Not enough of the wrong kind of thing?

I spent last Thursday afternoon in Portcullis House where I was speaking as part of a National Science and Engineering Week meeting organised by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on the question - “Do we need more multi-skilled scientists and engineers to manage economic recovery and change?” There were speakers from Imperial College, Science and Technology Facilities Council, National Physical Laboratory, ourselves and the Renewable Energy Association. Each of us had 15 minutes and had all plumped for the same approach – 10 minutes on what we did followed by an attempt to address the question.   

The meeting was opened by Science Minister Lord Drayson, who slightly upstaged the afternoon by answering the question in the affirmative.  He gave examples from his own experience (an engineer who set up a biotechnology company) about effective communications and engagement and outlined the Government's attitude to the underpinning nature of science and engineering in wealth creation. 

John Wood “opened” for Imperial College and Europe (an interesting combination). He made the point that engineering was about getting to solutions to address problems. Often the problems were complex, which meant that the solutions were not simple – and therefore it needed a combination of skills to arrive at a successful implementation of any solutions. QED. Andrew Taylor went next and made the point that the STFC was essentially a way for the UK to get ownership of, or at least access to, world-scale technologies – large telescopes, large lasers, neutron sources and even the occasional large hadron collider. The very scale of these endeavours meant that a whole range of scientists and engineers was necessary and Andrew even went as far as suggesting that STFC facilities would be a good training ground to absorb all the talent coming onto the market at the moment.

After a short break for tea and coffee, we went back in to hear John Pethica give a wonderful exposition of why measurement underpins most activities, not just in science and engineering, but in life itself. Once again, he ended with a suggestion that putting more money into the National Measurement System would be a good investment in the future. I followed with a whistle stop tour of the activities the Technology Strategy Board is funding and tried to make the point that to make these projects come to life requires not just scientists and engineers but also sociologist, economists and designers – to name but a few of the different disciplines I have worked with in my career.  Last up was Philip Wolfe, who focused on the specific challenges of the renewable energies sector. 

As I listened to the other talks I realised that we were all interpreting the question differently.  Those from universities and associations seemed to be assuming that the other skills scientists and engineers needed were complementary and additional scientific and engineering skills. This led them to suggest that their organisations were great opportunities for people to broaden their science and engineering base and that they should be supported to train these people to prepare for the recovery. Those of us who had spent their careers in industry were arguing that the skills scientists and engineers needed were those of communications and teamwork because we need teams of people to address large and complex problems such as climate change, the ageing population, the low carbon economy and so on. When we set up the Technology Strategy Board we deliberately went after “T-shaped people” for that reason. 

For me (and I admit I am partial on this issue) these skills are not easy to learn in a “theoretical” manner and the programmes that we support to address the major challenges facing society are a very effective way to build this capability in the scientific and engineering community – and particularly in the business end of the community. 

Where we all agree is that science and engineering skills are a vital ingredient to the recovery the world needs. I do worry that if we assume they are the only ingredient we will miss the requirement for a balanced team to define, conceive, develop and implement the necessary solutions. I guess it is yet another example of making sure you ask the right question if you are going to do something about the answer. We could end up building a world-class front end without an effective way to make it happen.

 

Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:32

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