Whitehall should use spending power to back engineering

The government must use its influence as a customer to help engineering innovation flourish in the UK, says Lord Browne.

Lord Mandelson has developed a most welcome mantra in the past year that the UK ‘needs less financial engineering and more real engineering’. I could not agree more. We must challenge politicians of all parties to take on board the crucial importance of engineering to the future of this country.

The UK is the world’s sixth biggest manufacturer and a leader in fields such as small satellites, biological sciences, and structural design. If we want a nation built on world-class innovation there is no shortage of intellectual capital ready and waiting for use in engineering and the sciences.

The global downturn has focused attention on the need to re-energise the scientific and engineering base of our economy. In recent decades, the UK has moved away from high-volume manufacturing and towards specialised high-tech manufacturing and knowledge-based services. To remain competitive we must continue to do what we do best. This includes developing innovative products and continually refining the way goods are designed and manufactured.

Engineers can help ensure that the economy exploits this evolution. The engineering community recognises its responsibility to foster a greater capacity for innovation. This is why we have devised ‘Engineering the Future’ as a banner under which the profession can work to inform public perception, raising awareness of what engineering contributes to society. Our message is that engineering will play a central role in tackling global challenges and creating a thriving low-carbon, high-tech economy.

But the government must play its part. Intervention and incentives are needed to stimulate enterprise. We need a robust but enabling regulatory framework to encourage the development of new industries. We need encouragement for investors to keep the ideas, businesses and skilled people here in the UK.

Our universities are increasingly successful at transferring technology into real businesses, but we need to find ways to generate opportunities to create products and services that result from the UK’s world-class science base. The government should recognise the scale of its own influence as a customer and acknowledge that public procurement can be used as much as a tool for encouraging innovation as for driving down costs.

Businesses must increasingly compete internationally for innovative thinkers — unless the UK is able to train, attract and retain extraordinary people, our innovation skills will falter and opportunities will be lost.

Building such expertise will require engineering skills at every level. British universities will need to train more engineering graduates. We must also provide the quality of education to equip them for an ever-changing future.

Academia and business need to develop more effective ways of working together to ensure that the needs of industry are met. Experience-based courses reach many that would not normally consider engineering as a career, and are a practical way to ensure we have a base of engineers.

There has been much talk in these challenging times about the relative balance of ‘blue-skies’ and directed research. While both are necessary, few would doubt the importance of turning research into wealth-creating products. The government should focus on encouraging more tie-ups between industry and academia, supporting these joint ventures with investment.

Getting the policy right in Britain will be the first step towards developing the high-tech, low-carbon economy of the future. But beyond our shores, British engineers will also continue to bring growth and prosperity to developing countries. As engineers, we must ensure policymakers are aware of this contribution and that they can benefit from our continued support and advice.


Lord Browne of Madingley
President, Royal Academy of Engineering

MSc First-class physics degree, St John’s College, Cambridge
MS Stanford Business School, California

1966 Joined BP as an apprentice. Variety of exploration and production posts, including field engineer in Anchorage
1989 Managing director and chief executive officer, BP Exploration
1991 Joined board as managing director of BP
1995 Group chief executive
1998 Led BP’s expansion into the US. Credited with turning it into one of world’s most successful energy businesses, leaving in 2007
2001 Made a life peer
2006 President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and fellow of the Royal Society