For and Against: Government and engineering


This house believes that politicians pay enough attention to research from the SET sector
Nigel Platt

Sales and marketing manager

Nigel Platt

Nigel Platt is responsible for developing and driving the UK and Ireland sales and marketing strategy. He joined ABB in 1990 as account manager for the South East Region. Nigel holds an HNC in Mechanical and Production Engineering from De Havilland College, Herts and is a member of the British Automation and Robotics Association Council.


This house doesn’t believe that politicians pay enough attention to research
Richard Northcote

Head of strategic communications and public affairs

Richard Northcote

He is a former editor of The Engineer magazine and has spent over 20 years working in communications.

He has edited and published a variety of industry publications and worked in many parts of the world, most particularly in the Asia region.

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As someone arguing for this motion, it might seem strange that I start by saying that I disagree with it, at least when it comes to the understanding of science, engineering and technology among politicians. Given the technological age in which we live, the representation of scientists, engineers and those of a technical inclination in Parliament is startlingly low. In particular, there is much work that needs to be done in building political understanding not just of what the SET sector does, but also what it actually is.

This is not to say that the situation is hopeless. If there has been a silver lining to the cloud that has been the economic turmoil of the past two years, it has been the realisation in political circles of the importance of SET to the UK’s economic future.

For the troubled UK economy, the manufacturing sector in particular has proven to be the metaphorical ‘penny down the back of the sofa’, propping up the most recent sets of GDP figures.

The current UK government has been quick to lock on to the recent performance of the manufacturing sector as the country’s potential lifeline. This government has moved away from the dream of a post-industrial era and is now striving towards a high-tech economy built on the UK’s history of invention and industry.

Despite a shaky start with freezing the UK science budget, the government has made many of the right noises in encouraging a more balanced economy where science, engineering and technology have a role to play.

The government is to inject £50m over three years into the Manufacturing Advisory Service to help build on its activities in making SMEs more productive and competitive. This is in addition to £600,000 for a two-year programme by the British Automation and Robotics Association and the Engineering and Machinery Alliance to help companies increase their productivity by introducing automated and robotic technology.

The creation of the government’s Plan for Growth is also recognition of the fact that the best performing economies are those that set national strategic priorities for growth. Covering everything from tax simplification to advanced manufacturing and education, the document is at least a signal of intent by government to do what is necessary to support the cause of SET in achieving national growth.

But with so few politicians with an SET background, government cannot be expected to act alone. Whether you’re a scientist or an engineer, the UK’s future as a leading industrial nation affects us all.

Part of the reason why the SET sector has struggled to find its place has been because we’ve failed to effectively communicate the importance of what we do, not only to politicians, but also to society as a whole.

Having frequented a number of debates and events over the past few years, I’ve been amazed by the proliferation of institutions, trade organisations and professional bodies, all of which essentially bang the same drum.

What we have now is a golden opportunity to promote the value of science, engineering and technology and its value to the UK, not just as a short-term fix to our current economic problems but for the longer term too.

The challenge for us is to ensure we play our role in promoting the certainty of the UK’s scientific, engineering and technological future. Creating this certainty is central to everything, from attracting investment through to ensuring that young people regard our sector as a career prospect.

Our best chance lies in acting collectively and representing our collective interest in the best way possible. One idea might be to have an internally elected committee of representatives from within the academic and commercial SET communities advising on policy issues.

The message is clear – we cannot rely on government alone to make sure that the value of what we do forms a key part of the UK’s economic future.

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Politicians are fixated on finding votes, and the next election is top of their mind. If they can be seen to be doing the right thing by their voters, then they don’t want scientists getting in the way with their latest theories or toys. Few politicians even bother to claim they are there to do good for society.I’m not being overly cynical. The toyboxes of companies like mine are brimming with wonderful stuff and great ideas. But there are too many stories of inaction from political powerbases that make you despair.

We live in a dynamic world that has many challenges. Global shifts such as population growth, climate change and energy shortages are driving our search for sustainable solutions. My company aims to play a prominent part in tackling the effects of megatrends such as increasing urbanisation, but we need political backing.

How many times have we heard “What we need is more innovation” from politicians? While there is truth in this call, it is tinted with irony. Innovation by itself is worthless; it is only valuable if adopted by society.

Industry cannot solve the problems on its own, but we do have sustainable solutions in the form of innovative products, processes and applications. Are politicians listening to companies such as mine? I can assure that not enough heed is being paid to what has been achieved, for so little has been implemented in Europe. China is another matter, as new technologies are being sucked up as this economic power house leads the world in the ‘green revolution’.

Climate change is a good example. Governments in Europe are well intentioned in tackling the effects of climate change, but what they have done so far generally defies logic when it comes to cost efficiency.

In Germany in 2009, for example, the government spent €5.8bn on projects to avoid carbon dioxide emissions by about one million tonnes. This means that for every ton of reduction, the emission cost was about €12,000-13,000.

At Bayer MaterialScience we spend about €30 per tonne of carbon dioxide reduction. For the amount of money that the German government is willing to spend, more could be achieved. Have we spoken up about this? Yes. Do the politicians hear? Perhaps, but they do not listen or have the political will to smooth the way for implementation.

We also have a new technology for chlorine production, an energy intensive process which promises a potential 30 per cent reduction in electricity use and carbon dioxide emissions related to chlorine production. If Germany decided to expand this technology, it would be spending one-tenth of the amount it spent in 2009 – about €1.8bn – to achieve a reduction of three million tonnes a year.

Our material solutions have the potential to bring about a major improvement in the energy efficiency of every sector of the economy. Until there is overarching action and policy frameworks from governments, most of the progress in energy efficiency and the fight against climate change in Europe is still waiting to happen.

We desperately need action like we have seen in the US, where the thinking has changed from “wait till the government sorts this out with all-encompassing legislation” to “how can public and private sectors get on with things and start working together”. President Obama has unveiled a plan to dramatically improve the energy efficiency of America’s businesses over the next decade, where the private and public sectors are brought together to make things happen. Why can’t we in Europe learn from this cooperation?

What is frustrating is that we have so much to offer that is already in existence. The political will needed for policy frameworks to get wide application is simply not there.

Research goes on for new materials and processes, but in the meantime it is not unusual for politicians to continue their call for more innovation and for scientists to save the world.


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This house believes that politicians pay sufficient attention to SET research

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