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25/07/2014

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Shining a light on Engineering

Phil Willis on a critical profession

The new Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee is holding an inquiry called Putting science and engineering at the heart of government policy.

The state of Engineering in the UK was the committee’s unanimous choice for its first major enquiry. Engineering was chosen primarily because it is critical to every aspect of government policy both nationally and internationally. It is engineers who turn ideas into products and services, and it is engineers who make innovation reality.

Huge demand

Over the next ten to fifteen years the UK will need tens of thousands of engineers for programmes such as the London 2012 Olympics; Crossrail; new nuclear power stations; renewable energy installations; and Building Schools for the Future. The opportunities go much further with new engineering disciplines in telecommunications, bioinformatics, genomics, logistics and systems deployment emerging regularly, not to mention of course areas like Formula 1, satellite technology and robotics where the UK leads the world in engineering.

So why does the engineering community feel ignored and often devalued? Why do so few young people see engineering as their future career? Since 1997, the number of registered engineers has fallen by 8 per cent and, despite a 33 per cent increase in the number of undergraduates, there has been a mere 4 per cent increase in those studying engineering – with an actual decline in UK-domiciled students.

My committee recognised that the recruitment of top nuclear or space engineers will inevitably come from an international pool, because many projects are themselves international. However, if the UK cannot provide talent into that pool, we will find it more difficult to be an intelligent customer and potentially place ourselves at risk at times of high demand. Crucially if we do not recapture the essential magic of engineering,our ability to utilise fully the rich seams of intellectual capital that flow from our research base will be seriously impaired.

Image problem

The fightback starts from a recognition that engineering not only has a recruitment and retention problem but a serious image problem too.

Ask a group of 15 year-olds to name a great engineer, and they may well mention Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but not his current equivalent Norman Haste, the engineer behind the remarkable Severn Bridge. Or Dervilla Mitchell, the exceptional female engineer who led the team that built the roof for Heathrow Terminal 5, the largest free standing building in Britain. Lewis Hamilton may well be World F1 Champion, but how many young people realise that his success was only possible because of the engineering brilliance of Ron Dennis?

To make engineering relevant to young people, engineers must stop hiding their success and instead shout their brilliance from the roof tops.

Indeed the image of engineering is hardly assisted by the 60 plus institutes, societies and professional associations which, no matter how worthy, present engineering as of another era. To be fair, this problem is being addressed with real leadership from the Royal Academy of Engineering and the indefatigable efforts of Sir Anthony Cleaver, Chairman of the Engineering and Technology Board. However, greater co-ordinated action is still needed.

Nowhere is this more pertinent than in government, where even the mention of ‘engineering’ appears problematic. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser is in fact the head of the ‘scientific and engineering’ profession in government – yet there seems to be little emphasis on the role of the engineer in government.

Bright light

Perhaps the time has come for the engineer to take his and her rightful place at the centre of our society? Certainly the IUSS Committee intends to shine a very bright light on engineering in our Report. It is then for others to keep the power supply on. 

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Phil Willis
Phil Willis MP, is Chair of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee
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