Science and engineering set for boost from Queen and country

Senior reporter

It’s set to be a good week for science and engineering as the announcement of the next government spending review looms.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Treasury will lay out government spending plans for 2015/16 that, despite substantial cuts to most department’s budgets, are expected to include billions of pounds worth of capital investment in transport, internet infrastructure and scientific research.

At the other end of St James’s Park, meanwhile, the Queen is due to host a reception on Tuesday for the winners of the inaugural Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which was awarded to five of the pioneers of the internet and world wide web earlier this year.

The award was launched last year as a British-run equivalent to the Nobel Prizes with the aim of raising the status of engineering and of the UK’s prominence in the field. Although the global publicity for the first prize didn’t reach anything like that received by the Nobels, the involvement of the Queen certainly helped add a high level of prestige, so hopefully the official presentation will increase the award’s international recognition further.

In more difficult news for engineering, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is due to release its annual report later today, which is expected to say that estimates for the lifelong cost of Britain’s decommissioning programme have risen once again by billions of pounds, above the £53bn figure given last year.

It seems unlikely this will affect the government’s current plans for a new generation of fission reactors, but perhaps it will provide encouragement for further research into alternative designs that use existing nuclear waste as fuel, or for nuclear fusion.

Today marks the start of a three-day international conference on fusion research at York University, which will provide postgraduate students from countries across Europe with the opportunity to share research ideas and tour the £4m York Plasma Institute (YPI) that opened last year.

A conference on British energy policy will also take place this week in London on Thursday. Surprisingly, however, the programme for the UK Energy Summit, held by The Economist, includes no presentations on nuclear, renewables or any form of low-carbon generation, but includes two sessions on gas, including shale gas.

Finally, another conference on the same day will take a much broader look at what the UK’s engineers can achieve in coming years. Science & Innovation 2013 will examine how research can contribute to Britain’s economic growth and encourage investment, particularly in sectors such as high-value manufacturing, low-carbon technology and life sciences.