Stephen Burgin – Alstom

Stephen Burgin, Alstom UK Country President and Head of Alstom Power (UK)

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

We urgently need a consistent and long-term strategy to raise the profile and importance of engineering as a discipline across the profession, with employers and with the prospective engineers of the future. The scope of ‘engineering’ is vast and complex and widely misunderstood. As such, could a dedicated government chief engineer really make an impact? 

The ‘broad church’ of engineering itself is also a major challenge and it’s questionable whether all areas of the discipline could be properly represented by one role. It would be critical that the person appointed could elevate the role of engineering across all of its disciplines.

What are the highest priority areas for government spending to enhance the UK’s capability in your sector, and in technology in general?

For capital infrastructure projects it is vital that to recognise economic social and environmental benefits these bring to our country. Increasingly priority has to be on ensuring the long-term sustainability both economically and environmentally. Energy and transport sectors continue to be key areas for infrastructure investment. We are faced with a critical shortfall of our energy needs if investment is not accelerated. Positive actions are needed to deliver the investment in a truly integrated high-speed rail network.  There also has to be a focus on ensuring immediate and long-term support of the UK’s low carbon economy ambitions.

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

Commitment in the Pre-Budget Report to carbon capture and storage technology is welcomed. We have 10 pilot projects around the world capturing high levels of carbon using post combustion technologies.

Also, the Transition to a Low Carbon Economy report from DECC was a very positive step in consolidating current UK thinking and plans. Our collective challenge now is to drive the recommendations to delver a true low carbon economy in the UK.  For the power industry in particular, a key priority has to be the development and implementation of sustainable carbon pricing framework and incentives to encourage long-term investment and commitment.

Which of the engineering and technology sectors are underperforming in the UK currently, and what could be done to bolster them?

It’s neither possible nor practical to single out individual sectors and on major projects no one engineering discipline is wholly responsible for final results. What we  need to do is look  at engineering holistically and concentrate our collective efforts on making  the engineering profession more attractive for investment and new recruits.

From what you¹ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to address these issues?

We are encouraged that the views of the main parties in the industries we serve (rail transport and power) are broadly speaking, similar. There will be pressing need for  the next Government to focus on tangible outcomes and deliverables and  to speedily progress new energy and transport policy implementation  without delay.

Which areas of technology research do you think are best coordinated by the European Union, and which are better left within the UK?

A difficult one. As a global organisation it wouldn’t be logical  or practical  to invest our R&D resources and expertise in just one country.  The focus depends on where the where the best expertise for the work is based.

What are the biggest opportunities for growth in your sector, in the shortand medium term?

In both our sectors replacement of ageing and life expired assets  are significant opportunities  not only to replace but also  to introduce leading edge and proven new technologies.

What is the best way to approach technological goals in the long term (ie,with results more than five years off)? Can and should government play arole here?

Government’s role is to set long term strategic and environmental and policy frameworks to simulate innovation and long-term investment. This also helps drive R&D programmes by incentivising and rewarding innovation.

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

In the UK, we are acutely aware that engineering is not afforded the same status as in other countries. Regrettably it fails to excite our young people as much as careers in finance, entertainment or the media for example. We have a collective duty and opportunity to re- define and promote our profession – in the next two decades alone, there is a unique opportunity to help deliver much of the UK’s sustainable, technology based infrastructure needs.