David Bonser - Chairman, Westinghouse UK
What would be the advantages and disadvantages of the government appointing ‘Chief Engineering Adviser’?
The main disadvantage would be yet another Government adviser, when there are plenty already! But this would be outweighed by the advantage of having someone in a position to challenge the engineering credibility of delivering the policy objectives that our politicians propose.
What are the highest priority areas for government spending to enhance the UK’s capability in your sector, and in technology in general?
Government is leaving construction of new power stations to the market, so there is no funding expected for the plants themselves, but Government do need to invest in making sure we have a steady supply of good quality craftsmen, scientists and engineers coming out of our education system. And also to ensure that the higher education and training programmes available are consistent with the needs of industry.
Which recent government policies have been particularly effective for your sector, and which (if any) have been a hindrance?
Government have a policy now towards nuclear which is encouraging the utility investors to come forward, whilst Government focus on removing obstacles such as regulatory uncertainty and planning. That approach is working very well. Until recently the absence of a clear policy on waste disposal was a major hindrance, but this has now been put in place. We need to see continued progress in this area though, to reassure the public that the industry is able to clear up after itself.
Government support for skills development in the sector has been another major plus point. In particular the establishment of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, which I have the honour to Chair, has brought the industry together to harmonise our skills needs, help provide standardised training programmes and ensure cross-recognition of training for individuals.
Which of the engineering and technology sectors are underperforming in the UK currently, and what could be done to bolster them?
I would not want to single out sectors which are underperforming, as such, but there are areas such as precision manufacturing where we have a great track record and some valuable experience which is under-utilised at present, partly due to the difficult economic conditions. I think most sectors of engineering would welcome an increase in the numbers of good quality, enthusiastic potential recruits at all levels. Not just graduates, but technicians and craftsmen also.
From what you’ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to address these issues?
In fact, the position in respect of nuclear energy is that both Labour and Conservative parties have almost identical approaches. That is really important to potential investors looking at multi-billion pound projects with long timescales, and credit should be given to both parties for reaching common ground. Without that, prospects for new nuclear would be less optimistic.
Which areas of technology research do you think are best coordinated by the European Union, and which are better left within the UK?
In the energy sector, and particularly in nuclear, a lot of the fundamental research is very expensive and very long term. These projects are only viable if carried out under a wider umbrella of international collaboration (EU-wide or in many cases, global). In other sectors, which are closer to market, it is more appropriate to have the research carried out within the UK.
What are the biggest opportunities for growth in your sector, in the short and medium terms?
Although there is a lot of work to do running the existing nuclear power plants, managing sites and dealing with waste and decommissioning, it is the nuclear new build agenda which is driving growth. This is likely to remain the case for many years as even the first UK plant is unlikely to be producing electricity until 2018, and there are several more in the pipeline after that one. Plans are being developed for at least 10-15 stations in all.
What is the best way to approach technological goals in the long term (ie, with results more than five years off)? Can and should government play a role here?
Five years away is relatively “short term” on the nuclear sector, but in general Government should play a role in getting technology up the “learning curve” where the UK has a potential advantage. That has to be a good thing for “UK plc”. But if Government can ensure a good supply of skilled new entrants to science, technical and engineering companies, that benefits technology development across all these sectors.
What do you think of the current status of engineers in the UK? What can be done to enhance it?
Engineering is not regarded as highly in the UK as in many other countries, and that has the effect of making the sector look less attractive than others (although the recent financial crisis may help to reverse the flow of talent into the City). We need more good role models of engineers showing not just the varied and interesting jobs that they do, but the depth of skill and training which they have. Engineers should be seen as being at the heart of our economy, not simply as the people who fix our cars and domestic appliances.