'Political Twist'


Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

The visits by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the UK and South Africa this winter were a masterclass in the blending of engineering and politics. Behind the razzmatazz – in both countries and indeed others he has visited recently – was a carefully constructed pitch for French engineering to deliver a new generation of coal-fired and nuclear power plants. As an added incentive to us in Britain, the President offered to send 1,000 French soldiers to Afghanistan. In South Africa, Sarkozy offered to send French engineers to deal with the country’s electricity black outs.

Would our Government offer to send British engineers to assist our international relations? Probably not, though I am sure the Academy would welcome such an approach. Our profession is sadly distant from the heart of government, even if our industry retains the ear of senior politicians. There are very few politicians in the UK with an engineering background, and certainly none in the cabinet.

By contrast, even though the French cabinet has no engineers likewise, the French do have a long tradition of politicians and senior civil servants who have been through an engineering education – a tradition that dates back to Napoleon. Clearly that understanding of the value that engineering offers to their government continues today.

The most common background by university degree of ministers in the current cabinets of France, the UK and Japan is law, with politics and economics (or a variant) close behind. In the US, the top first degree courses for Secretaries of State are ‘business administration’ and ‘political science’, with law in third place. However, the US administration does include a distinguished chemical engineer, Samuel W Bodman, as Secretary of State for Energy. In Japan, the Minister of State for Disaster Management and Food Safety, also responsible for the National Public Safety Commission, read civil engineering. Out of a total number of nearly 70 cabinet ministers in these four countries, there are two engineers.

In stark contrast, seven out of nine members of the present Chinese Politburo were trained as engineers, which for me gives a whole new perspective to the expression ‘Made in China’.

What is it about engineers in so-called ‘developed’ countries that keep them out of politics? Governments around the world are major clients for the engineering sector, either directly or through their sponsorship of major projects, regeneration and industry transformation. It would seem an attractive option for engineers to be at the centre of national strategic decision making on matters that affect the entire profession.

A recent article in the EE Times (part of the electronic engineering trade press) suggested that the “Engineering mindset doesn’t include politics”. I agree. Engineers are more interested in getting on with the technical detail, working it out with their own sort, rather than having to argue their case with other professions. To an engineer, it’s so obvious why something needs to be done that they often won’t see why they need to communicate with those who may not agree, or understand. To the engineering profession, non-believers inhabit a minefield best avoided.

No wonder we struggle to get our message across. The UK government stands on the brink of major decisions that should only be made with the benefit of the full engineering perspective. To pick one recent example, what is the engineering ‘truth’ behind the debate on biofuels? Yet they are not engaging with us, because they don’t know us. The gulf between our government and the engineering profession will not be bridged by politicians, but by individual engineers recognising that they have a duty to society and that this task requires their active engagement. ‘Moving the profession to the centre of society’ is an Academy ambition that I strongly support, but for many in the profession, it will not be a comfortable journey.

Building channels of communication, strengthening our roles in public affairs and policy, finding our voice – the voice of the profession – is clearly an imperative. It may be that in the UK we conclude that there is no advantage in having engineers as ministers, but it is surely essential that government at all levels understands the engineering implications of every decision it takes. In the overheated cauldron that, these days, passes for public debate we will stand or fall by the strength of our advocacy.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng


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