Forward thinking

With the next election looming, we asked some of the UK’s top engineers how government could help the sector

As the new decade dawns, there’s a temptation to try to make predictions. But as predictions have a habit of being inaccurate, we’ll stick to one that we can be sure of. There will be a general election in the UK this year.

And for the country’s engineers and technologists this could have far-reaching consequences. With the finance sector – the engine of the UK’s economy for the past three decades – still in disarray and disgrace after the banking collapse, many believe that engineering and manufacturing should resume its place at the forefront of wealth creation. Making things, the argument goes, is a more sustainable and concrete activity than just making money. But how could politicians help? Should they, indeed, help at all?

We asked some of the leading figures in UK engineering across a variety of sectors what they thought about some of the issues affecting industry as the first decade of the 21st century stutters to a close. Their views are personal and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the organisations they work for, but they reveal some common points of view on these issues, although different ideas on how to tackle them.

There was, however, one point on which all our respondents agreed – many of the problems of engineering are down to the status of engineers in UK society and that has to improve for any major progress to take place.

The questions

  • What would be the advantages and disadvantages of the government appointing a ‘Chief Engineering Advisor’?
  • What are the highest priority areas for government spending to enhance the UK’s capability in your sector, and in technology in general?
  • Which recent government policies have been particularly effective for your sector, and which (if any) have been a hindrance?
  • Which of the engineering and technology sectors are underperforming in the UK currently, and what could be done to boost them?
  • From what you’ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to addres these issues?
  • Which areas of technology research do you think are best coordinated by the European Union, and which are better left within the UK?
  • What are the biggest opportunities for growth in your sector, in the short and medium terms?
  • What is the best way to approach technological goals in the long term, (ie, with results more than five years off)? Can and should government play a role here?
  • What do you think of the current status of engineers in the UK? What can be done to enhance it?

Read our respondents’ replies in full, by clicking on their names or following the links at the bottom of this story

Take the idea that the UK should have a chief engineer, alongside the chief scientific and medical officers. Although this was met with widespread approval when it was proposed by the House of Commons Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills last April, our experts were divided over whether this was a good idea. Neil Kermode of EMEC couldn’t see any disadvantages to having someone able to provide consistent comment and advice on issues of a technical nature and long timescale. ‘It worked in the Second World War with the appointment of Dr RV Jones and his team; it will work now,’ he said. Paul Newsome of Lotus went even further, calling the chief engineering advisor role ‘a necessary step to enhance the industry’s importance in government standing’. Advice from engineering experts is often sought much too late in the policy-making process, which leads to missed opportunities and extra costs, he pointed out. Meanwhile, Kevin McLeod of BAE Systems – a former senior civil servant in the MoD – said that an engineer within the Treasury, one of the recommendations of the Commons Committee report, was a particularly good idea, to help inform and enable better decision-making when it came to budgets. ‘And quick as a flash,’ he added, ‘nothing happened.’

David Bonser called for engineers themselves to get more involved. ‘We need more good role models of engineers showing not only the varied and interesting jobs that they do, but the depth of skill and training that they have. Engineers should be seen as being at the heart of our economy, not simply as the people who fix our cars and domestic appliances.’

Jerry England also thinks that engineers don’t do enough themselves and believes professional associations are partly to blame. ‘The status of engineers is undermined somewhat by the fragmented nature of the 36 professional bodies,’ he said.

‘Seek to get “engineer” protected,’ said Neil Kermode. ‘If you aren’t chartered, you don’t get to use the title; so my boiler will have been designed by an engineer, but installed by a plumber or a boiler technician. It sounds elitist, but that is what status is founded upon.’

Ali Jawad shares this point of view and thinks the damage it causes can’t be underestimated. ‘Currently, engineering is considered to be a second-rate profession and is definitely less prestigious than professions such as law or dentistry. This is evident from university intake where engineering tends to miss out on the brightest and most academically able students,’ he said. ‘There is a need to grant professional status to engineering and award the title “engineer” through registration with professional bodies where engineers are granted accreditation to be able to practice.’

Kermode thinks the path towards this goal might be rocky, however. ‘It will take a generation to get this back and possibly some prosecutions, but it needs to be done.’