Comment: Tomorrow’s engineering research challenges

Far from making cutbacks, a recession is the perfect time to invest in engineering research to ensure the continued acceleration of progress, says Tom Lee, electronic engineer and advanced controls lead at Air Products.


Engineering is one of the most crucial sectors in the UK and, despite the challenges of recent years, it has cultivated a reputation for leading levels of research and innovation, creating solutions to the ever-evolving problems the world faces. This reputation is under threat however and, as recession looms, there is a very real risk that engineering companies of all disciplines will cut back on R&D funding in a bid to make immediate efficiency gains. While understandable, this approach is – in my view, short-sighted.

Engineers continue to be at the heart of solving the world’s problems, overcoming barriers through developing highly involved and creative solutions. The dramatic and disruptive events of recent years, such as the climate emergency, the Covid-19 pandemic and world conflict have tested this approach to the core, requiring collaboration and agility at previously unseen levels. As we now consider how the UK might achieve a zero-carbon future, we can only expect the need for creativity and smart-thinking to grow.  

This is a point recently underlined by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in its Tomorrow’s Engineering Research Challenges (TERC) report. Published this summer, the report identifies the most important questions and challenges facing the engineering sector today. Critically, it stresses the need for novel approaches, creativity, and multi-disciplinary skillsets.

Engineering research, the report says, is central to a vast range of challenges – from achieving greater sustainability and ultimately net zero, to faster digital design, understanding complex systems and increasing human resilience. This means that if businesses cut investment in engineering research now, it effectively stops the supply of fuel to the engine room behind our entire sector.


This, like so many of the problems and challenges engineers seek to overcome, is not just about the here and now. At Air Products we urge other businesses not to cut investment in research, as it will not only harm engineering businesses, but it will also negatively impact our ability to tackle the societal and environmental challenges of the future.

Far from making cutbacks, a recession is the perfect time to invest in engineering research to ensure the continued acceleration of progress. Companies undertaking engineering that think long-term and, in a down-turn, redeploy resources to R&D will be amply equipped to respond to the ever-evolving demands of the UK. Not only throughout the recession but afterwards, as the economy recovers and wider environmental challenges test the industry. These are the businesses that will be in a good place to steal a march on the competition.

For those organisations with the vision and foresight to make that decision, I’d urge them to also think holistically about the research professionals within their teams. There is a growing need for multidisciplinary skillsets within the engineering profession. For true creativity and problem-solving, the sector requires diverse mindsets from a variety of academic and professional qualities. At Air Products, we communicate this ‘new guard’ to the next generation – getting out and showing children across schools and colleges that engineering research is not just about the scientific and the technical but about the vision, and creativity required to truly understand global and local challenges, thinking smart, and working together to fix them.

We all feel keenly the uncertainty that a cost of living and climate crisis poses to the months and years ahead. But to coin a phrase – fortune favours the brave. We should take pride in the sector’s reputation for research excellence and when making commercial decisions, focus not on short-term fixes but long-term gain, for the economy and the environment.

Tom Lee, electronic engineer and advanced controls lead at Air Products