Article - Issue 39, June 2009

Turning ideas into reality

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

The House of Commons Innovation Universities, Science and Skills Committee published its report on its inquiry into engineering in March this year, as world economies sank further into recession and the collapse of the stock market dominated newspaper headlines. Amongst all this gloom, the IUSS Select Committee’s report was a breath of fresh air, pointing the way forward for the government and the engineering profession to build a stronger and more productive relationship.

The committee’s report tackles thorny issues that have derailed many attempts over recent years to debate openly the need for, and value of, engineering advice to Government. Is engineering advice different to science advice? Who should advise governments on engineering and who should receive that advice? How would government departments know that advice would be useful to them anyway, when so few of the senior civil service have any sort of engineering background?

For me, two key questions encapsulate these issues: what is the purpose of engineering advice; and why are engineers uniquely placed to provide it?

In recent years, the Government has argued that science advice includes engineering advice and, therefore, that Department Chief Scientific Advisers (DCSA) can fulfil this function. Of course, engineering is part of a continuum with science, but it is also part of a continuum with everything else, most importantly, in this context, the supply chain, the financial sector and the client. As the Select Committee concluded, “engineers turn ideas into reality”. Those ideas are sometimes the product of science, but often they are not.

Engineering advice to Government is concerned primarily with how to deliver results – how to get things done effectively and efficiently. Expressed more formally, it is about understanding a client’s requirements and translating those requirements into a tangible product, delivered within a complex framework that includes commercial, contractual and programming constraints as well as technical challenges. Engineering advice must also encompass wider issues, such as logistics, environmental impact and public acceptability.

As a nation, the UK would have no difficulty in recognising that one of our greatest problems is the delivery of major engineering projects that involve public funding or government approval. The Select Committee highlighted what it saw as a “stark contrast” between the approach in China and Japan to large engineering projects and the approach in the UK. “We noticed that the Chinese and Japanese officials referred to engineering projects with confidence in part because each project is accompanied by a detailed roadmap for delivery.” The UK Government, by contrast, could only commit to an aspiration that we were going to do something, not exactly what or when we would deliver it. Such uncertainty and vagueness breeds public contempt.

Examples are everywhere, the slow progress over building new nuclear power stations, offshore wind turbines, eco-towns, high-speed rail networks and defence procurement. Are there masterplans for each of these areas that encompass skills, finance, social and environmental impacts as well as the supply of materials and technologies?

We understand that the government is committed to offshore wind energy and new nuclear power stations, but we’re not sure what exactly is going to be built, or when and certainly not how.

Nobody would doubt the need for science advice to Government. What was so refreshing about the IUSS report was that it sets out the importance of having a parallel stream of advice on engineering. The structure for providing that advice needs not only to be capable of listening, understanding and articulating the engineering argument, but also of recognising when that advice is needed.

The IUSS makes the excellent recommendation that “departments should either have a Departmental Chief Engineering Adviser (DCEA), or a Departmental Chief Scientific Adviser,” sometimes both. However, engineering is primarily about doing, rather than knowing, and engineering advisers need to be individuals with hands-on experience in delivering major projects.

The new DCEAs must be senior figures with a strong industry background: people who can complement the skills and experience of the existing distinguished DCSAs. The good news is that in response to the IUSS report, the Academy and the engineering institutions are currently working on the best route to ensure that national policy and its delivery are fully informed by engineering advice. An emphasis on delivery needs to be at the heart of their roadmap.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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