Dilemmas lie behind the biggest choices

The issue of expert advice given to the government and how it is acted on, or otherwise, by the ministers who receive it has been a hot topic over the last few weeks. A political storm ensued when a senior adviser on the use of illegal drugs was removed from his post for, in the government’s view, going too far in his public pronouncements on the issue. According to the expert and his supporters, he was sacrificed for doing his job and telling it as he saw it, even though the result was politically inconvenient to Whitehall.

In the engineering and technology arena, such dilemmas are commonplace, even if they usually attract fewer headlines. The crucial difference is that, while policy in social affairs can be made and unmade fairly rapidly (a drug, for example, can be classified as dangerous almost overnight), the choices in our world are bigger, costlier and, once made, are fiendishly hard to undo.

There are some fine examples in the current issue of The Engineer. Flooding is not a new phenomenon but has come to the fore in the last few years as it became clear that, as a nation, the UK is frequently badly prepared for sudden, torrential downpours. Expert engineers in the field are looking abroad to see how other nations more used to the impact of a deluge are building an infrastructure to cope. What is clear to everyone, however, is that most of our towns and cities are alarmingly reliant on the drainage infrastructure left to them by the Victorians to deal with flooding emergencies and often it just isn’t enough. Whatever solutions engineers suggest will take a major commitment by this government and its successors to enact. That means a financial commitment at a time of relative national poverty and a willingness to spend now to achieve benefits that may not be seen until long after the minister concerned has left office.

If flooding is a significant issue for the UK, energy provision is potentially the biggest facing our generation and the next one. As our cover feature makes clear, the choices confronting government are many; the advice equally diverse. Go hell for leather for renewables or dismiss them as a red herring? Invest in nuclear or reject it as dangerous and expensive?

Our feature outlines a creditable effort by energy experts, including David McKay, the chief scientific advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, to put some hard numbers next to the issues. This is surely what is needed. Applying some analytical rigour to the process will not only help the government to make the right choices, it will also help it to explain the outcomes to the public, even if they are sometimes uncomfortable or downright painful ones.

In social policy, expert advice and what is politically possible may make uncomfortable bedfellows, as the recent ructions demonstrate. When it comes to shaping the UK’s infrastructure for the next 50 years, our political leaders need all the expert help they can get and the courage to do the right thing.

Andrew Lee, Editor