Government: help or hindrance?


The relationship between industry and government has come under the microscope in recent days

What is the role of government when it comes to industry?

The UK engineering sectors tend to be fairly conflicted on this difficult question.

Indeed, if the general tenor of comments on The Engineer website are anything to go by politicians don’t know what they’re talking about,  government industrial policy – though occasionally well targeted – is  generally misdirected, and engineers should have a far greater say on the direction of industry.

Interestingly though, this doesn’t necessarily mean that readers believe government should stand back and let industry get on with it.

In fact, with recent developments in the nuclear sector reminding everyone of the stake that many largely state-owned foreign firms have in the UK’s industrial future – arguments for the renationalisation of key areas of industry have rarely been so well-received. The delighted reaction to our recent interview with UK manufacturer John Elliot – who effectively argues for state-ownership of industry – seems to bear this out.

The shape that government support should have was the discussion point at two events last week, first a panel discussion on Innovation at National Instrument’s annual NI Days conference – where a panel including Dick Elsy, CEO of high value high value manufacturing catapult and Dr Stephen Myers, director of accelerators and technology at CERN – examined the role government should play in innovation.

It was a fascinating debate. The catapult centres have been set up to exploit the near-term commercial potential of the UK’s research and unsurprisingly Elsy made the case for targeted investment in areas of economic promise.

There is far less certainty about the contribution that Cern’s Large Hadron Collider  – the world’s largest particle accelerator – will make to humanity. But Myers argued that by committing ourselves only to projects with immediate economic benefits we risk missing some of the really big prizes, and he pointed out that it is often the accidental discoveries: the epiphanies that arise during the course of scientific exploration that end up making the biggest contribution.

Government clearly has a role to play in setting priorities – and the widespread enthusiasm for the catapult centres is perhaps a sign that its taking the right approach. But Myers’ comments were a reminder that the short term economic priorities  which tend to dictate political policy  – don’t always represent the best long-term strategy .

The degree of government responsibility for addressing industry’s big issues was also on the agenda at last week’s launch of the Matchtech Confidence Index, an annual industry bellwether put together by one of the UK’s leading technical recruitment agencies.  

Based on a survey of over 1000 engineers the 2013 report is broadly more positive than last year’s survey, but it still makes some worrying observations.

76% of those who took part reported a lack of confidence in government’s action to encourage innovation, 63% believe the UK will cease to be a world leader in engineering in the future, and 78% felt that government is  not doing enough to attract new talent.

From addressing industry’s skills gap, to defining innovation strategy, the report places a lot of responsibility on government  to address some fairly fundamental issues.

But while we would certainly agree that government has a role to play – as a buyer, an investor and a champion for the industry  – we would also question whether industry is perhaps guilty of placing unreasonable expectations on the shoulders of our elected representatives.

Surely it’s industry’s responsibility to take the lead on the key issues it faces, to accurately communicate its strengths, weaknesses, and hopes for the future and to make a compelling case for government assistance in the areas that will help ensure future growth? Only then will we begin to get to grips with the disconnect between what industry wants, and what industry gets.