Article - Issue 41, December 2009

Building Britain's Economic Strengths

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Rt Hon Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills © Charles Glover

Rt Hon Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills © Charles Glover

Lord Mandelson, the Business, Innovation, and Skills Secretary, gave the 2009 Hinton Lecture, the Academy’s flagship lecture, on 19 October. Entitled Future Foundations – Building Britain’s economic strengths, Lord Mandelson’s lecture addressed the role of Government in fostering a technology economy by supporting innovation and developing engineering skills.

The nation needs “less financial engineering and more real engineering” if it is to address the massive-scale challenges of managing our environmental impact on the planet, Lord Mandelson told his audience of 300 of the UK’s top engineers.

In his view, the next generation of British engineers could be the most important ever as they would need to tackle the global problem of climate change and engineer a transition to a low-carbon economy. He described “a huge economic imperative and commercial opportunity with a set of technological and engineering problems that literally require us to change the way we live within a generation.”

UK manufacturing and engineering had gone through a fundamental restructuring over the last 50 years and now focused on high value added production, often in specialist markets. “British manufacturing is now more likely to be in a sleek aluminium barn in a business park than with a factory gate and a smokestack,” he pointed out. Although manufacturing and engineering employed fewer people and now created a smaller share of the nation’s wealth, they remained our biggest export earner and the nation must invest in these sectors and in the skills to help them grow.

Lord Mandelson outlined Government support for innovation, including the new Research Excellence Framework for recognising the economic and social impact of research, as well as extra funding for bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board and a new Strategic Investment Fund to help attract capital to new companies and ideas.

He gave the audience advance notice that the Government is to announce new frameworks for adult skills and higher education policy. These new structures would be intended to provide clear incentives for universities and colleges to work closely with industry to fill skills gaps. “Building collaborative relationships with universities and further education colleges is by far the best way to ensure that they are responding to industry needs as they evolve over time,” he said.

Arguing the need to tap the resource of the UK’s research base to drive innovation and development, Lord Mandelson pledged more investment in UK engineering and advanced manufacturing. This, he said, was not to be a move back to national ownership or a return to Government “artificially propping up unviable industries” but would be a disciplined and realistic use of public investment, managed by independent technology experts. “The Government isn’t picking winners. It is making sure potential winners don’t lose because the support they need isn’t there,” he said.

Lord Browne of Madingley, President of the Academy, chaired a question and answer session after the lecture. A number of engineers including former Academy President Lord Broers and the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, John Armitt, asked questions on subjects including the future of the engineering profession, planning large infrastructure projects and the importance of design in engineering.

Thanking Lord Mandelson for his stimulating lecture, Lord Browne pointed out that the engineering profession had recently combined its efforts to register a strong shared engineering vision with policy makers and politicians. “The global downturn has focused attention on the need to rebalance and diversify our economy. We need to refocus on our comparative advantages, including creating world-leading, technology based products and services. It is engineers – as innovators, problem-solvers and entrepreneurs – who will help deliver this future.”

A video of the Hinton Lecture 2009 is available at www.raeng.tv and a transcript of the speech can be found at http://tiny.cc/nNcZN

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