Article - Issue 37, December 2008

Engineering in government

Professor John Beddington FRS

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Professor John Beddington FRS.

Professor John Beddington FRS.

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) is responsible for advising the Prime Minister and Government on key science, engineering and technology issues affecting policy and delivery challenges. After nearly a year in the post, Professor John Beddington outlines the major challenges faced by his office.

Since beginning my tenure as GCSA in January 2008, I have been asked to advise on a vast array of issues, from agriculture to nanotechnology, and I have been truly impressed by the sheer range of disciplines and depth of expertise I have found amongst the engineers and scientists within Government.

Working across such a wide portfolio offers me a unique insight into the opportunities and challenges for the profession. I am adamant that science and engineering are fundamental in helping us to respond to some of the world’s major questions and offer resolutions to the issues faced by the UK, and the wider global community. In particular, I think it is important that we move the debate on climate change forward and start to look in more depth at sustainable energy and food security.

We need to both produce and use energy more sustainably in future, to deliver the drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions required to mitigate climate change. The Government has made clear its view that nuclear has a role to play, and engineers would be at the heart of any new build programme, as well as in decommissioning and implementing waste solutions. Renewable energy too will be key, from sources such as the sun, the sea and the air, as well as cleaner fossil fuel use – most critically perhaps carbon capture and storage. In all cases, engineers will be vital to bringing technologies to market, delivering energy solutions for the 21st century that are not just sustainable but also technically robust, economic and deployable at scale, and that enhance UK energy security in an uncertain world.

It is through the collaboration of science, engineering and business, with strong support from Government where needed, that these solutions will be brought forward.

The Energy Technologies Institute is an excellent example of this collaboration happening, and I am delighted to be able to sit on the Board and influence its strategic direction. Jointly funded by Government but commercially oriented, the Institute will identify the most promising low carbon technologies from research and accelerate these towards market readiness.

Perhaps less hi-tech, but no less important, engineering can also address some of the challenges of increasing food production to sustain the ever increasing global population. We have already seen
the success of large mechanised farms in Brazil, where production has doubled in 15 years despite only modest increases in land use. I would highlight two key areas: first, the need for more efficient and cheaper irrigation technologies as water resources become scarcer and rainfall more unpredictable due to the impacts of climate change. Second, storage solutions to reduce the devastating yet avoidable post-harvest losses of crops due to pests and disease, that have been estimated at up to 40% in some developing countries.

Energy and Food Security are two of
my priority areas. There are of course a number of other global issues, particularly counter terrorism and infectious diseases, as well as those concerns related to the profession itself.

It is evident that engineering is essential to delivering success in these fields for not only do engineers bring with them specialist expertise, in both policy formulation and delivery, but valuable problem solving skills, the ability to produce practical solutions to problems and drive delivery through highly skilled project management.

However, as you will appreciate, many, if not all, of the big challenges faced by Government will demand creative, flexible, multidisciplinary multi-agency approaches to tackle them effectively. Engineering disciplines and engineering approaches will clearly continue to have a crucial contribution to make. Moreover, in determining the best way forward, I believe it is probably most helpful not to consider science and engineering in traditional terms – as separate disciplines with discrete boundaries – but rather as a continuum of knowledge that can be used and applied with other relevant evidence to address future challenges.

A collaborative approach is also essential to taking this work forward within Government, and I have a proactive network of Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs), many of whom are engineers themselves, who help address these cross-cutting issues. One of my new initiatives is the creation of strategic subgroups for the CSAs to discuss the priority issues, such as climate change and food security, in greater depth. Equally important is the Government’s relationship with the professional institutions. A critical part of my role is ensuring that we have a positive and robust working relationship with the external professional communities. I wholeheartedly welcome the approach that The Royal Academy of Engineering and the wider engineering community is taking to develop the role and accessibility of engineering advice for Government departments. I am keen to ensure that we maintain and develop this partnership further.

As you can see, the scale of the task ahead is considerable, but we are moving in the right direction. We are seeking innovative and practical solutions to the world’s problems; this calls for different approaches both in and outside Government. For example, last year the Ministry of Defence (MOD) launched their ‘Grand Challenge’ science and technology competition, which provided an opening into the UK defence market for new suppliers and investors. One year on, after an exciting grand finale, the winner was announced and the most effective technologies and ideas are now being considered for further development as part of the MOD’s research programme. This new approach to business created an opportunity to harness the talent of scientists and engineers and highlighted
the wealth of knowledge and expertise in the UK.

The world is changing rapidly, not just in terms of engineering, science and technology, but socially and demographically as well. This creates a wide range of challenges and opportunities for all of us. Our professions are uniquely placed to offer insight, challenge and pragmatic solutions to many of these issues. As the people best placed to represent engineers, and scientists, it is up to us to spread the word and demonstrate how truly innovative and exciting our professions can be.

BIOGRAPHY – Professor John Beddington FRS

Professor John Beddington is the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA). As well as being responsible for providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister and Cabinet, he has been actively promoting the need to provide science and engineering solutions to deal with key global issues. Prior to his appointment as the GCSA, he was a Director of the T H Huxley School of Environment, Earth Sciences and Engineering at Imperial College, London.

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