, as they are much more theoretical in nature and involve discovering basic physical laws. When someone is said to be working in environmental science technology, however, his or her research can cross many disciplines. An example of this would be a climatologist, who is a scientist that studies changes in weather patterns that are affected by geological and solar events, as well as by the effects of plant life on air and water cycles.

When engineers search for environmental technology solutions, they also end up crossing traditional research and development barriers. Engineers focus on building solutions to problems within the fields of chemical, mechanical, and civil engineering, but the solutions themselves often lead to new discoveries and a new understanding of physical laws. As engineers have built buildings and automobiles over time, inefficiencies in how buildings retain heat or resist earthquakes, or how automobiles burn fuel for mechanical motion has led to a refinement of the technologies with a better understanding of the physical laws under which they operate that involve principles of pure science research in physics, chemistry, and metallurgy.

The crossover between environmental science and technology in both research and the application of knowledge has traditionally grouped both disciplines together as parts of a team. Scientists are preoccupied with questions of “why” about environmental processes, and technology developers are preoccupied with questions of “how” to build something to meet environmental goals. Cooperation among all the fields of environmental science and technology development becomes increasingly important as human activity has a greater and greater effect on the natural world.

The health of ecosystems around the world are increasingly tied to human commercial production of raw and natural materials to fuel human growth. Since such activity has broad-based effects across numerous scientific and technological fields, new environmental technologies must be produced alongside the latest cutting-edge research by scientists to prevent mistakes that can cause unforeseen harm to the environment. Governmental action by groups such as the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and European Science Foundation (ESF), an association of 78 scientific research organizations throughout Europe, work at creating collaborative efforts at environmental science and technology solutions on a global scale.


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