Dr Scott Steedman FREng
“For too long the focus has only been on solving yesterday’s problems with today’s technology... Solving tomorrow’s problems with tomorrow’s technologies could be the catchphrase.”
At a meeting of leading scientific and engineering companies in Belgium, held last month to celebrate 40 years of collaboration in research and development, there was a palpable sense of achievement and anticipation for a new era of industry transformation. The meeting was attended by the Crown Prince, who spent an afternoon listening to the progress and future plans of the research directors. They covered a wide range of industrial sectors, from food to nano-electronics to construction, and yet as the presentations proceeded there was a growing sense of common purpose: a milestone had been reached and a new chapter was opening up.
Alec Broers also discussed the potential for a new, rapid advancement in the contribution of science and technology to society in his recent Reith Lectures for the BBC. He called this ‘the triumph of technology’, arguing that from the largest structures to the smallest particles technologists had the power – and with it the responsibility – to use their knowledge to shape people’s lives for the better.
The new phase of technological development, which was so evident in the Belgian celebrations, is heralded by the convergence of nano-technologies with bio-sciences, bringing with it an explosion of opportunity and challenge in industrial research. For some years we have been encouraged by talk of multi- or interdisciplinary teams being the way forward, but as we all enter a new phase of innovation in engineering where materials, machines and structures can be designed and constructed at a molecular level, the potential for the ‘dissolution’ of barriers between the traditional disciplines of science and engineering finally becomes a reality.
You could argue that this artificial distinction between the natural sciences and the so-called ‘mechanical sciences’, which emerged during the latter half of the 19th century, came about through force of circumstance. Industry and science had different aims. Industry, using its engineers, built things and made money. Scientists discovered the ‘truth’. But in practice the divisions ran deeper: a major public row had broken out within polite society, concerning science and civilisation.
The arguments have raged backwards and forwards ever since. During the debate surrounding the Reith Lectures of 2000 on the subject of ‘Respect for the Earth’ this issue of the role of science in respect of ‘culture’ dominated the media coverage. Our own Prince of Wales was one of the lecturers. The business viewpoint, given by John (now Lord) Browne of BP, was that sustainable development required ‘constructive engagement from us all’.
Five years on, and the triumph of technology is beginning to reveal its hand. The rapid convergence of research skills and experience amongst the historically divided disciplines of science and engineering, used wisely, can only bring benefit for industry and society. For too long the focus has only been on solving yesterday’s problems with today’s technology. The Royal Academy of Engineering is ideally placed to push an interdisciplinary technological agenda forward in the national interest. Solving tomorrow’s problems with tomorrow’s technologies could be the catchphrase.
Dr Scott Steedman FREng FICE