The UK engineering profession welcomes today’s report Engineering: turning ideas into reality by the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee. The Committee’s year-long inquiry has highlighted the importance of engineering to a resilient economy just as there is widespread recognition that engineering innovation will be the key to lifting the country out of recession.

We are very pleased that the committee appreciates the important distinctions between science and engineering. As the title of the report suggests, engineering is about moving from theories to tackling problems in reality. Climate change, generating sufficient sustainable energy, providing security and maintaining food and water supplies are just some of the major challenges that only engineering can address.

Lord Browne of Madingley, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says: “We welcome this important report. Engineering delivers practical results. It creates opportunities, jobs and wealth. In these tough times, it is essential that the Government’s choices are underpinned by sound engineering advice. The report endorses our belief that if you want to change the world, you should be an engineer.”

We welcome the Committee’s bold recommendations for revolutionising the structures for providing technical advice. While we value the role of the current Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Departmental Chief Scientific Advisers, we agree that the importance of engineering means that there is also a need for specialist engineering advice. Government must recognise the difference between scientific and engineering advice and ensure that policy at all levels is appropriately informed by engineering expertise, improving deliverability and de-risking implementation. Several key policies fundamental to the long-term national well-being have suffered as a result of a failure to engage with engineering advice at the outset. The system proposed by the committee really does reflect the importance of specialised engineering advice from practising professional engineers.

As the committee acknowledges, the structure of the engineering profession may be complex but so are the challenges faced by engineers and the institutions have evolved to accommodate a very wide variety of specialist disciplines to tackle real world problems. Sensitive to concerns about the complexity of the profession, the institutions, the Engineering and Technology Board, Engineering Council UK and the Royal Academy of Engineering have developed a much more accessible route for policymakers into engineering policy advice and have collaborated on a number of activities in engineering education, such as the recent Big Bang fair.

The Committee’s recommendations on nurturing and professionalising engineering expertise in the civil service are also welcome. Government needs this resource in order to be an “intelligent customer” for engineering advice – lack of engineering knowledge can lead to financially and politically costly errors. Large IT systems are a case in point where Government procurement continues to experience both bad press and implementation problems.

Engineering is fundamental to innovation and wealth creation in many sectors, but its role is not always fully appreciated. Google, one of the most successful recent innovations, is based on engineering methods – from using algorithms to create a search function to successfully scaling up the process through a network of computers. Government can help to promote innovation in engineering through its procurement processes, by showing willingness to invest in new areas of technology.

The Committee is right to highlight some of the most exciting new opportunities in the field, such as plastic electronics. There is a potential for a high-value industry in the UK and the lead we currently have in research should not be lost. We must ensure that there is funding to support university spin-outs from research through development to demonstration. We could potentially manufacture plastic electronics in the UK, but unless we have the strategic investment of countries like Germany which work hard to foster the industry, this potential will be lost. A lack of incentives from the Regional Development Agencies to build manufacturing facilities here could also lead to more of our high value industries moving out of the UK. The committee is right to highlight the potential of this industry, especially as we look to ways of supporting new industry post-recession.

We agree with the committee that the need for low carbon electricity means that skilled engineers will be required to design, build and run a new generation of power plants, and we welcome their understanding that this skills need must be tackled in the context of a general need for engineers throughout the nuclear sector and beyond. The UK has a number of major engineering projects to tackle and the supply of engineers across the board must be considered. We agree that the Office of Nuclear Development has an important role in getting this overview and developing a clear picture of where we are and where we need to be. The Royal Academy of Engineering has already worked with the OND and a wide range of stakeholders to help capture this broad view of the nuclear skills landscape.

Attracting the best students into all areas of the profession is critical at all skill levels, from Engineering Technicians through to Chartered Engineers and we welcome the Committee’s recommendation that the profession should work with the Government to improve public appreciation of the standing, excitement and opportunity of a career in modern engineering. Schemes such as the London Engineering Project – soon to become part of a nationwide STEM programme – are targeting particularly young women and people from black and ethnic minorities. Only 5.4 per cent of professional engineers are female, leaving a large pool of potential talent untapped. The London Engineering Project, which has been running since 2005 in around 50 schools in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, in partnership with London South Bank University, has shown what can be achieved - 54 per cent of participants are female and 70 per cent black or ethnic minorities.

Notes for editors

  1. These comments are issued jointly by the following signatories from across the engineering community:

    The British Computer Society
    The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers
    The Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering
    The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management
    The Energy Institute
    The Engineering and Technology Board
    Engineering Council UK
    The Institute of Cast Metal Engineers
    The Institute of Marine Engineering Science and Technology
    The Institute of Motor Industry
    The Institution of Agricultural Engineers
    The Institution of Chemical Engineers
    The Institution of Civil Engineers
    The Institution of Engineering Designers
    The Institution of Engineering and Technology
    The Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers
    The Institution of Highways and Transportation
    The Institution of Lighting Engineers
    The Institution of Mechanical Engineers
    The Institution of Railway Signal Engineers
    The Institution of Royal Engineers
    The Institution of Structural Engineers
    The Institution of Water Officers
    The Nuclear Institute
    The Royal Academy of Engineering
    The Royal Aeronautical Society
    The Royal Institution of Naval Architects
    The Society of Environmental Engineers
    The Society of Operations Engineers
    The Welding Institute
  2. The House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee report Engineering: turning ideas into reality is published today.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636