Skills, funding and other burning issues

The Engineer

Skills; the profile of engineers; funding priorities: three subjects guaranteed to engage, enrage and polarise the opinions of The Engineer ’s readers.

And in our interview Royal Academy of Engineering president and former BP chief, Lord Browne, wades headlong into all of these debates.

Browne’s higher-education report, which outlined a number of measures designed to make higher education financially sustainable, was controversial to say the least. But in our interview he makes a potentially even more provocative point. 

Saying what many privately feel but few are prepared to say, Browne suggests that in order to continue to enhance the quality of higher education it may be necessary to reduce the number of places. Although he only acknowledges it as a possibility, it’s an outcome quite at odds with the public demand for universal higher education.

Another topic always guaranteed to divide opinion is the notion that the title ‘engineer’ should be protected in much the same way that doctors or lawyers enjoy exclusivity. As we know from our letters pages, lots of readers believe that poor perceptions of the profession stem to some extent from the fact that anyone from a plumber to a car mechanic can call themselves an engineer. Legal protection for the title would, they argue, improve understanding of what engineers actually are. Others, Browne included, suggest that such a move would be elitist, old-fashioned and ultimately do far more harm than good. 

Earlier this year Browne came in for criticism after suggesting that funding priority should be given to research with direct commercial benefits. Despite his plea for science and engineering to be regarded as two sides of the same coin, Browne doesn’t completely answer his critics. While acknowledging the importance of blue-skies research, he reiterates his point that research with tangible benefits should always be given priority.

The question is how do you determine whether research has commercial potential and who actually makes this call? It is probably fair to say that few engineers and scientists would entrust our politicians, who rarely look beyond the next term of office, with this critical responsibility. What’s more, it’s often the serendipitous, unexpected and unpredictable developments that make the most telling economic and social contributions. 

For a fine example of the tangible benefits of fundamental research, look no further than our report on particle physics-based cancer therapies. A few decades ago, synchrotron research was regarded as an obscure offshoot of theoretical physics. But had its pioneers not been given the space to explore a field with few obvious short-term applications — particle therapy would not today be offering hope to thousands of cancer patients. A pretty compelling example, we would argue, of the value of blue-skies thinking.