Policymaking ‘requires engineering advisers’

Government told to appoint engineering experts, writes Zoë Corbyn

March 27, 2009

The Government should appoint a Chief Engineer as well as a Chief Social Scientist and Chief Scientist, MPs have recommended, after warning that ministers are failing to listen to expert advice when making and delivering policy.

The House of Commons’ Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Select Committee this week published its findings from a year-long inquiry into engineering.

The report, Engineering: Turning Ideas into Reality, highlights the value and strength of the UK’s engineering base, but attacks the Government for failing to seek engineering advice.

“We were shocked to discover that engineering advice had been lacking in the formulation of policies as important and diverse as eco-towns, renewable energy and large IT projects,” says the report.

To rectify the situation it suggests an overhaul of the system the Government uses to get scientific advice.

It proposes that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser should be renamed the Government Chief Scientific and Engineering Adviser (GCSEA) and that below this should sit a Government Chief Engineer, a Government Chief Scientist and a Government Chief Social Scientist.

Additionally, individual departments should have departmental engineering advisers, scientific advisers or both.

It also reiterates its longstanding recommendation that the current Government Office for Science (GOScience) be placed within the Cabinet Office.

“The Government has argued on several occasions that ‘science’ includes engineering, and therefore there is no need for a Chief Engineer. But it also argues that ‘science’ includes social science and statistics, yet there is a Chief Social Scientist and a National Statistician. The Government’s position is illogical,” concludes the IUSS committee.

Chairman of the committee Phil Willis told Times Higher Education that the Government needed to “completely review” how it valued and used engineering advice.

“The fact that engineers seem to be ignored on major areas, for example the environment agenda, is something we really feel the Government has got to address,” he said. “Engineers are not scientists and scientists are not engineers… you cannot look at engineering just simply as a side activity.”

He also called for more engineers within the Civil Service and said more needs to be done to encourage students to study the subject, particularly women.

“We cannot meet the demands that the Government is placing in terms of new nuclear build, nuclear decommissioning and the other major construction projects unless we are prepared to seriously grow the graduate engineering pool – and that means bringing women in.”

The report’s findings were welcomed in a joint response from 30 engineering bodies. Lord Browne, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said several key policies “fundamental to the long-term national wellbeing” had 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,” he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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