An illustration showing a bus full of engineers outside Westminster, London

Comment: engineers can do more to pull their weight in the political arena

Everyone would benefit from engineers taking a more active role in politics.

As engineers, we try to understand and influence government policy, or complain about how poor it is in the engineering arena. But policy is usually based on what politicians perceive as vote winners, or on their personal interests, rather than on evidence. This is not surprising – few politicians have a scientific or engineering training. And many of them go from student political activism to political advisor to politician without having had a 'real' job, or any experience of business or industry. As former IET president Andy Hopper says, there should always be an engineer or technologist in the Cabinet, ensuring wise decisions and a balanced Cabinet.

For example, the UK used to be a world leader in civil nuclear power generation. Surely, if engineers were in charge, the first UK nuclear power station for a generation would be built by a British company rather than a French one with Chinese money.

Mark Henderson's excellent book 'The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters' (Bantam Press, 2012) points out that many public policy issues have science and technology content, and engineering is key to economic growth. But of the UK's 650 MPs, 158 have a business background, 90 were political advisors or organisers, 86 were lawyers, 38 journalists or publishers; only three have science PhDs.

I haven't got a definitive list, but those with relevant degrees are Steve Baker (aerospace, computing), Margaret Beckett (metallurgy), Mark Hendrick (electrical & electronic, computing), George Howarth (unknown), Naomi Long (civil), Angus MacNeil (civil), Khalid Mahmood (unknown), Chi Onwurah (electrical), Alec Shelbrooke (mechanical), Ian Swales (chemical), and Nadim Zahawi (chemical). Others did engineering apprenticeships: Jim Dowd (GPO, Plessey), Jim Hood (mechanical, NCB), and John Robertson (GPO/BT). Only 14 so far. More than three million people in the UK have a science background – 7 per cent of the electorate. So as engineers and scientists we are not pulling our weight politically.

It's different in some countries. Angela Merkel trained as a physical chemist. Most Chinese leaders are scientists or engineers; President Hu Jintao is a hydraulics engineer, Premier Wen Jiabao a geologist. Cultural issues may be involved – engineers have a high social standing in Germany and China. But this may be chicken and egg – engineers might have higher social standing if more were involved in politics.

A more scientific approach to problem solving is applicable to many political issues. As Tim Harford, the Financial Times 'undercover economist', points out, politicians are aghast when it is suggested that we trial policies in areas like education before implementing them widely, because it would be wrong to experiment on our children. But as Harford says, it is wrong not to experiment, if by doing so we get effective policies.

This is related to the evidence-based culture of science and engineering, and the willingness to change if new evidence emerges. Henderson says: "What science admires as intellectual honesty is seen in Westminster as the stuff of the gaffe".

Engineering institutions do a good job encouraging members to take an interest in policies. As well as giving presentations to students they rely on member expertise to provide government with unbiased, evidence-based advice. But their job would be easier if more politicians had a technical background.

Although their charitable status means that financial support of political activities is not allowed, there are steps professional bodies can take: organising debates and seminars with politicians, giving prizes for student essays, and continuing to publicise the importance of engineering to the economy.

I wonder how many engineers would be prepared to go beyond this by contributing to a political fund that could provide members of the profession aspiring to be politicians with financial help?

John Walker is a Fellow of the IET and a member of the IET Council, the Automotive & Road Transport Systems Network and the Berkshire Network.

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