The House of Commons Committee for Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) published a report late last week on engineering and its place in government policy.
An unequivocal rebuke to the way that engineering is handled by the government, it expressed shock at the lack of input that engineers have in schemes such as eco-towns and renewable-energy projects.
It said that any engineering expertise in the Civil Service had got there by accident rather than design and accused the government of wasting the potential of the UK’s engineering research base.
As readers can imagine, there was widespread agreement on these points within The Engineer’s offices, not to mention surprise that a government body had actually seen what was surely obvious to anyone who has looked at the history of engineering projects in the UK over the past few decades. Some of the comments are not suitable for printing, even on the internet. One of the more tactful members of staff enquired exactly how many minutes it had taken for them to notice.
There are all sorts of possible reasons for this lack of engineering input into policy. It could be that the great engineers of the Victorian era – possibly the last time major infrastructure was built in the UK in peacetime – were entrepreneurs and businessmen and, therefore, the government did not have to get so involved. Whatever the reason, times have changed.
It is beyond belief that policy is made on such vital subjects as energy provision without any input from engineers. They are the ones who are trained to fit technological solutions to societal problems and they are the ones who actually have to carry out the policies decided on by the politicians and civil servants (who are, as they have always been, mainly humanities experts).
Phil Willis, committee chairman, said: ‘It has become clear to us just how vital the contribution of the engineering community is to tackling the global challenges we face.’
Who did they think was going to tackle it? Who is going to design and build nuclear power stations, if not engineers? Who is going to decide where and how to build railways and roads? Who is going to develop IT systems?
Many commentators have said that the lack of status for engineers in the UK stems from the government’s dismissive attitude towards them and the IUSS report seems to bear this out. Willis said that the government is making efforts to improve the recognition of the engineering community; it sounds like they could start by recognising an engineer. He or she is likely to be the one jumping up and down with fury that they have not been asked anything recently.
The committee said that trained and experienced engineers are needed at all levels of the Civil Service: an idea that has not met with universal approval from the engineering associations. It may be better that engineers would be more suitably employed as consultants on major projects, but it is now clear that a major culture change needs to happen within government departments. The mandarins and their political masters have to understand what engineering is, what engineers do and why they cannot get anything technological done properly without consulting them.
One idea that The Engineer supports is the appointment of a chief engineering advisor to the government and, again, it beggars belief that there is not one already. The chief scientific and medical advisors do important work and they cannot be expected to take on engineering advice as well as their own duties.
However, we have to take exception to their suggestion of the title of chief engineer. The UK is not the Starship Enterprise and it is hard to see Gordon Brown (or David Cameron, for that matter) as Captain Kirk or Picard. Having said that, it is certain that the infrastructure cannae tek it and the warp factor on government technology policy is pretty high. We can think of a few good candidates for chief engineering advisor. Time to beam them up.
Special Projects Editor (reporting from the bridge)