Wake up to the future

April 8, 2005

Only by training creative engineers will the UK rejoin the global race for innovation, says Alec Broers.

Growing frustration with the way technology is misunderstood and often undervalued meant it was easy to choose a topic when the BBC invited me to be its 2005 Reith lecturer.

Technology is determining the future of humankind. Whatever our needs - health, energy, food, shelter - it is only through technological innovation that we can confront the challenges we face.

I believe we witnessed a second industrial revolution in the Nineties, brought about by the enormous strides in communication and transport. As a result, today's innovation depends on creative engineers working in teams across social, geographical and academic boundaries. The teams must apply cutting-edge science, mixing it with an acute appreciation of the needs of society, to develop effective solutions. Product development has become even more critical, and applied science rivals pure science in both importance and intellectual interest.

How do universities fit into this scenario? The simple answer is that they should focus on fundamental research, be effective at technology transfer and apply the full panoply of their institution's abilities and resources.

Universities have major advantages: they permit their researchers to work towards long-term goals and they have breadth across disciplines. They are part of an international community that can continuously refresh the knowledge base.

Given these strengths, it is interesting to see how well our universities are doing. The Royal Academy of Engineering recently published a joint review with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The international review makes important reading. Although the panel - consisting of 26 eminent international researchers led by Tom Everhart, president emeritus of the California Institute of Technology - was impressed by much of the conventional research it observed, it had expected to see far more at the cutting edge than was the case.

Added to this, the panel came across "less interaction among researchers from one discipline with colleagues in other disciplines, less interaction between research engineers and scientists, and less strategic planning than occurs in some other countries represented on the panel".

Perhaps most seriously, the panel concluded that while some researchers were aware of the impact their work might have beyond university boundaries, they found "more that did not, and some researchers were not well informed or motivated to produce external impact".

The UK must address these critical observations urgently if it is to maintain a university base that can feed the business-led innovation process.

This is a process that thrives when universities are in the frontier of knowledge, exploiting new developments. But when universities remain in their comfort zone, complacency sets in; the "ivory towers syndrome" takes root and, as a result, progress is crippled by institutional smugness.

Britain depends on the highest quality university system to drive forward the process of innovation. Our technologists are trained in the very universities that many of them go on to teach in while others go on to deliver excellent fundamental research - the feedstock for innovation.

The strongest, most creative and most exciting universities are led by people who work tirelessly to facilitate innovation. They lead the fight against complacency. They provide global awareness. They enable effective collaborations with industry, other universities and governments. And, perhaps above all else, they create space for the innovators. From stripping out bureaucracy to simplifying administrative procedures, today's top university leaders strive for a "system" that helps rather than hinders.

Throughout my Reith Lectures I argue that technologists are determining the future of the human race. We must give them the credit they deserve. We must create an innovation system in which every player - teacher, student, industrialist or university - knows and understands exactly how they can contribute best.

And we must create a society that is technologically literate and at ease with technological advance. If we do not understand technology, we will not be able to control it intelligently. If nothing else, I hope that the lectures will be a wake up call to society that we face serious consequences if we do not join the race to advance technology.JThey've grasped this in India and China. Why can't we?

Lord Broers is president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. He was vice-chancellor of Cambridge University from 1996 to 2003.

The Reith Lectures will be broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 4 from Wednesday April 6 at 8pm and repeated on Saturdays at 10.15pm.

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