Professor Nick Jennings CB FREng FRS, Chair of the Engineering Policy Centre Committee at the Royal Academy of Engineering, states why engineering policy should be at the heart of policymaking
We are in a period of increasing global uncertainty with rapid change introducing more sophisticated threats. COVID-19 and growing energy and food security crises highlighted vulnerabilities in our systems and supply chains. A radical shift in how the UK approaches science and technology is needed to achieve desirable societal outcomes. Policymakers are tackling increasingly complex and interconnected challenges. Engineers are well placed to help policymakers, bringing practical solutions from a wide range of specialisms and applying a systems approach for engineering policy – considering all elements of a problem, the way each element interacts and the implications to the system as a whole.
The UK recently losing its advantage in semiconductor innovation to other countries is an example of failure to apply a systems approach. My own experience as a former Chief Scientific Adviser taught me the importance of thinking about the whole system – not just part of a problem in isolation.
Perhaps picturing engineers and policymakers collaborating about engineering policy around a table isn’t an image that we’re too accustomed to – but it’s one we need to normalise to create a resilient, sustainable society.
Stimulating the talent pipeline
No matter the crisis, engineers are called upon to respond. To tackle the problems of the future, we need more engineers – and we need them to come from a wider range of backgrounds too.
Women currently account for 16% of engineering occupations, people from ethnic minorities account for 10%, and people with disabilities account for 11%, according to EngineeringUK. (1)
Many factors need addressing to encourage young people from diverse backgrounds to become engineers. These include public perceptions of engineering as a career option, specialist teacher shortages, STEM curricula and qualifications, co-ordinated employer engagement, and the need to broaden pathways into the profession, including further education. Engineers have diverse, exciting and fulfilling careers – recent work commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering indicates that about 26% of all UK workers are part of the engineering economy (2) – and they report some of the highest job satisfaction rates. (3)
The mission to shift public perceptions of engineering is a work in progress, as is improving pathways to engineering education and careers – but it’s clear that strategic advantage through science and technology can’t be delivered without the right skills and talent.
To build the engineering pipeline we need for the future, policymakers must continue to work with engineers across education, research, and innovation sectors to develop a balance of technical, commercial, and entrepreneurial skills that feed into attractive and competitive career paths.
Becoming a ‘science superpower’ relies on engineers
Engineers are trained to make things work better with creative problem-solving and systems thinking. Engineering is instrumental in applying science and technology, from academic researchers to innovative start-ups to industrial businesses of all sizes. The UK’s ambition to be a science superpower simply can’t be achieved without also becoming an engineering superpower. The National Engineering Policy Centre is an example of strengthening ties between engineers and the government, with dedicated engineering Policy Fellowships designed to help civil servants apply an engineering mindset to policymaking.
But it’s also essential that the UK invests in innovation. A recent Institute for Public Policy Research report highlighted that UK research and development investment has declined by almost a fifth since 2014. (4) COVID-19, of course, proved just how important R&D is, both in terms of generating an effective vaccine and the engineering prowess behind manufacturing and distributing a novel vaccine at scale and pace. Healthy investment in R&D will be crucial for accelerating the technological innovation we need for current and future crises – like energy resilience, food security and climate change.
Ensuring this investment is distributed right across the UK is also vital. Recent research shows that the engineering profession generates up to an estimated £645 billion in gross value added annually, with several innovation hotspots identified beyond the big cities and ‘golden triangle’, from Aberdeenshire to the East Midlands. (5) Achieving strategic advantage through science and technology will require all areas of the UK to benefit from emerging local engineering economies.
The case for a Chief Engineering Adviser
The varied national challenges relating to engineering policy – creating an ever-replenishing pipeline of diverse engineers, investing in research and development and ‘levelling-up’ engineering across the country – require a ‘whole-system’ approach, like any good engineering challenge.
But effective strategic decisions can’t be made without oversight across all these moving parts. To manage this system, the government should establish a Chief Engineering Adviser for efficient engineering policy. During the pandemic, the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser’s appearances in Prime Ministerial briefings reassured the public, asserting the government’s access to the best expertise available. Creating a figurehead for engineering on an equal footing would raise its profile in society and distinguish engineering’s uniqueness from other scientific fields.
A Chief Engineering Adviser would provide objective advice on the greatest national engineering priorities and give the profession a voice in government. The role could help build impetus into the research and innovation ecosystem and better connect the government with different engineering communities and policies. The government could more effectively improve its engineering corporate memory and learn from past successes and failures.
Strategic advantage through science and technology is inherently outward-facing – so it should be recognised publicly and internationally. A Chief Engineering Adviser would signal the UK’s commitment to engineering innovation and attract further international investment.
An unlikely but necessary marriage for policymaking
Policymakers have much they can learn from engineers about applying systems thinking to address interconnected issues. It’s paramount that the voice of the engineering community becomes an increasingly valued part of policy discussions. The two professions may at first seem radically different – but building productive bridges between the two will put the UK on a path towards increased resilience and prosperity.
- Data taken from the EngineeringUK APPG response for Diversity & Inclusion in STEM submission published in January 2022.
- Data taken from the Royal Academy of Engineering and Metro Dynamics research ‘Engineering, Economy & Place’ initially published in November 2022 at https://raeng.org.uk/news/a-hotbed-of-innovation-new-research-reveals-engineering-adds-up-to-an-estimated-645bn-to-the-uk-s-economy-annually
- Data taken from Glassdoor’s ‘The UK’s Top 15 Jobs with the Highest Satisfaction’ published at https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/blog/jobs-highest-satisfaction/
- Data taken from the Institute of Public Policy Research report, ‘Science or Stagnation?’ published in October 2022 at https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/science-or-stagnation
- Data taken from the Royal Academy of Engineering and Metro Dynamics research ‘Engineering, Economy & Place‘ initially published in November 2022 at https://raeng.org.uk/news/a-hotbed-of-innovation-new-research-reveals-engineering-adds-up-to-an-estimated-645bn-to-the-uk-s-economy-annually