Article - Issue 39, June 2009

Opinion: Why engineering matters

Lord Drayson

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Lord Drayson

Lord Drayson

Young people seem as fascinated as ever with engineering and technology but the nation has a shortfall of qualified engineers. Lord Drayson, Minister of State for Science and Innovation, believes that the UK needs to build on existing initiatives to sustain that early enthusiasm and convey to young people the truth that engineering is responsible for the world around them.

As someone with a first degree in engineering and a doctorate in robotics – and as an entrepreneur whose success was built upon the brilliance of British engineering – I did not require the vantage point of science and innovation minister to appreciate the importance of the discipline to our economy and our society.

Since entering politics, however, the significance of inspiring young people to become engineers and scientists is that much clearer to me. Like many people running a company, I competed for fresh talent to drive my business forward, but I lacked the overview of other sectors with similar recruitment needs.

For example, the recent – and excellent – select committee report on engineering highlights the demand for engineers in the nuclear industry. The same could be said for other parts of our economy, where the problem-solving skills of engineers are necessary for both commercial success and to address the major challenges of our time: climate change, food security, adapting to an ageing population.

I would venture that I share one trait with the readers of this publication: a fascination, from a very young age, with how things work and how they are put together. As a child, I loved anything fast (and still do), so I pored over cutaway drawings of Concorde and racing cars and the science stories in Look and Learn. Some people argue that children growing up today have greater opportunities to pursue a broader range of interests. It’s harder to grab their attention and then hold on to it. There may be some truth to that viewpoint. As the music producer-turned-railway-businessman Pete Waterman has observed, our toddlers are enduringly devoted to Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, but the country has a deficit of civil engineers.

We’re wasting opportunities, therefore, to develop and sustain that early childhood enthusiasm. And for girls and boys who somehow escape the lure of Thomas and Bob – even the joys of Lego and Meccano – we’re not doing enough to convey the incontrovertible truth that engineering is responsible for not only the world around them, but the toys and products which now rival those old favourites.

I don’t believe that curiosity levels – at any age – are somehow waning. The appetite for factual programming on medicine and high-concept home building is proof of that. The attraction of James Bond is as much about glamorous technology as anything else.

The problem is more to do with a lack of awareness regarding the fundamental contribution of engineering to the fabric of our daily lives – another issue identified by the select committee.

Surgeons have a greater public profile than the inventors of the instruments and machinery they use to restore health. Architects take the plaudits for stunning new buildings rather than the structural engineers without whom they would never achieve their vision. When it comes to the gadgets that captivate young and old alike, the design of an iPhone or a Wii is more often celebrated than the innovative microchip inside.

The relatively poor public status of engineering brings me back to my initial point about the professional community in the UK. We’re not yet good enough at communicating our own understanding of the centrality of engineering, nor the genius involved.

I don’t mean to denigrate the initiatives already underway that transmit the excitement of careers in engineering and how those jobs contribute to a safer, more sustainable world. Indeed, we’re considerably better off than, say, 10 years ago thanks to some 19,000 science and engineering ambassadors who go into schools and bring the value of their work to life. Royal Academy of Engineering programmes at secondary schools and with teachers are having a tangible impact.

And the Science: [So what? So everything] campaign, launched this year by the Prime Minister, is challenging elitist images of science and engineering and showing people the benefits they bring.

But I feel that there’s more we can be doing to demonstrate that engineering is fun. Frankly, it’s essential that we do so. The select committee highlighted both where we fall short as a country – including the lack of engineers working in government itself – and the opportunities to be seized in next-generation sectors like plastic electronics and geo-engineering. At this time of economic rebalancing, we must improve how we publicise this broad discipline.

A welcome development in wildlife broadcasting, for example, has been the way in which viewers now get to see how these shows are made – how naturalists track animals and the techniques cameramen use to film them. Making that methodology explicit and, above all, interesting is an excellent model for others to emulate.

Nor is it unprecedented in engineering. The fantastic Project Bloodhound is using this approach to great effect. The challenge of building the first car to exceed 1,000 miles per hour is its ultimate purpose, but the abiding mission is to involve schoolchildren, college and university students in the many engineering trials along the way.

I would urge Ingenia readers to consider further projects, as well as those already publicised in the STEM Directories, which could generate increased levels of mass engagement. This country undertakes groundbreaking engineering in any number of fields – in aerospace, in nanotech, in medical devices. It’s time that we had more groundbreaking educational programmes to accompany them.

As the champion for engineering in government and as science minister at DIUS – where I am coordinating effort across Government to raise STEM skills levels, promote world-class research and support business innovation – I promise you my full support.

Biography – Paul Drayson

Paul Drayson was educated at St Dunstan’s College, London, and Aston University. In 1982, he took a BSc (Hons) in Production Engineering, followed in 1985 by a PhD in Robotics. In 1993, he co-founded the vaccine company PowderJect Pharmaceuticals plc in Oxford, building it up as Chairman and Chief Executive into one of the world’s leading vaccine companies. His hobbies include motor racing, in 2007 achieving an historic first win for a bio-fuelled race car, and coming second overall in the British GT sportscar championship. He has held three posts in Government since 2005, becoming Minister of State for Science and Innovation in March 2007.

For further information on the Science: [So what? So everything] campaign visit www.direct.gov.uk/sciencesowhat

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