In a way, I am quite impressed by the Royal Academy of Engineering. They have managed to speak very clearly in response to some difficult questions from our new political masters. What they have to say, however, is pretty depressing.
Their “central belief” is that the priority for government-funded science and engineering research should be:
rebalancing of the economy away from financial services and towards a high-technology based manufacturing sector
This may make sense. I see real deficiencies in the way the UK trains and treats people of who are technically skilled, compared to some of our competitors (I’m thinking particularly of Germany and France, where I have some direct experience). I have a feeling that we place too much emphasis on marketing and management, as though these have value independent of the things they are marketing or managing. But this is not much more than a gut feeling, and unfortunately the RAEng document doesn’t provide any evidence to bolster my prejudice. A missed opportunity, assuming they have such evidence.
Equally evidence-free, and infinitely more depressing, is the way the RAEng think the government should go about achieving this:
The over-riding consideration for BIS should be the impact of research on the economy in the short to medium term
and the way to do this is to ensure that:
the available Science and Research budget should be targeted where it will have most impact in the foreseeable future
Naively I would have thought that this “foreseeable future” stuff was precisely where private-sector research should take the lead, rather than the public sector, since foreseeable impact presumably means there’s a market. But actually maybe the public sector is better at this than the private sector. Perhaps a command economy is actually the way forward. They’re probably right. Whitehall, and governments in general, are notoriously good at spotting the next transformative technology wave, of course.
Oh, and physics and maths are of course way over-funded. Especially particle physics:
BIS should also consider the productivity of investment by discipline and then sub-discipline. Once the cost of facilities is taken into account it is evident that ‘Physics and Maths’ receive several times more expenditure per research active academic compared to those in ‘Engineering and Technology’. This ratio becomes significantly more extreme if the comparison is made between particle physics researchers and those in engineering and technology. Much of particle physics work is carried out at CERN and other overseas facilities and therefore makes a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines. Additionally, although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation.
I mean, fancy doing stuff overseas! What were we thinking…? And I’m sure the many students we attract into physics will be distressed to hear about the lower contribution to the “intellectual infrastructure” of the UK that comes from working with foreigners!
I am dismayed. I thought engineering and I lived in a sunny symbiosis, but it turns out it always hated me!
I am not saying that science and engineering should always present a united front to government, demanding more money in unison. We should debate priorities, and we should accept that economic impact is important. But this document, with its focus on the short term foreseeable impact utterly misses the point that the long term and unpredictable results of research are often the big wins. It’s a cliche, but if we had followed this recipe for the past centuries we’d now have excellent candles but no light bulbs.
It’s also desperately sad that the RAEng lashes out at its nearest neighbours. The engineering challenges of the LHC are immense. I always wondered why, we (the UK) do so well at driving the physics at CERN, but are weak at exploiting the engineering opportunities. Maybe now I know – looks like the last thing the RAEng would do is use the challenges posed by particle physics as part of their vision.
Anyway, I am not going to start arguing against engineering research. The fraction of GDP we spend on science and engineering is below average, yet brings a huge return. The short term saving obtained by cutting it would have a negligible impact on the deficit. But government funding for research into how nature works, for its own sake, will never be replaced by commercial research. Removing it would close the pipeline of serendipitous breakthroughs and condemn science, engineering and the UK economy to a long-term decline.
I can only hope that the short-sighted attitude of the RAEng is not representative of engineers as a whole. Since I accuse the RAEng document of being evidence-free, here’s some evidence about the benefits of particle physics in particular, and blue-skies research in general.
Hopefully next week I can be writing about some evidence for the Higgs boson instead. Or not :)
To promote and support, by any means, high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related post-graduate training in astronomy, particle physics, space science and nuclear physics
So that’s ok then.