Article - Issue 22, March 2005
Lord Broers FREng FRS
Lord Broers Courtesy of Vodafone
Lord Broers talked to Michael Kenward prior to delivering this year’s Reith Lectures for the BBC
Industry, academia, learned societies and now the House of Lords – there aren’t many places where Alec Broers has not left his impression. Oh, and don't forget the ski slopes and seas. For Lord Broers, there is more to life than being an engineer who can fix his own computers.
Please don’t call Alec Broers an ‘anorak’. He may be happy to talk about how he ‘wi-fied’ his apartment, how he still likes to work in DOS, and adamant that no IT manager is going to put software on his PC. But there is a big difference between being an expert in something and having a one-track mind. Indeed, Lord Broers – he was elevated to the peerage last year – believes engineers must be able to do more than one thing well, and not just in their working life.
Were he of that generation, Alec, the President of The Royal Academy of Engineering and, since the end of last year, the Chairman of the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology, would tell young engineers that they should ‘get a life’. And that message is for engineers at all stages of their carers. “I believe that it is as important, almost more important, that engineers are socially rounded people, that they have a spectrum of interests.”
The BBC Reith Lectures
Alec suspects that talking about another of his interests, music, led to his latest recognition. He believes that the invitation to present this year’s Reith Lectures came after he discussed music, and other things, especially his passion for engineering, on the Radio 4 programme ‘Desert Island Discs’.
Listeners to the Reith Lectures this year can expect Alec to express a number of contrarian views. For example, it is popular to snipe at the education that youngsters receive before they reach university. Alec will have none of this. “I don't believe there is a collapse in the quality of education,” he says.
“Syllabuses had to get broader, so you can't be as specialised as used to be the case. When I hear people bemoan the fact that kids coming out of school don’t have the same skills in handling imaginary numbers as they used to in the old days, I ask if they have other broader interests. ”He does not want to see a generation of anoraks going through the system. “It is terribly important that they are balanced people and that they also spend time on the arts, sport or music.”
Alec has certainly maintained his own extra-curricular activities. He may have spent much of his working life balancing the ability to do research, manage projects and deal with administration, but he has always found time to ski and sail. Doubtless other engineers have similar interests; unfortunately, says Alec, they are rarely seen to have them. Perhaps that explains why engineers are sometimes perceived to be somewhat grey and obsessed with their subject.
Perhaps a part of the problem is that the education system leads people to make their career choices far too young. Alec is not alone in thinking that today’s A-levels force early specialisation, something he avoided in his education in Australia in the 1950s. “One of our big troubles is that young people from the age of 15 can study just science. Indeed, they can end up do nothing but physics and maths. This is a mistake and a very large mistake.”
Delaying vocational decisions
Perhaps more controversial is Alec’s view that even at university engineering should be a late choice for students. You shouldn’t need to identify yourself as an engineer until your third year at university, he insists.
“We lose a lot of talented people because we ask them at 15 whether they want to be an engineer,” says Alec. Worse than that, we force them to pick a branch of engineering that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It is perfectly possible, he believes, for undergraduates to leave these choices until they have a better idea of what interests them.
Alec cites the example of Cambridge, where he held numerous academic posts including Head of the University Engineering Department between 1993 and 1996 and Vice Chancellor between 1996 and 2003. “We used to have a great cadre of people coming over from other subjects and doing a final year in engineering. Very often they ended up being the best engineers we had.”
Of course, his view may be coloured by the fact that this is just what happened in his own career. Alec’s education, at Melbourne University, resulted in a physics degree. But he had always been interested in making things; possibly a genetic trait, as father’s hobbies included electronics. Working in insurance in India in the 1930s, Alec’s father was probably the first person in that country to receive the BBC.
Broers junior continued the tradition by making and selling hi-fi in Australia. This was in the days before you could buy off-the-shelf systems. Alec even had to buy the wood for someone to make loudspeaker cabinets. With a desire to keep his hand on hardware, Alec’s research ambitions after graduating had been in radioastronomy. These were the early 1960s, the heydays of radioastronomy. But Martin Ryle, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for his astronomy, warned Alec that at that time Cambridge was currently in the middle of a ‘thinking’ phase. Lots of mathematics and theory, but not much experiment. “Professor Ryle told me that if I wanted to do something experimental, I should get down to the engineering department.”
Pushing the electronics envelope
Astronomy wasn't the only hot topic in the 1960s. Electronics was also going places scientifically. While completing his engineering degree, Alec had encountered the scanning electron microscope. In his PhD research, he turned the beam around, so to speak. “I was the first person to turn the scanning microscope around and start using it as a writing instrument.”
These were the first experiments on electron-beam fabrication, as it came to be known, which went on to revolutionise electronics, enabling the production of integrated circuits with ever finer features and more and more transistors per millimetre. “My PhD topic is still alive, 43 years after I started it,” says Alec. Not many researchers can claim that.
Then as now, companies kept a close eye on what happened in Cambridge and other leading electronics labs. This was at the height of the brain drain of researchers form the UK to North America. Researchers from industry turned up at all the major conferences, where Alec encountered people from Hughes, Westinghouse, Bell Labs, and IBM. He must have made an impact on them, as they all offered him jobs.
For Alec, part of the attraction was the place. “I just liked America,” he says. “I still do.” In the end he took up IBM’s offer. “It was the best place to do research that would end up being useful,” explains Alec. Thinking that he might stay for a couple of years, it was 19 years before Cambridge made an offer that he could not refuse. Well, it offered a professorship in electrical engineering and a large pay cut. That turned out not to be the only bit of ‘downsizing’ for Alec.
“It was a cold bath when I realised how little resources I had. ”After running a group with more than 400 people, responsible for IBM’s next generation of technology, he arrived in a laboratory with next to no staff and no money to do research. “I had to build a nanofabrication facility from scratch. I had to raise £3 million. I still don't know how I did that.”
Engineering salaries and student numbers
Twenty years on from Alec’s return to the academic world in 1984, are dons still hard done by on the pay front? “Certain sectors of the academic community in this country at the moment are not badly paid,” he says. However, that does not include engineers. “Engineers and ‘hi-tech’ people are very much underpaid in comparison with academics in America”.
Salaries are just one of the challenges for academic engineers in the UK today they also face declining student interest in their subject. “There is a fall off in interest in science and technology, and engineering,” says Alec. “But that is a worldwide trend.” Even here, Alec refuses to toe the party line and blame the education system. When people bemoan the number of engineers entering university, he points out that this is just young people watching the market place. “If they don't see a whole lot of jobs in a particular subject they are not going to train for it.”
Expect to hear more equally contrarian views from Alec in the future. He promises to use his position as chairman of the Lords Select Committee to push for sensible policies on matters where engineering plays a part. For example, he cites energy policy. “We should not allow the nation to have an energy policy that is inconsistent, illogical, and based on false assumptions.”
Take nuclear power. The British government appears to be paralysed on the issue. The problem for Britain’s energy policy, says Alec, is that “there is no political motivation at the moment to do anything about it. But there is a responsibility to the nation to do something.”
Transport is another engineering issue that exercises Alec. It was in fact the subject of his maiden speech in the House of Lords. “Transport is desperate in this country. We have let our infrastructure fall apart.” In his eyes, vested interests and a failure of political will have effectively paralysed the country. Transport and energy are perhaps the most visible of the engineering challenges facing society. Alec sees promoting debate on such issues to be a fundamental role for the Academy. He doesn't find it easy to reel off the standard spiel about the Academy’s mission statement. He has his own take on what matters, describing the Academy as “a means of recognising talented engineers and providing an environment where they can use their talents for the good of mankind”.
“What I find successful about the Academy,” says Alec, “is the way we bring Fellows together to discuss things that they are interested in and feel passionately about.” Ultimately, the Fellows are there to champion the need for effective engineering solutions to society’s challenges. They bring to bear their engineers’ insights and their “bank of knowledge”. But all that effort goes to waste if the impassioned debates are an internal affair. Fellows of the Academy have to get out and make their case in public, says Alec, especially to politicians. “The Academy has got to be proactive in these things. We have got to keep pushing.”
Why is it important for engineering to make its voice heard? Isn’t it enough that the government, even the media, show growing interest in science? The two are very different in their impact on the world, says Alec.
“Some of the things that scientists do are elegant illustrations of the capability of human intellect,” he says. “But they are unlikely to affect people’s daily lives. Whereas most of the things that we consider as engineers are the opposite. We have changed the way everybody in the world lives.
We have got to make sure that we continue that process and that some of the technological advances, such as low cost motorcars, don't paralyse us and ruin our lives.”
Expect to hear much more from Lord Broers on the ills of society, and how engineering can help to alleviate them, as his career undergoes yet another transition. Indeed, these themes will be very much a part of his Reith Lectures later this year.
With the worlds of academia and business conquered, the focus for Alec now will be on the self-styled ‘corridors of power’ where he hopes to inject a dose of engineering reality. “The Government should not come out with policies and strategies that are not the best that we know how to put in place,” he insists. “We should ensure that they are as good as they can be based on the knowledge that we have. ”As the first engineer to chair the influential House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology, Alec Broers will be well placed to bring a dose of engineering reality to Parliament’s deliberations.
The 2005 Reith Lectures, entitled ‘The Triumph of Technology’, will be broadcast on Wednesdays on Radio 4 from 6 April to 4 May at 8pm.
Media off message
Engineering has a hard time in its communications activities. Nobel Prizes, book awards and art extravaganzas have little trouble garnering column inches. Sadly, when it comes to something like the Academy’s own MacRobert Awards for innovation in engineering – and the £50,000 cheque and gold medal that go with it the media shows very little interest.
That is because the media loves to talk about individual people. Engineering, by contrast, is inherently a team activity. It is the result of hard graft by large groups slogging away for months and years rather than the work of an individual with that ‘Eureka!’ moment.
“We have this romantic idea of the backroom genius inventor,” says Alec. But, he explains, the notion that everything depends upon the single inspired inventor is almost irrelevant today. “It is certainly irrelevant to the development of the high technologies.” Unfortunately, teams of engineers “don’t give the media what they want,” says Alec, with a rare hint of frustration. They like to talk about, and to, ‘individuals’.
Alec knows that individuals have their place. “Of course they do. All ideas must begin with individuals. But you need to bring those ideas together before you have made significant advances. ”Compared with the influence of teams of engineers working together to deliver the bigger technologies, inventors alone, says Alec, will have a relatively small effect. “They do not create the technology that’s driving the world forward”.
“Some of the things that scientists do are elegant illustrations of the capability of human intellect,” he says. “But they are unlikely to affect people’s daily lives. Whereas most of the things that we consider as engineers are the opposite. We have changed the way everybody in the world lives.”
1938 Born 17 September in Calcutta. Educated at Geelong Grammar School, Australia. 1959 Graduates in Physics from Melbourne University. 1962 Graduates in Electrical Sciences from the University of Cambridge after arriving as a choral scholar.1965 Completes PhD research at University of Cambridge. 1965 Researcher at IBM USA, later becoming an IBM Fellow and serving on the Corporate Technical Committee. 1984 Returns to Cambridge as Professor of Electrical Engineering. 1990 Master of Churchill College. 1992 Head of Cambridge Engineering Department. 1996 Vice Chancellor, University of Cambridge. 1998 Knighted for services to education. 2001 Becomes President of The Royal Academy of Engineering. 2004 Elevated to the Peerage, and shortly after becomes Chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.
Universities working with industry
Alec Broers has strong views, based on 40 years on both ‘sides’ of the equation, on how academics should work with industry. “My model for partnership between industry and academia is one where collaborative groups are formed that work jointly.” Forget about the idea of just throwing money at a good research group and letting it get on with its own interests. “You must make decisions collaboratively about what you are going to work on.”
Universities need to work with companies if they are to understand the issues that are important to industry. “My deeply held belief is that, because of the resources required, perhaps 80% of engineering, universities have to work with industry if they want to do effective research.”
Unfortunately, the decline of industrial R&D in the UK makes it harder for academics to find people to talk to in big engineering companies. “If industry isn’t there to partner with universities then we will end up not doing important research in the universities. We cannot afford to waste that resource.”
Fortunately, there are still opportunities for academics to collaborate with small businesses. Their hard pressed managements may have to work harder to tap into academic expertise, but it is possible.
In this regard, Alec puts his time where his mouth is. He is the chairman of Plastic Logic, a Cambridge spinout that is commercialising research on organic electronic materials. He also chairs the technical advisory board of R J Mears, a business set up in Boston by another Cambridge graduate, to develop silicon substrates for ultra-high speed chips.
“These are exciting and brave ventures,” says Alec. “These are small companies trying to take on big tasks.”
Technology for developing countries
A wind-up radio sits alongside the two portable computers on Alec Broers’s desk – one for the House of Lords, the other for the rest of his life.The radio is there as a consequence of Alec’s role as chairman of the trustees of the Vodafone Group Foundation, which supplies radios to people in Africa. Alec uses the radio to illustrate his views on notions of sustainability in engineering.
Engineers are under pressure, he says, to develop ‘appropriate technologies’ for developing countries. Alec certainly believes that technology is an appropriate tool for that development. But he rejects the solutions that call for ‘backyard technology’ that is tailored for developing countries.
“If you are doing something that’s simple like a wind-up radio,” he explains,“there is a sophisticated way to do it and it works well.”Much as a clockwork power generator is a nice toy that adds a distinctive feature to the radio, the concept works only because there has been a revolution in electronics. Wind-up would have a hard time generating enough power to operate a radio using discreet transistors, let alone one that depends on the valves (vacuum tubes) that Alec used when building the electronics for his hi-fi venture.
“A wind-up radio works because inside it there are electronics that consume almost no power. It took thousands of engineers and required billions of pounds to generate that technology.”
“What is good about the wind-up radio is that in addition to ‘wind-up’ bit, which is expensive to make, it has a solar cell that you can put out the window. It is a good combination of technologies.”
Biography – Michael Kenward OBE
Michael Kenward OBE has written about technology for 35 years. A freelance writer for the past 15 years and currently a member of the Ingenia Editorial Board, before that he worked on New Scientist for 20 years and edited the magazine in the 1980s.