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Engineering profession’s breadth must not be a barrier to influencing policy

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Engineering organisations need to work more closely together to get important messages across to government.

Engineering provides the backbone of the UK’s industry and economy, and greatly benefits people’s everyday lives. The sector generates 23 per cent of the country’s total turnover and accounts for nearly half its exports. Engineers have insights and skills that can help address significant challenges like improving productivity, harnessing disruptive technological change for public good, and upgrading infrastructure, energy and transport systems.

The engineering community has a deep commitment to helping the economy to thrive; by sharing our expertise we can support policy-makers to make informed decisions about the future.

Policy-makers face increasingly complex challenges, often with strong technical elements, at a time when the UK’s relationship with the world is changing. They cannot be experts in all areas and can benefit from external advice to develop sound solutions that can succeed in driving social and economic growth.

Engineers are problem-solvers who are used to addressing complex systems issues, and it is vital that our wealth of experience is fully brought to bear on these national challenges. We have an enormous amount to contribute by collaborating both across our own profession and crucially with those responsible for policy.  

In many ways, the breadth of engineering has made supporting and influencing policy-makers more difficult. We know that the profession can be confusing to navigate, and that we need to collaborate on cross-cutting engineering professional activities if we are to increase our impact. We need to make it easier to access the vast reservoir of knowledge that is spread across a landscape of many engineering organisations.

Working together as a profession is not a new idea, and a unified voice for engineering has real impact, as previous collaborations have shown. The engineering profession came together to produce a unified response to Brexit and to the Industrial Strategy green paper. More recently a pan-profession report, ‘Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins review revisited’, has been well received by government and has opened up a series of new conversations.

Over the last year the Royal Academy of Engineering has been in detailed discussions with partners across the engineering profession as to how best to work together for the common good. We are hugely encouraged by their support and assistance, which has resulted in the formation of the National Engineering Policy Centre, an ambitious partnership, led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, between 38 different engineering organisations. The IET has been a strong partner from the start, playing a full and influential role, and I am very grateful for its support.

The National Engineering Policy Centre held its inaugural reception in January, bringing together engineers and some of the UK’s most senior policy-makers. It is a big step forward for the engineering profession, and will allow partners to work together on issues that affect, or should be informed by, the whole profession, while respecting the distinct capability and independence of each contributing institution. It will provide excellent evidence-based policy guidance, informed by unparalleled industry, academia and practitioner insights and expertise. It will also build relationships between policy-makers and engineers, growing mutual awareness and enabling policy advice to respond to the needs of both.

I strongly believe that by working together we can deliver more impactful and agile advice and expertise on the issues that matter. Policy-makers will have easy access to engineering expertise and see the centre as a trusted and responsive partner in informing evidence-based policy for the public good. There are benefits for the profession too, with a new route into government to inform and have greater influence on critical issues of social and economic importance.

Topic groups are already enabling joint work across the profession on key areas for the industrial strategy, including energy, digital and data, and healthcare and biomedical engineering, all with IET involvement. This year the centre will also produce work on the safety and ethics of autonomous systems. This will highlight barriers and solutions to wider adoption of autonomous systems, including public trust – a key element if we are to realise the wider benefits of innovations such as drones for deliveries, maintenance and inspection.

Breadth doesn’t have to be a barrier. Thirty-eight organisations working together is an ambitious vision, but I have been struck by how positive and supportive the engineering community has been about the formation of the centre. Our aim is that it will help deliver economic growth and better social outcomes in the UK by enabling engineering expertise to be applied where it is most needed. However, none of this can be done without the support of engineers, and I look forward to working together with them to make real progress.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering

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