Back in June, The Engineer welcomed the fact that Lord Mandelson was running the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with responsibility for steering engineering and technology towards a better future. That welcome came on the basis that, love him or loathe him, Mandelson arguably has more clout in the Labour government than anyone — as much, if not more than the PM himself if some are to be believed.
Whatever you think of the government’s record over the last 12 years, it would be hard to accuse the current secretary of state of failing talk up the engineering and technology-based economy in 2009. His current soundbite of choice — ‘less financial engineering, more real engineering’ — is well on the way to entering the New Labour all-time top 10 alongside such stalwarts as ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ and ‘no return to boom and bust’.
The question, as Mandelson himself admitted when invited to give last week’s Hinton Lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering, is whether there is substance behind the soundbite. We would argue that simply to have a senior member of the government banging the drum for the productive economy after its many years as a political afterthought is a dramatic change for the better in itself. Mandelson is a politician to his core and can see which way the wind is blowing in the country. With their confidence in the financial sector dented, people are ready to embrace what common sense suggests — that designing and making things is a more solid “Common sense suggests designing and making things is a more solid foundation for a modern economy” foundation for a modern economy.
Mandelson gave a robust defence of the measures underway to support innovation, and science and engineer- ing skills. With an election in the offing, we will hear much more about this from all parties over the coming months and it is likely that his rivals will be just as willing to nail their colours to the mast of engineering and technology.
Mandelson’s lecture also addressed the role the government should play in the evolution of the UK’s technology economy. The extent and nature of this involvement will assume huge importance over the next few years. As the business secretary rightly pointed out, an active government policy doesn’t have to mean the heavy hand of state control familiar from the 1970s.
It can mean setting national priorities — clean energy systems, technology for an ageing population, for example — and ensuring innovators in those areas do not fail because the support they need isn’t there. How to structure that support most effectively is far from straightforward. But it is crucial that whoever forms the government this time next year does not lose sight of its significance.
In an era of pressure on public spending there will be a drive to find savings away from the ‘front line’ of the hospital ward or classroom. It would be folly to use the engineering and technology sectors as soft targets when their importance to the UK’s economic wellbeing is greater than at any time in the last 40 years.
Andrew Lee, Editor