There has never been a better time for science, engineering and technology. Global forces are driving technology to the top of everyone’s agenda, national, international and corporate.
The important task facing engineers is to define simply and clearly, and to disseminate widely to the public, the relationship between science, engineering and technology.
As a consequence the role of the engineer and engineering in making the future happen will become more clearly evident and better understood.
We must face up to this task squarely if we are to ride the crest of this new wave of technology and be the leaders of it. It is a task in need of much attention, not only here in Britain where we are now more effectively grappling with the well-known syndrome of being hugely inventive but poorly innovative, but also in many other countries in the western world.
Science is the main input to knowledge. Engineering harnesses all knowledge and experience to produce something useful. It is the process and the knowhow. Technology is an output. It is anything that makes something happen. Taking technology successfully to market is innovation.
Engineers have two bridging roles, between science and technology and between technology and innovation. The engineer is the bridge between science and technology and between technology and the business world.
We need to pay great attention to these bridging roles. Harnessing endeavour across many disciplines is essential to make anything happen, so we should enhance our capabilities at project management.
For too many years project management has been a neglected skill. There is a dearth of project managers, certainly in the UK. It does not sit comfortably within the ranks of the professional engineering institutions. It is a sad commentary that for the greatest infrastructure project this century, the Channel Tunnel, contractor TML and client Eurotunnel each had to import a top class project manager from the US to lead their activities.
Effective communication is essential to the task of bringing together the different cultures and disciplines which are needed to make things happen.
Many of us spend a great deal of our time seeking words, phrases and concepts that help to span the cultural gaps between participants.
`Options for the future’ is a powerful phrase to stimulate proper thinking about the future. Excellent short performance is essential for survival, but if in the process attractive options for the future are not being generated then the prospects are strictly limited. Unless business managers learn how to harness technology for profitable growth and not treat it as an optional extra, their business will in time wither.
`The Plant After Next’ is a concept introduced many years ago with the aim of stimulating engineers during plant or a product design to generate an agenda for research and development which would significantly improve the design of the next plant or product. During the design stages the engineer can identify where more profound understanding is needed.
Engineers use skill and experience to overcome insufficient knowledge; they are therefore best placed to create the agenda for further research and development.
The scientific world has as a prime objective the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake – that is basic, fundamental and exploratory science, science which extends the boundaries of knowledge. The industrial and commercial world has as its prime objective the successful application of existing knowledge, that is applied science.
If one can succeed in getting both parties to develop a dialogue in generic and thematic science, which falls between these two extremes, it can be highly productive. The UK’s Technology Foresight exercise sets out to identify future needs for generic and thematic scientific knowledge.
In such a dialogue academics discover that their excellent science can be highly relevant and can develop not only an agenda for generic and thematic research, but identify areas of ignorance to be illuminated by further basic fundamental exploratory science.
Dialogue is of paramount importance, but it doesn’t happen of its own accord: it needs to be made to happen. The engineer can be the great facilitator for effective dialogue because the engineer is, or should be, comfortable in and accepted by science and industry.
Whatever the future, it is heavily dependent on technology. The engineer and engineering play the central role in its creation and successful application.
The engineer is by profession best placed, more than any other discipline, to span the gap between science and technology and between technology and innovation.
At the national level, the engineer is best placed to cause fruitful dialogue between academia, industry and Government to result in excellent and relevant science.
The engineer is best placed in corporations to harness technology for profitable growth and so should take a leadership role in this important and difficult task.
The engineer should not wait to be asked to step into what is too frequently a vacuum of effective leadership caused by lack of understanding and inability to communicate between the many cultures involved in making the future happen.
By definition the engineer and engineering turn all knowledge and experience into something useful: technology. So those societies and corporations in which engineers assume this leadership role, and take responsibility for influencing the direction and speed of developments, will undoubtedly be the most successful.
Robert Malpas is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, co-chairman of Eurotunnel and chairman of the Cookson Group.
This is an edited version of his speech to the recent Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences Convocation on Engineering, Innovation and Society.