A sense of perspective

There tends to be little middle ground in the UK’s assessment of its own strengths and weaknesses. Either we shout our prowess from the rooftops, or wallow in the depths of self-deprecation. This is particularly true of our engineering and manufacturing industries, where we veer wildly from trumpeting the latest breakthrough to bemoaning our diminished manufacturing base.

Clearly, some perspective would be helpful. And our interview with Martin Ditter, director of a new UK-based European Space Agency (ESA) research centre, provides just that. Based at the Harwell science and innovation campus — where it counts the ISIS X-ray source, the DiamonSynchrotron and Rutherford Appleton laboratory among its neighbours — the ESA Harwell centre has been set up, explains Ditter, to tap into expertise and skills that the UK has in abundance. Intriguingly, some of the areas identified by Ditter, such as unmanned robotic space exploration and climate modelling technology, have also come under added scrutiny following the US decision to refocus its space policy, and concentrate on unmanned exploration rather than a return to the moon.

The Engineer has regularly championed the UK space industry and Ditter’s comments are a welcome reminder that the skills we regularly celebrate are equally admired from afar. But beyond this fillip for UK space, our story touches on a truth that has a wider relevance for the whole of UK industry. Ditter professes admiration for the UK’s entrepreneurial culture: its ability to spot new markets for technologies and its dynamic approach to spinning out technologies and creating new companies. The full body scanners currently keeping Britain’s airports safe — spun out of space science research at Harwell — are, he said, a case in point.

If this is a view of the UK that you don’t quite recognise, it is worth reminding yourself that this isn’t a politician spouting election-year platitudes or even a well-meaning, but ultimately biased, industry pressure group, but an engineer from a huge organisation looking at the UK and identifying it as a source of commercially valuable expertise. As such, it is a far more powerful vindication of the UK’s industrial strengths than any amount of political tub-thumping.

From energy to healthcare, The Engineer has long championed the obvious fit between the UK’s areas of core engineering expertise and some of the big challenges and opportunities facing the world. But to meet these challenges and exploit the potential to the economy, continued and wider engagement with the international scientific and engineering community is essential.

As always, we’d be delighted to hear your views on these issues. And please take a moment to vote in our online poll.