Engineering research on the brink of collapse?

UK engineering research is in an extremely precarious position, according to a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The report, dubbed ‘The Future of Engineering Research’ challenges the UK Government to boost the dwindling supply of skilled engineering graduates and solve the staffing and funding crises in university engineering departments.

‘The gravity of the situation must be recognised before it does irrevocable damage to our economy’, says the report’s author, Academy Vice-President Philip Ruffles. ‘Our ability to generate economic and social benefits from engineering depends entirely on skilled personnel. But 46 university engineering and technology departments have closed since 1996 and many others are severely under funded.’

In 1991, engineering attracted 10.7% of all successful applications from UK students through UCAS. Ten years later the figure has halved. The report urges the Government to improve the quality of mathematics and science teaching in schools, to expand efforts to recruit more women into engineering and to incorporate business and communication skills into engineering courses.

‘Our ability to teach engineering is also under threat,’ he says, ‘a demographic time bomb is ticking away as increasing numbers of academic staff face retirement by 2010. Many engineering departments are already struggling to retain staff. Recruitment rates need to rise by 22 to 36% just to maintain current staff levels. The implications of this are enormous. We have experienced failings in our transport systems in recent years, but what will happen when the electricity or water supply industries suffer from a lack of knowledgeable engineers? What future is there for technological advancement if we cannot provide an engineering education for our most able and creative youngsters?’

‘There have also been big changes in the wider engineering research base,’ says Ruffles. ‘Industry has dismantled many of the large corporate research laboratories and is tending to spend less on both speculative long-term research and technology demonstration. The research process is now inherently more efficient but also vulnerable to market failure. The closure or privatisation of many of the public research institutes has compounded this effect. It will also compromise Government’s ability to obtain impartial policy advice in areas like communications, defence, transport and energy, which could have big repercussions for our engineering industry and research infrastructure.’

Research and Technology Organisations, such as the Faraday Institutes, play an important role in the new research environment, as do university-industry collaborations and spin-out companies in bringing ideas to market. Even so, the UK is still deeply dependent on the health of industrial R&D and companies here are investing substantially less than their international competitors. According to the 2002 R&D Scoreboard, the ratio of R&D spend to sales was only 2.2%, while US companies managed 4.3%. The report claims that if the UK simply does not invest sufficiently in engineering research, then no amount of relationship building within the research community will be able to compensate.

‘(The UK) Government needs a national research strategy to identify the UK’s engineering strengths and vulnerabilities to help it combine short term research priorities with longer term objectives,’ says Ruffles. ‘The cracks are starting to appear and we must act now if we are to secure a sustainable economic future and to improve conditions for society at large.’