Article - Issue 22, March 2005

Propelling Engineering into the 21st Century

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Sir David King, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Office of Science and Technology, presents the challenges currently facing science and engineering in the UK and the Government’s strategies to address them.

I am proud of the UK’s world-class science and engineering base. From a recent detailed comparative analysis in Nature, we know that the UK currently leads the G8 nations in our research capacity. With 1% of the world’s population and 5% of the world’s science funding, our scientists now receive 12% of the world’s citations to their work, ranking second only to the USA and ahead of Germany and Japan. But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. There is increasing competition in the global economy, and the UK must build and capitalise on its significant strengths to stay ahead of the game.

Science and engineering are major players in improving our quality of life based on global action. 2005 is the year of the UK’s G8 and EU presidencies, and the Prime Minister has declared that the focus of our priorities is climate change and Africa. Science and engineering are key to both these challenges.

The challenges of global warming

I have said many times that global warming, largely caused by our dependence on fossil fuels as an energy source, is the most challenging problem to face governments this century. Governments will need to turn to their scientists and technologists to advise them both on handling the impacts of global warming, and in accepting the challenge and opportunities of forging the necessary changes to our energy, building and transport industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The best way we can help developing countries to build their infrastructure and their economies is to aid the development of sustainable science, engineering and technology capacity to enable the implementation of appropriate solutions locally. The engineering base has the ability to provide such solutions. For example, if engineers were put to work with the capacity to provide clean water, drainage and sewage systems for a city the size of Birmingham each week, they would still be busy, every working day, constructing new systems around the developing world for 50 years before there was adequate provision for clean water and hygiene. That is just one measure of the magnitude of the challenge and the future demand for engineering skills.

Engineering education

If engineering is to optimise its contribution to wealth creation and the quality of life in our society, the biggest challenge for the Government is to improve the education offered to engineers. To achieve this, it is essential, in my view, to create a new, 21stcentury vision for engineering that is properly integrated and embedded into the sciences. We must maintain and increase the numbers of scientifically skilled young people emerging from the UK education system. It is important that we learn to engage further with the public – who already have a generally positive view of the role of science and engineering in society – so that a career in science or engineering is seen as attractive, challenging, and rewarding. The number of young people opting for science, IT and engineering degrees is rising overall, but the proportion of them taking physical sciences and engineering is falling. This trend begins in schools, where fewer young people are choosing to study subjects like physics at A-level.

In the UK in recent years, the notion that science and maths are ‘masculine’ studies is thankfully disappearing. Girls are now consistently outperforming boys at GCSE and A-level in these subjects, and, according to the very recent Royal Society publication on the importance of role model schemes, there are no inherent differences between men’s and women’s skills and abilities to study or work in science, engineering or technology. However, the number of women specifically studying engineering at university – as distinct from life sciences – is woefully small.

Encouraging and retaining both women and men in careers in science and engineering is essential in view of the UK’s growing dependence on their professionalism. We need role models and mentors, and we need to break the gender stereotyping. We also need the learned societies, particularly, to work together and to remove outmoded silo walls between their disciplines and between engineering and the other sciences, including social sciences, architecture and economics.

So what is the Government doing to address this? We are committed to ensuring that everyone has equal opportunity in employment to realise his or her potential. We need to inspire our brightest and most creative young people to take up careers in science, engineering and technology. I want them to be aware that there are huge opportunities for engineers in the industries of the future such as aerospace, surface transport, opto-electronics, nanotechnology, mobile communications, energy and bio-engineering, and civil and environmental engineering.

Our Science and Engineering Ambassadors programme is one strand of our strategy. The programme offers teachers the help of young people who are using their skills in science, technology, engineering and maths in their careers, and who can help them enhance the curricula. There are now some 8,500 Ambassadors, and the numbers are rising steadily. I think that it is especially encouraging that some 35% are women. Ambassadors act as role models to the young people they meet, illustrating that being scientists and engineers, at whatever level, is something to which everyone can aspire.

This is significant because new technologies and ideas, as well as maintaining the skills base, are vital for the UK’s ability to compete with other nations. Engineering coupled with the sciences underpins our economy and makes a significant contribution to wealth creation. With more highly qualified engineers and scientists we gain a necessary competitive edge, increasing our productivity which in turn leads to higher economic growth.

Public engagement with the new technologies

Recently, an independent study on nanotechnology was conducted by the Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering, as requested by the Government. This examined the opportunities and uncertainties surrounding nanoscience and nanotechnologies which will be used as the basis for a continuing dialogue with the public. The report was published in July 2004 after consultation with members of the public and scientists, and highlighted areas where the Government needs to demonstrate that it has a clear agenda to ensure the safety of individuals, animals and the environment – an agenda which can adapt as the technologies develop. The Government has taken this forward and published its response to the report last month. This is a forward-looking response to the development of a new technology, so that its potential can be fully realised at the marketplace without doubts being raised about the appropriateness of safety regulations. We plan to be ahead of the curve.

Over the last few years, the trends from a number of surveys of public attitudes towards science, engineering and technology continue to show that we have a strong pro-science culture in the UK. There is a huge public appetite to get involved in science and a thirst for more knowledge. An increasing number of people go to their local interactive science centres. They actively seek out information on science and technology through television documentaries, news and current affairs programmes. People are sophisticated users of media, and do not believe everything they read in the papers – data show a widespread public scepticism about newspapers sensationalising science and technology. Risk has become an increasing part of public debate. MORI data show that people perceive and react to technologies in highly subtle and sophisticated ways. People are well able to balance risk and benefit, and personal and societal issues, and so it would be wrong to simply dismiss public attitudes as emotional, irrational or ignorant.

The UK population does appreciate the way that scientific discoveries lead to the development of new products and processes and the way that these contribute towards our lives. We need to capitalise on this enthusiasm and support, and respond to society’s needs by providing ways for much more active engagement. However, engineers in particular suffer from an image problem, and this needs considerable work from everyone across the engineering profession.

Engineering – as seen by the public

A recent MORI survey commissioned by the Office of Science and Technology found that while a quarter of the population spontaneously associates engineers with notions of expertise and skill, nearly half associates them with ‘trades’ such as mechanics, builders, machine operators or technicians. Furthermore, over half of those questioned associated engineering with design, construction, fixing and mending, while fewer than one in 20 people associates engineering with advancement, progress and improving the quality of life. The message is clear, but we need to communicate it properly, starting at school and building a wider picture of the valuable contributions that engineers make to society.

Foresight

The UK Government is currently tapping into its science and engineering base through the Foresight projects, run within the Office of Science and Technology, which I head. Foresight is an innovative process that provides challenging visions of the future to ensure effective strategies now. Foresight approaches the future in two ways: it takes big challenges which we clearly face (recent examples include dealing with new and rapidly spreading infectious diseases around the world, and living with increasing flood risk); and it mines the best understanding across disciplines to give decision-makers in government and business a clearer view of how their actions today affect tomorrow. It was forward-thinking like this, coupled with a clear vision of what engineering can achieve, that led to the building of the Thames Barrier for example, which currently safeguards London from catastrophic flooding about seven times each year.

But Foresight also seeks to identify areas where the UK can do more to be the best place in the world to use and exploit leading-edge areas of science and engineering. From future generations of the synthetic vision systems that currently help create amazing effects in the latest films, to the all-optical switching that may underpin the information infrastructure of the next decades, Foresight has brought people together to map out ways to deliver the best solutions.

Partnerships

The Government’s 10 Year Science & Innovation Framework shows our commitment to make the UK the best place in the world to do science. But to achieve this, we also need the help of our key stakeholders within industry. We need to engage more fully with the public in an atmosphere of increased mutual understanding which will lead to constructive dialogue.

Over the past few decades the UK has developed the largest and most dynamic high-tech small to medium enterprise cluster outside the USA. Many of these arise from developments by engineers working with scientists and entrepreneurs from a wide range of disciplines, and offer enormous potential for the wealth creating companies of the future. It is from these interdisciplinary hothouses – where phrases such as bio-engineering and medical engineering are becoming commonplace – that the new disciplines of engineering will emerge. Thus refreshed, they will propel us through the challenges of the 21st century.

Biography – Sir David King

Professor Sir David King KB ScD FRS was appointed as the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Office of Science and Technology in October 2000. Born in South Africa in 1939, and after an early career at the University of Witwatersrand, Imperial College and the University of East Anglia, he became the Brunner Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Liverpool in 1974. In 1988, he was appointed 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and subsequently became Master of Downing College (1995–2000), and Head of the Chemistry Department (1993–2000).He retains his position at Cambridge as 1920 Professor of Chemistry.

Further reference

D A King, Nature, Issue 311, Volume 430 (15 July 2004)

Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties,

The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering (July 2004) www.raeng.org.uk/policy/reports

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