Article - Issue 22, March 2005

Engineers respond to the tsunami; Economic growth driven by science and technology

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The challenges of funding R&D

In his article, ‘Management of research and development in difficult times’ (Ingenia 21), Daniel McCaughan succinctly summarises a prescription for company survival. However, the “difficult times” are presented as if they were beyond our control. The fates of modern life have suddenly visited them upon us and we must do our best to cope. There is another explanation: we have brought them on ourselves.

Driven by good intentions, our institutions began to reassess scientific enterprise in the 1970s.The first problem tackled arose from the growing gap between demand for research funds and its supply. The funding agencies decided that laissez faire would have to go, and in future, they would only support research that met the priorities of consensus or satisfied perceived needs. Thus was created what is now a lumbering bureaucracy to ensure compliance. In industry, the early 1990s saw radical changes in industrial thinking. There was a widespread concentration on core business, and companies moved away from an outward looking corporate culture towards the myopic ‘horizontal’ integration of specialist businesses. Time horizons were shortened, and exploratory research virtually disappeared. To make matters worse, the range of mission-oriented research was cut back in line with businesses’ more focused requirements.

Like all good fashions, these changes spread globally. They are having a dramatic effect. The major discoveries most valued today – the laser, nuclear power, a host of medical diagnostics, and many others – came out of the blue. They were not predicted. No one commissioned them. Indeed, there is no relationship, linear or otherwise, between ‘blue skies’ discoveries and existing products. Nowadays, however, it is deemed impossible to do world-class research without access to the most efficient and usually the most expensive equipment, thereby compounding the funding shortfall. Laboratories should of course have the best. State-of-the-art equipment, imaginatively used, can open up new horizons if users are allowed to stray from the beaten tracks. But money of itself does not necessarily buy good science. Indeed, many breakthroughs have come from shoestring budgets and the world-class use of the equipment between the ears of our brightest scientists.

Economic growth is driven by science and technology, and so it is vital that our institutions find solutions to these problems. Between 1951 and 1974, the global per-capita economy grew at an average rate of 2.8% a year. Between 1975 and 2001, that figure fell to 1.4%. We are heading for economic stagnation. There has been an upturn in recent years, but that seems to be due to the global increase in property values. That bubble will probably deflate before long.

We don’t need a revolution to restore real growth, but we must find ways of releasing the few Einsteinian scientists from the mind-numbing bureaucracy of recent times so that major new wealth-creating opportunities can be found. One such way is described in my new book, Pioneering Research: A Risk Worth Taking (John Wiley and Sons Inc, 2004).There is also a review in Nature (27 January 2005, p361).We had to find sponsorship, of course, and in 1980 British Petroleum (BP), with the daring once typical of great companies, commissioned us to tackle that very problem. They gave us complete freedom. So, we scrapped all current selection procedures, and started from scratch. The new arrangements worked very well, and many new mainstreams, scientific and industrial, are now flowing that otherwise could have dried up. Unfortunately, in 1990 BP caught core-business-itis, that dreadful corporate disease which makes companies concentrate on their most successful products, and had to close us down. We have been searching for new sponsors ever since.

Don Braben
Venture Research International Ltd and University College London donbraben@compuserve.com


Engineers respond to South Asia tsunami

The tsunami in South Asia claimed 200,000 lives and made millions homeless. Although the media attention has now largely moved on, the work of responding to the humanitarian need continues.

The tragedy provoked an unprecedented outpouring of generosity around the world and substantial resources have been committed by the world community to help the affected countries recover. Following the initial emergency response the focus is now on rehabilitation and reconstruction. Much media attention has been devoted to the difficulties of rapidly mobilising the resources needed and in co-ordinating them effectively. However, the good news is that the immediate humanitarian needs have been largely met. Remarkably, there have been no significant outbreaks of communicable diseases.

RedR – Engineers for Disaster Relief has been active in the response. Working from our offices in the UK, India, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, to date we have placed over 70 skilled specialists, many of them engineers, with the front-line agencies. We have continued to provide our training courses which prepare humanitarian staff for their difficult work. The London office is working in partnership with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies in Sri Lanka, to provide training and advice, initially in shelter rehabilitation, and then extending across other sectors, such as water and sanitation and livelihoods. We have also teamed up with the New Civil Engineer magazine to run a conference for engineering companies interested in how they can get involved in the tsunami response. Through our web-based technical support service, we have been able to give support and advice to a wide variety of people active in the field.

However, we are also very aware that other humanitarian crises continue, with comparatively little media attention. The crisis in Western Sudan continues to cause immense suffering. We are working there to provide training in security so that humanitarian staff can carry out their work safely and securely. HIV/Aids is probably the greatest disaster afflicting our world. Through our merger with the International Health Exchange, we are now working with agencies in East Africa to provide training in managing HIV/Aids programmes.

Looking beyond such immediate humanitarian crises, we are working to mobilise support for the campaign to eradicate poverty worldwide. We have facilitated a fact-finding visit to Kenya by Colin Clinton and Paul Jowitt, President and Vice-President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, to help them develop their excellent Engineers Without Frontiers initiative.

Our work in these areas is possible because of the excellent support we get from our friends in the engineering world. We are proud of our association with a profession which has the power to do so much good for humanity. We look forward to this association continuing and deepening. We also look forward to the profession taking up the challenge to eradicate poverty from our world.

Bobby Lambert
Chief Executive

RedR – Engineers for Disaster Relief www.redr.org

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