Rob Twiney – EMEA Technology Leader, Advanced Sensors, GE Sensing

What would be the advantages and disadvantages of the government appointing a Chief Engineering Adviser?

The current Chief Scientific Advisor Role provides advice on Science and Technology related matters. In practice this is a Scientific role and, dependent on the incumbent, the public perception of the role is driven by their involvement in high profile “media” cases relevant to the Government. In recent years these have included topics such as Climate change, the Foot and Mouth outbreak and post 9/11 risks to the UK (Sir David King).

These are clearly critical national issues which may well involve Engineering Solutions, but the importance of those solutions may be hidden in the overall debate.  The incumbents are typically of exemplary academic backgrounds but with less industrial experience.  The presence of the Scientific Advisor perhaps promotes Scientific credibility at the expense of Engineering in the public perception.

Engineering as a profession still suffers from a perceived lower status compared with some other countries such as the often referenced Professional Engineering status in Germany. The establishment of an Engineering Advisor role at a Government level would improve the perception of Engineering as a profession, and could provide a focus for the development of better Engineering centric infrastructure and particularly the provision of trained Engineers, of which there is a significant current and future growing shortage.  The two roles would need to have clearly identified and differentiated responsibilities to make them complementary in operation rather than competitive in terms of strategic direction and links to the Government funded Research Councils.

Which recent government policies have been particularly effective for your sector, and which (if any) have been a hindrance?

In broad terms Government Research and Development funding has been targeted at SME’s.  In practice larger Global Organisations such as GE have a choice as to where they position their R&D investment, factors may include the local technical environment, expertise, infrastructure and overall cost of completing the work in a region. 

The Government’s focus on SME’s can make some grants difficult to access which then reduces the attractiveness of R&D spending in the UK when some other regions and Governments are offering higher R&D incentives.  There is a long term potential “win:win” through Government R&D incentives being structured to facilitate big business as well as small ones to encourage technical expertise development and establishment of key “Centres of Excellence” in strategic economic and competitive technologies.  The resources and focus that a big business can bring to a technology area can have real impact in its development, particularly when combined with complementary Government support.

Large organisations have the ability to take ideas through to successful product using established NPI processes.  GE has deliberately protected its R&D spend during the recession to position itself for growth as the upturn develops.  However a difficulty commonly faced is the so called “valley of death” in funding between novel ideas and conversion to product.  A number of schemes are in place, in training and staff exchange to facilitate the transfer of product ideas, but ultimately in the tight financial climate the gap between proof of concept in University and developing a real product can be significant and needs funding to help fill the gap. Further Government schemes to address this knowledge transfer and risk reduction to a commercially viable level could have big benefits.

From what you’ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to address these issues?

Regional Development Agencies currently play a key role in English regions in allocating Government and EU funds to meet local priorities for Industry.  However for a Global Business such as GE then a more strategic national approach particularly to issues of knowledge transfer and commercialisation of academic research could be more effective for both GE and UK plc.  Conservative policies may be less regionally driven, which may make a national approach easier.  However for both parties STEM subjects and technical skill development look to be priorities currently.

What do you think of the current status of engineers in the UK? What can be done to enhance it?

There is s need to improve the perception of Engineering as a profession, and provide a focus for the development of better Engineering centric infrastructure, particularly the provision of trained Engineers, of which there is a significant current and future growing shortage.