Tuesday, 29 July 2014
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Election special - the choice for engineers

The election battle that will be played out over the coming weeks promises to be the most interesting and closely fought since 1992, when John Major upset the opinion polls and narrowly beat Neil Kinnock’s Labour party.

But when the votes are counted, whichever party - or indeed combination of parties - finds itself in power on May 7th will be judged swiftly on many counts: not least how it sets about securing recovery and delivering economic growth.

Long before the recession struck, The Engineer repeatedly pointed to a fundamental imbalance in our economy. We warned that relying too much on the financial sector to drive the economy was fraught with peril, and argued for the importance of  a productive economy underpinned by engineering and innovation.

Today, few politicians would dare to argue against that, and most have their own version of Peter Mandelson’s “real, not financial engineering’’ rallying cry. 

But behind the platitudes, what do our senior politicians really think about Britain’s manufacturing economy? Precisely what role do they think engineering and technology could play in a rebalanced economy? And what would their technological priorities be should they get into power?

To find out, we asked the three main parties’ spokesmen on innovation and science, to outline their visions for the readers of the Engineer. Their comments can be read in full by clicking on their names or following the links at the bottom of the page.

Labour science minister Lord Drayson

Labour science minister Lord Drayson

Many of their responses are unsurprising. For instance, all three claim that science, technology and engineering should be key drivers of the economy. To claim otherwise would be pretty foolish. Plus, with election night promises having a habit of vanishing into the either, It’s difficult to know how much to read into some of the bolder claims that are made. But all three do make some interesting points.

First up is the current incumbent, Labour’s Paul Drayson.

A vocal champion for new and emerging technology, Drayson has won widespread acclaim for his role in helping to develop emerging areas of the UK technology economy. Particularly well-known for his interest in low carbon vehicles and his role in the creation of the UK space agency, Drayson is also one of the few engineers in Westminster. 

Adam Afriyie, tory shadow science minister

Adam Afriyie, tory shadow science minister

Drayson is keen to emphasise the opportunities for the UK. ‘Synthetic biology will revolutionise the treatment of disease,’ he writes ‘and as millions of low carbon cars join the world’s roads over the next twenty years we must have the ambition to build them here.’ He talks of the need for continued targeted investment in key industrial projects, as well as government’s role in creating the right climate for innovations to prosper. A good example of this, he claims, is the recent creation of the Office for Low emission vehicles (OLEV) which is working with car and power companies on addressing issues around the electrification of transport.

The Tory’s shadow innovation minister Adam Afriyie also touches on what he sees as some of the key areas for UK technology spending - he talks about high speed rail and superfast broadband - although he makes no mention of low carbon technology, renewable energy or space, three areas thought by many to be key to the UK’s future high -tech economy. Afriyie also wades into the ever-emotive “skills” debate, claiming that Tory plans for new apprenticeships and technical academies will help ensure a ‘healthy supply of new engineers’.

Evan Harris - Lib Dem Shadow science minister

Evan Harris - Lib Dem Shadow science minister

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat spokesman Evan Harris, echoes some of the points made by Drayson when he touches on the challenges and opportunities around low carbon energy as well as the UK’s growing expertise in the space sector. But he is critical of the current government’s investment in R&D.  The only G7 nation that invests less than the UK’s 1.81 per cent of GDP is, he says. Italy. 

And while it’s always been tempting in the past to dismiss lib-dem policies on the basis that they’re never likely to become legislation, iMeche chief Stephen Tetlow reminds us that a hung parliament - which remains a possibility - could see the lib dems emerge with the power to sway or even direct future policy.

Readers' comments (4)

  • I don't think any party has a clue. They latch onto carbon friendly issues, wind power, and other fads, but their knowledge is shallow. In Scotland, innovation gets very little support, just more quangos. Councils like building houses and shopping malls, and employing council workers. They do not see the bigger picture.

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  • From what i can deduce the Labour party have no idea, they shout loudly about what they are doing, but a little research confirms this as hot air. In reality they do nothing but shout loudly about so little, and this from a party whom has failed the electorate, industry, and business in general. Losing so much industry and placing the emphasis on financial and future sectors is a bad business policy, finance has all but collapsed, and the futures will take a generation to arrive. It is all well and good proclaiming the science and technology sectors will provide jobs, but how many and when?

    Conservative policies appear more coherent as they support industry, are looking to promote growth in all sectors, particularly core sectors such as engineering and manufacturing. Their proposals will help establish new companies in the short to medium term, and hopefully support them in the longer term.

    All the other parties are providing incoherent policies which are disjointed and poorly considered, if they cannot get the fundamentals right, can they be trusted.

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  • The problem with the Labour and the Tories is that they have both put their emphasis on creating a financial and futures based economy purely based on confidence. I've never understood how anybody expected an economy to survive without a substantial amount of industry to back-up the confidence when the financial markets collapse, something that Vince Cable seems to understand far better than the other candidates for chancellor. Probably because he's not a career politician and has vast experience as the chief economist for Shell.

    We need a strong government who will look at the overall picture, not just how to make a quick buck because the natural political cycle means that they won't have to deal with the consequences. Invest in technology and training businesses in how to create British-based wealth through IP. Invest in green technology to take our reliance off foreign-based energy giants. Invest in green technology because there is no logical reason not to! Whether or not you believe in global warming, there is no reason to stop using non-renewable resources if you can do it! Invest time into green thinking! Hydrogen cars=no emissions? What about the energy required to produce hydrogen? Invest in renewable electrical power and then you can truly say that there are no emissions! Think big and the smaller scale ideas can come to fruition.

    I hate to say it but we need to take a leaf out of the Germans' vast array of well-referenced books when it comes to investing in industry.

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  • The party the media keep forgetting is The Green Party. And their policy is to invest in green technologies to provide employment and to move away from our addiction to fossil fuels.

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