From advocating for STEM whilst working at London’s Science Museum, to being awarded an OBE for services to the space sector last year, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ CEO Dr Alice Bunn has had a fascinating career journey underpinned by an evident passion for the way that engineering impacts our daily lives. Describing herself as ‘engineering minded’ for all of her life, Bunn said that it was an easy choice to study engineering at University, having naturally gravitated towards the STEM subjects from a young age. Whilst she loved the subject, she added that studying for her PhD, she found that the research path can be ‘quite lonely’.
“That’s not true for all research areas, but very often I think when you’re dealing with the very pure science you tend to be spending a lot of time on your own – for me, that didn’t really suit me,” she told The Engineer.
Beginning her career at the Science Museum, developing exhibitions that spoke about the importance of engineering, was a natural fit for Bunn, it seems – she described the advocacy role as inspiring, adding: “I was really, really passionate about how important science and engineering is to society. Engineering in particular I think is a very hidden thread of how we live.”
After the Science Museum, going on to spend 20 years in the space sector fuelled a new passion for how the power of space programmes can help us to manage our own environment. Dr Bunn was international director at the UK Space Agency prior to beginning her chief executive role at IMechE, supporting impactful international collaborations such as the International Charter for Disasters – a project utilising space engineering to support disaster response in remote areas across the globe.
“Particularly in the space world, you’re very often working with different countries all around the world, because even if we don’t share the costs of the infrastructure, we share the space operating environment,” she said. “The idea that engineering really is a team sport is really well evidenced in the space sector.”
The International Charter for Disasters was one of the most rewarding moments during this time, she recalled, explaining its importance and the impact it continues to have today. “If there was an emergency earthquake or flood, forest fire … you’re probably quite unlikely to have your satellite in the right place at the right time,” she said. “They’re all circling in orbits around the world. There was already [a] partnership in place to share data, and back in 2011 we decided that this should actually be a humanitarian effort. It should be something the whole world can benefit from. “It is that collaboration that leads to the most impact, it wasn’t easy – there were [many] different perspectives … thinking about commercial considerations, down to thinking about being careful about who could trigger that kind of support, you wouldn’t want that used for some kind of nefarious purpose … It’s quite complicated to unpick … but massive reward, massive impact.”
The UK Space Agency recently reported that the UK space sector had generated £17.5bn in 2021, compared with £16.5bn the previous year. The sector’s experienced both triumphs and setbacks as of late – enthusiasm has been building around the UK’s launch capabilities, with several spaceports currently under development. But the first launch attempt from UK soil, in January 2023 from Spaceport Cornwall, failed to deploy satellites into their target orbit following technical faults caused by a dislodged fuel filter.
“We have a real niche opportunity I think in the UK, we typically take a commercial approach so we have an opportunity to move quite quickly,” Bunn said. “People think about space and they think about the rockets, they think about that visible hardware but actually, from an economic point of view, the benefits of space are over 90 per cent in how we use the data.”
Prior to joining the IMechE Dr Bunn was international director at the UK Space Agency, and she remains passionate about the opportunities and potential of the UK space sector
To grasp the opportunities available to us, in the space sector and beyond, Bunn stressed the importance of increasing collaboration – not just among engineers, but with other sectors. “For engineering to really be successful we have to be not just talking to ourselves … we do need to be talking to financial sectors, we need to be talking to healthcare sectors, we need to be talking to environmental sectors. I’m really keen to see a very collaborative sector going forward. “Not least because I think historically, we used to sort of divide ourselves up into these disciplines, and you choose your university degree, and you would probably take that degree and you would stay in that rather niche role for most of your career. And that’s just not what happens today … Today, peoples’ careers are interdisciplinary, everyone knows that innovation happens at the interface between disciplines, that’s where it gets really exciting.”
Indeed, as the lines are blurred between disciplines and many engineers will need to train in new skills, this ties in with one of the biggest challenges facing the sector – how can the workplace adapt to meet what will be required with the introduction of new jobs as technology, and the world’s needs, evolve? “We talk about the fact that in 2030, 85 per cent of the jobs that will be done are unknown today. That’s staggering, but [where] it gets really interesting is the fact that 80 per cent of the workforce that’s in place in 2030 [will be] the same workforce as today,” Bunn said. “So, how is that 80 per cent of the people going to do these 85 per cent of new jobs? It’s all about skills and lifelong learning.”
Bringing the increasing use of AI into the mix, Bunn pondered on how this will affect the jobs of future engineers – whilst she believes it’s ‘absolutely a force for good’, we will need to approach with caution on the way AI is used. “We do talk a lot about sustainability, we talk a lot about ethics, the kind of decisions that you’re needing to take - particularly when you’ve got that combination of people skills and automation, how do you manage that properly? “It’s so interesting, it will hugely affect engineers – I think we will have to be very careful very quickly, about the way in which that technology is applied and [there are] some circumstances where it’s relatively safe to rely on an AI answer, there are other areas where we will be thinking more about where’s the human intervention and where is the artificial intervention. Around that engineering space I think there will be a lot of thinking to be done.”
In line with IMechE’s values of impact, innovation, integrity and inclusion, Bunn spoke about the importance of creating an inclusive environment in engineering where diversity of thought can be encouraged. “We all know those stories about the lone voice that was worried about something happening but didn’t feel that they could speak up, and sure enough, something goes quite badly wrong shortly after. “For me, the diversity and inclusion piece is very linked to behaviours and it’s about getting the right attitudes in the engineering workplace. There shouldn’t be any beating of chests, there shouldn’t be any very directive type behaviours and not listening. “Then there’s all the role modelling we can do, making sure that it’s a viable possibility for kids in school - they can see themselves in those positions. It is a very purpose-driven career, because engineering really does matter and it really does benefit all of society and I find that really inspiring.”