As it renegotiates our relationship with the EU, the UK government must be mindful of engineering’s economic importance, says Dr Hayaatun Sillem, deputy chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering
According to the government’s timetable, this month should see the UK trigger Article 50, paving the way for departure from the European Union. In order to support government in the negotiations that will follow, the 38 organisations representing professional engineering in the UK came together last year under the leadership of the Royal Academy of Engineering to produce a comprehensive report on the impacts and opportunities for UK engineering created by Brexit. Although we looked primarily at nearer-term actions, we recognised that a more fundamental re-examination of the UK’s place in the world was called for. While many factors will influence the UK’s future status on the world stage, engineering has the potential to play a very positive role.
Back in 2008-09, I served as specialist adviser to the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee for its inquiry into engineering. Over the course of the year, it was fascinating to see the MPs’ view of engineering evolve. The most striking transformation came as a result of the committee’s overseas fact-finding trips where they found that, in contrast to its low domestic profile, UK engineering was very highly regarded abroad.
This is likely to be influenced, at least in part, by the fact that many leading engineers across a wide range of geographies have been educated or trained in the UK and continue to hold the UK in high esteem. On a recent visit to Singapore as part of a UK government mission, I saw for myself the extensive links between UK and Singaporean engineering researchers, often forged as a result of longstanding personal relationships.
At a time when the UK is developing its own industrial strategy, Singapore provides an interesting example of a country whose economic strategy is firmly rooted in engineering and technology. The country only made its first significant investments in R&D in 1991, yet now spends 2.2 per cent of its GDP on R&D and has the fourth-highest GDP per capita, providing a compelling illustration of what can be achieved through targeted investment within a strategic policy framework.
While there are many differences between the UK and Singapore, engineering and technology are no less significant to our future economic success. Engineering has been estimated to underpin at least a fifth of UK gross value added and, importantly, accounts for half of all exports. As we renegotiate our relationship with our biggest trading partner, we must be mindful of the significance of engineering-based businesses to our balance of payments.
The wider societal impact of engineering is just as relevant as its economic impact and also has an important influence on our international standing. The academy has long championed the role of engineering in tackling global challenges, for example, producing a booklet of essays on engineering and UN Sustainable Development Goals, in conjunction with our Engineering a Better World conference last year. This theme was then adopted by the global grouping of engineering academies, reinforcing the UK’s leadership role in the international engineering community.
In recent years, the UK government has also recognised the potential of engineering and science to advance the lives of the world’s poorest, taking the innovative step of using development aid money – so-called Official Development Assistance – to support research collaborations and capacity building aimed at addressing global development challenges and supporting under-served communities in the developing world (often referred to as the ‘global south’).
Collaboration with emerging economies
The academy is one of the delivery partners for the £735m Newton Fund for collaboration with emerging economies, with matching funds provided by partner countries, and the £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund. One of the academy’s objectives within these programmes has been to build the innovation capacity required to ensure that research outputs drive the development of products and services that address needs in the global south. For example, our Newton Fund Leaders in Innovation Fellowships offer talented researchers from emerging economies intensive residential training in the UK to help accelerate the commercialisation of innovations that can deliver social and economic benefits to under-served communities.
The primary objective of these programmes is to contribute to poverty alleviation in the global south. Nevertheless, they reinforce the UK’s role as a thought leader and centre of excellence in innovation. Training talented entrepreneurs from some of the fastest-growing economies in the UK leaves them with a positive perception of the opportunities for growing businesses here, and creates valuable links between UK innovators and their counterparts in strategically important countries.
In redefining the UK’s position in a competitive, highly interconnected and sometimes turbulent world, we need to draw on all our strengths. Engineers tend to focus on how we can improve things, so it’s natural that we examine the aspects of the profession that most warrant improvement and seek to address these – there is certainly no room for complacency on issues such as skills and diversity. However, it’s also important that we recognise that UK engineering has a strong reputation for excellence in many parts of the world, and this can be harnessed to reinforce the UK’s international stature and success at this crucial juncture.