If you ask me
The global crisis predicted by the UK's chief scientific advisor is only 20 years away; what can be done between now and then? Also, 'your country needs you'; is there really a need to warn young recruits of companies with military connections?
Don't just sit there
The UK's chief scientific advisor, Professor John Beddington, has predicted that a global crisis will strike by 2030 as a result of a perfect storm of shortages in food, energy and water. If we do, in fact, make it all the way to 2030 without facing a global crisis, that still only gives us 20 years. That means that today's engineering graduates will be mid-career professionals by the time a crisis takes hold. And things are already hotting up. So what it really means is that we need to respond now. Right now.
There's a huge nexus of issues to consider here. Poverty. Climate change. Sustainability. Inequality. More people. Fewer animals. Less biodiversity. Less oil. Less credit. But let's just focus on engineering.
Why are we consuming resources so unsustainably - why are we consuming unsustainable resources at all? Why is economic growth given priority when basic needs are not being met for the majority of the world's population - that is, why are we focusing on, say, making fast microchips faster and not on whether the one billion people living in slums have clean water?
Why are we still educating engineers with a carbon-intensive diet of steel and silicon, of concrete and combustion - a diet of toxic substances? Why are we using technology to hammer nature into shape rather than complementing its own infrastructure - like allowing rain to replenish aquifers rather than diverting it into sewers and flushing it into rivers? Why are political leaders not able to hear the voice of engineers while the debate is being led by economists and scientists?
What's needed is a new generation of engineers. And we need a new generation of engineering academics to train them. And a new generation of engineering companies to employ them. And a new generation of engineers in government and non-governmental organisations. Every new bridge, every new road, every new microprocessor, every new car, every new building, every new pump, every new phone and every new ski slope in Dubai - everything an engineer does - should be seen as a failure unless it is responding to the challenges of the future. Harsh? Yes. But nowhere near as harsh as the future the world is inheriting if we don't act. Right now.
And we need to act now not only for our own sake but to set an example to countries where people are striving to live like us: we need to show that the path of development that we have taken in the UK is the root of many of the global problems we are now facing. The route we have taken has been resource intensive, energy intensive, water intensive and carbon intensive. We have used technology for labour-saving (reducing employment) and we now focus on services, with the effect that, for many, self respect is defined not by what they create but by what they consume.
I'm proud to be part of Engineers Without Borders UK, an international development organisation which is trying to build a new generation of engineers. We're growing fast, but time is against us. We need a wider movement in our profession. So don't just sit there reading this. You have a world to save and you're an engineer and have the skills to do it.
Andrew Lamb is CEO of Engineers Without Borders UK
Not in front of the children
War, Edwin Starr assured us in his eponymous 1970 hit for Motown, is good for absolutely nothing. There are plenty of examples of benign technological innovations derived from defence-related research you could debate, but what about the opportunities it gives young people to embark on a career in engineering?
In these cash-strapped times, it should be good news that a company is pumping money into a £1m initiative that aims to entice young people into engineering. For most firms there wouldn't be a problem, but the fact that it's BAE Systems which is going into partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering has prompted complaints from some in the profession.
Part of BAE's funding went into organising The Big Bang, a science and engineering event in central London last month where the IET was among hundreds of organisations running displays and activities showcasing what the sector is about and how it's part of our everyday lives.
As a lead sponsor the company got a high profile, and it's frank about why it thinks the money is well spent. It admits to being concerned that unless more is done in this area, it may struggle to find the hundreds of recruits it needs every year to fill places on work experience schemes, apprenticeships and graduate training programmes.
The people who aren't happy about this include Scientists for Global Responsibility, a campaigning group that claims to represent a thousand members working in areas including engineering and IT.
Along with partner group Campaign Against Arms Trade, SGR issued a press release likening BAE's involvement in a schools science festival to "allowing Darth Vader to demonstrate his light sabre at a children's party". Pointing out that the company makes money by selling weapons, it claimed that this is a market no company can participate in ethically and called for the company to be excluded from future events.
With names like Lockheed Martin, the Ministry of Defence and Thales also sponsoring, BAE may have attracted most of the flack as its logo was bigger than anyone else's. That highlights how difficult it is to badge some employers as ethically friendly and others not. Rolls-Royce, a major sponsor of The Big Bang, will be looking for customers at the massive Defence Systems & Equipment International trade show in London later in the year. Does that make it part of the "arms trade"?
Perhaps the simplest solution is just to credit children with some intelligence. Hardly a week seems to go by without another report claiming that UK science and engineering qualifications are being dumbed down to attract candidates. At the same time, though, students are probably better informed about career options than ever before, and are well aware of the ethical implications of their decisions.
Anyone applying for an apprenticeship with a company like BAE Systems will have a good idea of what they're getting into. Shouldn't we just let them get on with it?