Engineering a role for the UK

Claire Curtis-Thomas, new head of the Institution of Engineering Design, will help push the industry up the political agenda, says Fiona Harvey.

It’s hardly surprising that the interests of engineering are poorly represented by the UK government. Out of 659 MPs in the House of Commons only six are engineers. But that may be about to change, following the appointment of Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas as new president of the Institution of Engineering Design.

Speaking to Curtis-Thomas, who is Labour MP for Crosby, it is clear that she will be a force in propelling engineering – and, in particular, the kind of high-end design and technology-led engineering at which the UK excels – as far as she can up the political agenda.

Curtis-Thomas’s first objective in her two-year stint as IED president will be to raise the profile of engineering design and its contribution to the UK economy. ‘We have some outstanding designers in this country,’ she said, citing Dick Powell and Richard Seymour, designers of everything from motorbikes to bras, who were presented with an award at this year’s IED annual dinner. While most people within the industry will be familiar with these names, such British successes are not celebrated enough in the public eye.

Curtis-Thomas’s engineering background spans 20 years in a variety of roles, including a period at Shell, a stint as dean of the business and engineering faculty at the University of Wales, and as head of research and development laboratories with Birmingham City Council.

Her intimate knowledge of the industry makes her a strong advocate for engineering in parliament. As a member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, she plays a key role in scrutinising science and contributing to government policy on engineering and technology.

Curtis-Thomas wants to encourage more people into engineering in all its forms, and sees design as one way to bring in people who might not otherwise consider the career. ‘Lots of young people are interested in the design of everything from buildings to cars, but they affiliate themselves with the arts because that’s how they think design works,’ she said. ‘Product design really appeals to the young and innovative. We have to show them that developing engineering skills allows them to exercise their instincts and creativity in design, just as much as the arts do.’

Design can make a huge difference in all forms of engineering, and aesthetics play more of a role than many engineers like to admit. Curtis-Thomas gives an example from her own background, where buying decisions about expensive equipment have come down to elegance and design. Even when choosing between two £50m compressors, all technological factors being equal, you’re likely to choose the more aesthetically pleasing one.

Education, and promoting engineering as a career to young people, will also be a key focus for Curtis-Thomas. She founded and is president of SETup, an educational charity that promotes science, engineering and technology-related industries. SETup aims to put science at the heart of the debate about how best to exploit the UK’s economic and creative potential. ‘Young people need to be shown more of what engineers do and how fascinating it can be,’ she said.

The government must play a strong role here, and to give credit where it’s due, is already doing well to promote engineering through the DTI and Smart awards and the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA). A large slice of NESTA’s annual awards budget goes to fledgling projects with a strong engineering element. These tend to be small scale but with big potential. Typical awards range from £50,000 to £200,000 – not huge, but it’s a start. Engineers with ideas can kickstart their projects with money from NESTA, then look for private-sector interest and investment.

Curtis-Thomas’s passionate support of women within the industry is bound to be another key marker of her IED presidency. Too many companies have failed to provide flexible working and maternity career breaks. This is very short-term thinking; firms risk losing their female employees’ expensively acquired skills by failing to encourage them to stay.

In all, it’s encouraging to see Curtis-Thomas take on the role of IED president. Engineering needs more supporters within the government, to drive the industry up the political agenda and to ensure that its voice, too often ignored, is heard in the highest places.

With this appointment the IED has made a shrewd move that will prove valuable to all areas of the industry, not just those whose primary interest is design. Let’s see if engineering’s other institutions can do a similarly good job in promoting their members’ objectives – there are five other engineers in parliament, after all.