Why communication is a critical tool for any engineer

People rarely choose engineering because of their communication skills, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a vital part of the tool box. Professor Lucy Rogers explains.
Image by Anete Lusina, Pexels.com

Do you remember what made you choose your career? For me, I liked maths and physics, logic and problem-solving. Engineering was an obvious choice.

To me, a spade was a spade. I wasn’t very good at picking up on the social skills that seemed to come naturally to many. I wanted to know how machines worked, not how people worked.  I disliked parties and mingling with those I didn’t know. The “no seminars discussing the deeper meaning of a poem” and the “no essays giving your opinion on a character’s thought processes” also made engineering more appealing.

Job descriptions led me to believe that if I put my head down, did the work and wrote a report about it, then I would be rewarded and acknowledged for my efforts.

I was wrong.

As a young graduate engineer, I noticed that I wasn’t getting acknowledged for my efforts. People didn’t quite seem to understand what I was saying. I wasn’t getting the exciting opportunities.

I remember one day my boss’s boss bumping into me on the shop floor. He was tall, fizzing with energy and wearing very polished, non-PPE black shoes. He asked what I was doing. 

My brain exploded. What should I say? That I was actually on my way to the toilet? No, not that. I could tell him about the experiments, the reports, the meetings, the good the bad … and as I stumbled and mumbled and muttered my way through a very incoherent explanation, I could see his eyes glaze over – and he rushed off on his way. I never got to speak to him again.

I realised communication was a critical skill for an engineer. 

Why think if we can’t share our thoughts?

Why work on small projects when, if we work together, we can work on the bigger ones?

Why have the best idea in the world, if the world won’t listen to us?

Over the last twenty years I have sought out opportunities to learn and improve my communication skills – from public speaking and storytelling to cartooning and stand-up comedy.

These improvements helped me become a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and of the IMechE. And they also led to other opportunities – such as being a BBC TV judge on Robot Wars and to becoming a RAEng Visiting Professor of Engineering: Communication and Creativity at Brunel University, London.

As an independent innovation consultant, and as a Visiting Professor, I have seen many presentations and read many reports. I have seen why the public’s perception of engineers is that we’re not great at communicating. This is also confirmed in industry – with the IET’s Skills survey saying that they find it difficult to find people with good technical AND communication skills.

I am pleased to see that the Engineering Council’s AHEP 4 has strengthened its commitment to communication skills, by adding in:

M17: Communicate effectively on complex engineering matters with technical and non-technical audiences, evaluating the effectiveness of the methods used.

M16: Function effectively as an individual, and as a member or leader of a team. Evaluate effectiveness of own and team performance.

Communication, is just a skill. Sadly, it is not rocket science – as I am sure, if it were, that would appeal more to many of us.

As engineers, we know we can learn technical skills.

Communication is just the operating system for humans.

We can learn that.

We have to learn that.

Over my engineering career, I have come up with three main principles with regards to communication skills:

Visibility

If you are not seen or heard, your work will not be seen or heard.

Clarity

Share your knowledge clearly and be succinct. Tell your audience only what they need to hear.

Insight

Understand what your audience needs to know by listening and using feedback.

Focus on these and…

When we speak, they will listen. 

When we explain, they will understand. 

And when we motivate, they will be inspired.


Prof Lucy Rogers PhD CEng FREng FIMechE (@DrLucyRogers) is an independent innovation consultant and RAEng Visiting Professor at Brunel University, London. She has distilled her communications knowledge into online, self-guided courses that she is licensing to universities to assist with the new AHEP4 rules. More details at www.comscourses.com or contact her at support@comscourses.com

EPC responses to OfS Consultations

After an opinion-gathering exercise among our members, the EPC has published its responses to two consultations from the Office for Students, summarised here by Chief Executive Johnny Rich. They are on proposed changes to Student Outcomes and TEF (use the links to find the full responses).

These are among the most important regulatory changes we have faced since the formation of the OfS and the EPC felt it was important to respond comprehensively. There was a third consultation on metrics, which the EPC considered outside the scope of its representative role.

Student Outcomes

  • We are concerned the proposals will damage access. This is important to the EPC as a greater diversity of engineers is good for those who enter the profession, good for engineering and good for society.
  • Contrary to the aim of raising standards, the proposals may lead to grade inflation.
  • Rather than raising educational standards through incentives based on outcomes, the need for outcomes may become an excuse for admitting the students who need education least to get good outcomes. This would drive down standards. 
  • The proposals are incompatible with the forward-looking and flexible model of HE envisaged by the government in its proposals for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. As such, the proposals are not fit for the future. 
  • The proposals will duplicate or sometimes be at odds with other regulatory frameworks for certain courses, such as Engineering which is subject to strict regulations for accreditation. 
  • The proposals estimate the value of higher education too narrowly.
  • The proposals will damage efforts to diversify engineering, particularly in terms of gender balance, but other characteristics too. 
  • By using a poor proxy measure for educational quality, rather than attempting to measure learning gain, the proposals value outcomes that are beyond universities’ direct control over the standard of the education provided.
  • By seeking to penalise universities for offering courses with supposedly poor outcomes, the proposals may inadvertently make courses with good outcomes, such as Engineering, less viable.
  • The proposals may discourage educational innovation.
  • The proposals create incentives in opposition to the government’s mission to level up. This is a policy area where higher education – and Engineering, in particular – can effect real change, but only if they are not penalised for doing so. 

Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)

Many of the concerns above also related to the TEF proposals, but there were also a number of other key points to make.

  • Given the proposals for student outcomes baselines, it is not clear what distinctive purpose TEF serves in spotlighting teaching excellence. 
  • We are unconvinced that a system of badges is a sufficiently nuanced representation of an institution’s reputation, which should be viewed in terms of good and bad, but in terms of having a reputation FOR something. The proposals are too reductive to achieve that.
  • The proposals for TEF are not likely to improve its previous poor record of usefully informing student choice. In order to be informative it would need to be more granular, but a more detailed TEF would be less appealing and therefore less useful.
  • There’s a similar inherent contradiction in the proposed periodic cycle of the TEF exercise: in order to be useful it needs to be frequent, but in order for its useful to come close to the burden involved, it needs to be infrequent.
  • The 3-band Gold, Silver, Bronze approach to TEF is unhelpfully heuristic. That is to say, a TEF band does not provide anyone with good information, but rather the band is used *instead of* good information. 
  • The proposed fourth band – “requires improvement” – serves no positive purpose as it undermines reputation without providing any information about what improvement might be required.
  • This is particularly damaging as the TEF band will be institution-wide, even when an institution may have pockets of excellence whose staff, students and graduates will be unjustly tarred with the same brush of inadequacy. 
  • By failing to represent the experience of international students properly, the TEF exercise will misrepresent excellence in certain parts of the sector – such as Engineering courses, in particular, where they comprise an especially significant proportion of students. 
  • We are concerned that the proposals will further undermine foundation years – a critical pathway to access and successful student outcomes, particularly in Engineering. This is especially troubling when foundation year funding is under threat from government proposals.
  • Student insights is important, but they need the framework to provide points of reference so they can be comparative and useful. 
  • We are concerned that the proposals both for TEF and student outcomes will be unfair to smaller specialist providers in Engineering and other disciplines. 

The EPC calls on the Office for Students to abandon its regulation plans for student outcomes and instead to adopt measures of ‘learning gain’ and ‘value added’.

In both consultation responses, the EPC was clear that these would give a more direct and useful measure of educational quality – both baselines and excellence – and would incentivise desired outcomes rather than unintended consequences. Learning gain is not easy to measure, but as the hundreds of pages of these consultations demonstrate, it’s not as if the OfS has found an easier or better alternative. 

Welcome to the Engineering Ethics Toolkit

EPC President Prof Mike Sutcliffe introduces an ambitious new initiative to ensure engineering education is a force for good.

Engineering can have significant impact on society and the environment, both positive and negative.  Harnessing the power of engineering to build a sustainable society that works for everyone require us to navigate complexity, uncertainty and challenging ethical issues.

Understanding ethical issues and behaving in an ethical manner underpins other behaviours such as inclusivity and sustainability, ensuring that individual practitioners, professions and organisations are globally responsible. To maximise positive impact these behaviours must become instinctive – golden threads running through everything that engineers think and do.

The EPC Board considered its own ethical responsibility – including representing our members’ views, supporting good practice and as an organisation – at its retreat in January 2020.  This led to the clear action for the EPC to promote engineering ethics more proactively and adopt clear ethical positions.  A key aspect of this is enabling the embedding of ethical best practice into the UK engineering higher education curriculum through creation of an ‘Engineering Ethics Toolkit’.

There is growing advocacy for bringing engineering ethics to the fore in engineering programmes – alongside technical skills – as we equip future engineers with the skills and mindset they need to succeed.  At the policy level, this is evident in three general areas:

  1. The UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence and Commitment (UK-SPEC; 4th edition) and accreditation bodies identifying ethics as one of the core learning outcomes and competencies in accreditation documents;
  2. The inclusion of more descriptive competencies that expand on the understanding and practical application engineering ethics; and 
  3. The Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes in engineering (AHEP, 4th edition) standards reflecting the importance of societal impact in engineering.

Today we are pleased to launch the first milestone in the development of the EPC’s Engineering Ethics toolkit – a range of case studies and supporting articles to help engineering educators integrate ethics content into their teaching.

Today we are pleased to launch the first milestone in the development of the EPC’s Engineering Ethics toolkit

This will allow engineering students to be able to identify ethical issues, exercise ethical thinking and use ethical judgement within their projects and coursework.  

Producing this first phase of the toolkit has been a fabulous team effort – the high priority placed on creating this exemplified by remaining on track and producing a high-quality resource despite the challenges faced from Covid-19.  Everyone has done an amazing job. 

This would not have been possible without the generosity and support of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Engineering Council with whom they are partnering.  As chair, Raffaella Ocone (Herriot Watt) is doing a wonderful job of guiding us – getting us off to a flying start with her previous trailblazing work on embedding ethics into the curriculum. And Sarah Jayne Hitt (formerly NMiTE) is doing an absolutely fabulous job of keeping us focussed, on track and producing high-quality resources informed by best practice.    

This achievement is a wonderful example of how, as engineers, we work most effectively when we work together to design effective solutions – a team I enjoy working with and am proud to be a part of.

We hope you find these resources for embedding ethics into the curriculum useful.  Do let us know how you get on and keep an eye out as we continue to expand these resources into a more comprehensive toolkit for engineering educators.

Inspiring tomorrow’s engineers

Following her appearance at our ‘Engineering engineering’ event in July, we were keen to get Dr Hillary Leevers, CEO of EngineeringUK, to share her views on the power of outreach.

Hillary Leevers
Hillary Leevers: “It’s vital we take an open and experimental approach to developing outreach, testing content and delivery with target audiences, and, ideally, involving them in the planning.”

It’s our ambition at EngineeringUK to inform and inspire young people and grow the number and diversity of tomorrow’s engineers to meet the needs of the UK now and in the future.

And we’re very clear that achieving this ambition requires the concerted, collective effort of organisations and individuals with a shared interest in ensuring that all young people can make an informed choice about whether to pursue an engineering career.

Our analysis of the annual Engineering Brand Monitor shows that young people who know more about what engineers do are more likely to perceive the profession positively and to consider a career in engineering. Furthermore, young people attending a STEM careers activity in the past 12 months were over 3 times more likely to consider a career in engineering than those who had not.

Yet, even pre-pandemic, only about a quarter of 11- to 19-year-olds surveyed reported having attended such an activity and we know that careers experiences have been limited over the pandemic.

Worryingly, nearly half of young people surveyed said they know little or almost nothing about what engineers do and many of them see engineering as complicated and difficult as well as dirty. Beyond that, while key influencers of young people hold positive views about engineering, fewer than half of STEM secondary school teachers and under a third of parents are confident in giving engineering careers advice.

There is therefore a need to work more effectively to ensure that all young people, and their influencers, have a good understanding of the breadth and value of modern engineering and how to get into it. Outreach has an important role to play in this, but we must ensure that it works for the digitally engaged young people of today, especially those from groups that are under-represented in the engineering workforce.

It’s vital we take an open and experimental approach to developing outreach, testing content and delivery with target audiences, and, ideally, involving them in the planning. 

Taking an evidence-based approach to outreach includes identifying key messages that resonate with young people. As an example, our surveys have shown for many years that ‘having an impact’ and ‘being valued’ are important to young people when deciding upon a career, research last summer also found that the pandemic had made job security and availability more important to them

STEM outreach should therefore convey the wide-ranging societal contributions that engineers make and the certainty of future engineering workforce needs, for example, supported by the government’s investments in infrastructure and for net zero

With 100s of organisations delivering STEM engagement, we must work together to improve our approach to designing, delivering, and evaluating activities, as well as sharing our learnings and coordinating our work with one other.

That’s why EngineeringUK is proud to have been invited to deliver the Tomorrow’s Engineers Code which gathered 140 signatories (including HEIs) in its first 9 months, all pledging to work together to increase the collective impact of our engineering-inspiration activities and ultimately the number and diversity of young people choosing engineering. 

STEM outreach efforts must focus on measuring and increasing the impact of activity as well as its reach. As a community, we must cultivate a greater understanding of how engagement activities can affect positive change through robust research and a shared evidence base. 

There are of course difficulties in evaluating the impact of outreach activities targeted at 11–14-year-olds on, for example, graduate entries. As an example, The Big Bang Fair supported by hundreds of organisations and orchestrated by EngineeringUK and which by 2019 welcomed 80,000 visitors, would need up to 10 years to see impacts on graduate entries. Nevertheless, our in-house and independent evaluations have shown that the Fair helps to inspire young people into engineering and provides them with information on how to get there. This evaluation also identifies how we can improve so we can iterate year on year and share our learnings. 

STEM outreach works within a much wider eco-system that impacts on a young person’s choices. So, while we know that knowledge of engineering is a limiting factor, it is one of many, including opportunities to progress in key subjects, specialist teachers, confidence and so on. It could be that we make progress in one area – knowledge or appeal of engineering – but that other elements, such as supply of specialist teachers, limit progression.

We’ve developed and published an impact framework to help describe this system, and are using it to help us articulate the changes we are trying to achieve and evaluate against them – and we are sharing it in the hope that it helps other organisations do the same. 

It’s fair to say that the engineering community needs to work harder than ever to ensure that engineering is accessible to this generation of young people – for their own life chances and so that we have a diverse and insightful workforce that we need to innovate, improve societal and economic resilience and environmental sustainability.

While STEM outreach is only one part of the system that will deliver this, I am convinced that the renewed community emphasis on working together to deliver impact alongside reach will achieve the results we seek.

‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation’ Webcast Summary

Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council, has published a new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline. The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members.

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: A Provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.

During the ‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation‘ webcast, each topic was addressed by leading experts on the issue, chaired by outgoing EPC President Prof Colin Turner. These included:

• Elizabeth Donnelly, Chief Executive, Women’s Engineering Society

• Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive, Engineering UK

• Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager, The Science Media Centre

• Prof Mike Sutcliffe, Deputy Dean, TEDI-London, and EPC President-Elect.

In particular, the event aimed to examine four themes: the role of outreach in promoting engineering, how we might attract more women into engineering, the public perception of engineering and the distinction between design engineering and engineering science.


CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS: The Crucible Project – Advancing the Industry-Academia Agenda

During the course of the 2020 Annual Congress, Industry & Academia: Supercharging the Crucible, members explored the interface between industry and academia and some of the challenges to developing the relationship between industry and academia. This highlighted five areas of mutual interest:

  • Universities’ and businesses’ shared role in regional development
  • Collaborating with industry for teaching and learning
  • Knowledge exchange
  • Research
  • Graduate employability and recruitment

The EPC now wants to build on this by launching the Crucible Project, an initiative to help our members build better industry links by sharing experiences and developing resources for all EPC members to access. We are planning to hold an online Industry-Academia event, featuring a diverse range of case studies of innovative and engaging collaborations between academics and industry, on 16th February 2022 and to produce a toolkit (or a series of toolkits) which members can access from the EPC website.

EPC members are invited to submit case studies, in whatever form, on the above areas of interest. We would especially welcome case studies created collaboratively between industry and academia partners. If you would like to get involved, please register your interest here.

The deadline for the call for contributions is November 28th.

Please also contact your Industrial Advisory Board or those within your university that deal with engineering industry collaboration and KTPs. 

Prof Helen Atkinson, former EPC President, awarded a Damehood

Dame Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng, PVC of Cranfield University and President of the EPC 2011-2013

We are delighted and proud that Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council 2011-13, has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021.

Cranfield University’s Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021 for services to engineering and education.

The full citation issued by Buckingham Palace states:

“Helen Atkinson is one of the UK’s foremost engineering leaders. She was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cranfield University in 2017, with responsibility for the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing. She has made a tremendous impact in this role, cultivating key strategic partnerships with major industrial companies.

“She has been a committed Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering since 2007, serving variously as Vice President, Trustee and Chair of its Education and Skills Committee between 2012 and 2017. Most recently, she has made a vital impact through chairing the oversight group for the Academy’s ‘This is Engineering’ campaign to encourage more young people into engineering.

“She has had roles with government Foresight Panels, HEFCE, EPSRC, IET, National Council for Universities and Business, and the Strategic Facilities Advisory Board of the Royce Institute. She is a leading role model and advocate for women in STEM. She was the first woman President of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council in its 50-year history.”

Helen says: “I was utterly surprised and delighted when I received the news. This is a huge honour. For someone from my background, with both parents leaving school at 16 and as the first in my family to go to university, this is a most amazing thing. 

I really want to acknowledge the huge role the Engineering Professors’ Council has played in my career. I started out as an academic at Sheffield City Polytechnic as then was (now Sheffield Hallam) and then at Sheffield University. One of the professors there accidentally left a piece of paper by the photocopier about the Engineering Professors’ Council and I remember thinking ‘That looks interesting’.

I got involved in the Committee [now called the Board] when I was a Professor in the Engineering Department at Leicester University. I was really struck by the fact that even though the Department had strong demand for its undergraduate places, the Head of Department said ‘There is no money to buy the equipment for teaching’. I took a proposal to the EPC Committee to set up a piece of work to investigate, dispassionately and objectively, the real cost of teaching engineering students and teaching them well. This is, of course, a complex question. We drew together a working group and commissioned some consultants to help us to understand the way university finance models were operating. The Engineering Technology Board (as then was) helped with the costs. A number of universities agreed to be case studies for the investigation, across a range of types of institution. I chaired the working group and am immensely grateful for the wonderful and wise support I had from EPC colleagues.

In terms of my own development, this was the first time I had really had an opportunity to get my head round the way university finances worked and the different models universities used to flow through funds received from HEFCE to departments. Although the way university finance works has moved on, this experience has stood me in incredibly good stead now I am a Pro-Vice Chancellor.

We produced a careful and balanced report which I know was drawn on by HEFCE to support its consideration around the funds for Engineering teaching during that period. As Chair of the Working Group I was very determined we should take a national view representing all types if institution. The thinking I developed then flowed into my Presidency of the EPC a few years later.

I was very surprised to be encouraged to stand for election as President of the EPC. I was even more surprised when Fiona Martland [the EPC Executive Director at the time] stood up to say at the AGM that I was the first woman President in the 50-year history of the EPC and its forerunner bodies.

What I knew was that the EPC was such a good body to be part of – it draws together academics right across the sector – all of whom have a passion for encouraging the next generation of engineers.  

During my period as president we worked in conjunction with other groups to ensure the impact of UK Border Agency changes on engineering in HE was fully highlighted – engineering departments were second only to business and administration in their recruitment of overseas students, particularly for MSc courses, bringing around £750 million a year at that time into the economy. In addition, we ensured that the voice of HE engineering was heard in the school curriculum reforms led by the DfE (e.g. with Maths A-levels).

A key theme of my presidency was directing attention to the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at a time of considerable turbulence for funding in England and with the Scottish independence debate. In addition, the EPC was cited 11 times in a House of Lords Enquiry Report into STEM in HE. Many of these citations were associated with a national project on the employment of engineering graduates which I instigated and led in collaboration with four other universities. This work originated because I wanted to understand why, when the nation was saying there was a shortage, some engineering graduates were unemployed six months after graduation. My involvement in that work really helped me to put myself in the shoes of students applying for engineering jobs and the whole careers landscape.

The experience I gained through my involvement with the EPC provided a strong foundation for my chairing of the Royal Academy of Engineering Standing Committee on Education and Training for five years and now in chairing the multi-million pound Royal Academy of Engineering ‘This is Engineering’ social media campaign to encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career.

We have now had over fifty million views of the videos (see the ‘This is Engineering’ YouTube Channel) and with more or less equal numbers of girls and boys. I know a number of university engineering departments are contributing to the costs of that campaign. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation. It is in all our interests to ensure engineering is seen as a vibrant, exciting career and one where you really can change the world.” 

The EPC is immensely proud of Helen and we congratulate her wholeheartedly.


We would also like to publicly congratulate another esteemed EPC member, Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Director at the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Girton College, who has received an OBE for services to the COVID-19 Response.

Dr Fitzgerald was called upon in Spring 2020 to help with the SAGE Environmental Modelling Group. He co-authored the CIBSE Emerging from Lockdown guidance, which included advice on ventilation in buildings.

He is also serving on a range of other government bodies as part of the response to COVID-19, such as the DCMS Venues Steering Group, the Science Board to the Events Research Programme (which included the 2021 events at the Circus Nightclub in Liverpool and FA Cup Final), and the Aerosol Generating Procedures panel.

Engineering Engineering: a provocation

A recording of this event is now available to view at Recent events (epc.ac.uk). A new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline was presented by Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council.

The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members in advance of the webinar we will be hosting on Tuesday 6th July 2021 which will follow up on some of the issues he raises with Prof Fidler himself and a panel of experts. (Click to attend.)

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: a provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

Few can boast so rare a pedigree of accomplishments in Engineering higher education in the UK as Prof Fidler. And, having scaled the heights, there are few people better placed to take an overview of whether we’re doing well enough at what really matters.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.


Please feel free to comment below or in the Engineering Academics Network LinkedIn group.

Funding research for a better world

The EPC was honoured to welcome former Universities Minister the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore to delivered a speech as part of our 2021/22 Annual Congress on the theme of ‘A Better World’. This is the text of his speech.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today.

I feel honoured, yet at the same time daunted, that as a historian, you have given me this platform of addressing this annual congress of Engineering Professors.

I must confess it is that same mixed feeling of guilt and shame, call it imposter syndrome if you like, that one feels as a Minister, speaking to any assembled gathering of experts in their field, who know far more than I could ever hope to know about both your respective discipline and its research, than I could even possibly conceive.

Yet while I may call from the arts and humanities side of the tracks, I have a long-held admiration for engineering, having broken an equally long-standing family tradition of becoming an engineer. My grandfather began his career at an early age at Rolls Royce in Filton, while my father followed him into British Aerospace, working on Concorde, before branching out into medical physics and obtaining his Physics doctorate in doppler ultrasound, establishing his own medical technology company and winning the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal back in 2000. 

As a result, I’ve witnessed first-hand the trials, frustrations, wrong turnings of a family small business working in R&D over the past four decades. I’ve seen and recognised the barriers that prevent research projects from ever getting off the ground. 

Above all, I grew up recognising that engineering at its essence, was about problem solving— not merely the theoretical or the practical, but also the day to day reality of making things— whether a product or business— work. 

Today, you have set me an enigma of a problem to solve. How can we ‘research for a better world’?

A better world is one which we all of course always strive for, indeed it has always been the goal of governments and societies past, but perhaps in my lifetime, the need for a better world brings with it more meaning and urgency than I can remember. 

It is the nature of the human condition to seek hope in despair, to look forwards and not backwards, and to find meaning out of times that can seem incomprehensible. 

So we find ourselves, as previous generations have done, seeking to ‘rebuild’, or in that phrase du jour, ‘build back better’. 

In the wake of the pandemic, post-Covid recovery the almost the sole focus of governments, a mission that one could have scarcely understood 18 months ago when I was still Research Minister. 

The importance of research has been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been our guiding light out of the tunnel.

Of course, the world still turns, hospitals and schools need to function, welfare needs to be provided, but while the pandemic continues to rage across the globe, we have yet to experience the aftershocks that it has caused, from economic recession and a GDP fall that has not been matched for centuries, a fall in educational achievement to a falling birth rate and its impact upon future society. These are problems that not just current politicians will have to grapple with, but I suspect future generations also, not least when we also will have to address the historic levels of debt and the yawning deficit that once again will hang around our economies, hindering their effectiveness to deliver economic growth and future prosperity. 

In this new age, we need to recognise that priorities will change, as competing demands are made on more limited resources. Already we are witnessing calls for increased spending, at a time when a pathway to fiscal constraint will also need to be set. And with any competing demand, choices will need to be made. How those choices are chosen will be determined by the value, both in terms of economically but also to society, placed upon them by policy makers and governments.

The importance of research to our economy and society should have been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been research that has proved to be our guiding light out of the tunnel. Vaccination programmes, antivirals and medication to tackle COVID has demonstrated how research not only transforms lives, it saves lives too. If there is one positive to be drawn from this dark past year, it has been the improved recognition that R&D matters.

Yet equally, scepticism to scientific advice, combined with anxieties over lockdown, has highlighted that the research community must always work to demonstrate impact, to take wider society and the general public with them. Narratives matter. How they are woven, out of the threads of people’s hopes and fears, facts and figures, stories and examples, determines how successful campaigns can be. And the need for more research will always be one long campaign that never ends. 

Even before the pandemic broke, the government allied its own narrative of a post-Brexit Britain to the future facing, change making potential that R&D investment can bring, with its call to fashion the UK as a ‘global science superpower’. The commitment to spend 2.4% GDP by 2027 on R&D was of course made in the Industrial Strategy White Paper back in 2017, but the recent government commitment to double public R&D spending to £22billion by 2024/25 has certainly given the commitment a boost. I have spend considerable time already analysing how we might achieve the ‘Road to 2.4%’ in a 30,000 word lecture series I gave in 2019, and do not wish to repeat myself, though for me perhaps the most pressing fact I can relate today is that on 13 July, 2027 is just 2,000 days away. 

This year’s Innovation strategy and the investment made in the Spending Review in R&D will be a critical indicator of whether we will reach the 2.4% target. Four years have so far past, with R&D activity having only risen around 0.2% of GDP in this period. With five and a half years to go, we cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory. 

I have come to doubt whether 2.4% will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming.

Now is the time to double down, especially when we recognise where the rest of the world is heading. Even I have come to doubt whether 2.4%, the OECD average at the present time, will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming in the 2020s and into the 2030s. Innovation rich countries are pulling ahead even further. The US and China are heading towards 3% GDP, Japan spends 3.2%, Germany is planning to reach 4%, South Korea is already at 4.5% and Israel higher still at 4.9%. Even the OECD average that was the benchmark for the 2.4% strategy has risen to probably over 2.6%. 

The pandemic and other nations response to how to build economic recovery will only lead to a widening gap in R&D performance if we do not step up. “In order to win the 21st century economy” President Biden has stated, “America must get back to investing in the researchers, laboratories, and universities across our nation”. He is calling on Congress to make an $180 billion investment that will both advance U.S. leadership in critical technologies and upgrade America’s research infrastructure” and “establish the United States as a leader in climate science, innovation, and R&D”. Similar commitments marrying increased investment in innovation and technology with clean growth and combatting climate change are being made across Germany, South Korea, China and Singapore.  

Nine years ago, I wrote a chapter in a book making the case that innovation should be placed at the centre of ‘Britannia Unchained’. The success of ‘Global Britain’ now depends on matching countries that have transformed their economies towards innovation and research. I would now go further— and suggest for the Innovation Strategy that a definite timetable is set for 3%, and beyond to 3.5%. To fail to achieve this over the next two decades will be setting ourselves up to fail. 

Yet with any strategy, risk of simply being left behind as the world transitions its economies towards more modern, technological approaches in which R&D lies the centre, is not the only narrative that must be woven. At every stage, the threat of inaction or slow progress needs to be balanced with the positive, transformational, human message of why investment in R&D is so important, if the taxpayer and general public are to understand the importance of research. Important not only for companies who wish to remain agile and market dominant, important not only for new job creation, but why R&D is important to someone living in Hartlepool or Doncaster. It’s a question that I have continued to grapple with outside of government having agreed to co-chair the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into levelling up research funding. For myself, I have long believed that investment in translational research conducted in places such as our catapult networks such as the Advanced Manufacturing Catapult is where change could be delivered: with a budget of under £250million a year, this is less than a tenth of what Germany spends on its Fraunhofer institutes. By combining additional investment with a commitment to work lower down the supply chain, and to ally skills programmes with new catapult centres, the impact that research can have creating new jobs at every skill level could be felt. 

People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential.

Low level productivity and a skills deficit remain one of the greatest barriers to ‘levelling up’ across the country, which cannot be achieved by investment in capital alone. People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential. And I’m not just talking about the 200,000 new jobs that will need to be created through the expansion of R&D activity, but the wider ecosystem and supply chain of jobs that are created through the application of new technologies or new materials.  

We cannot divorce the activities of researchers from the wider skills pipeline that needs to be created if we are to meet 2.4%: skills training offers the best possible means to increase productivity, yet our SMEs and companies have some of the lowest in work training rates in the OECD. Those that fail to invest in skills are the same who fail to invest in R&D, for they rely on short-term gains and not realising long-term opportunity. Allied to investing in research— and with it our high skill level researchers— is the imperative that we invest in skills across the supply chain if diffusion, adaption and development is to succeed. It’s why I have decided to establish the Lifelong Education Commission with Res Publica, to highlight how training and lifelong skills investment is just as essential for economic transformation as R&D, indeed one cannot happen effectively without the other. 

If we are to research for the better, ‘global science superpower’ narrative must be aligned with the ‘levelling up’ agenda if both are to truly succeed: the challenge for us all is joining both together in a way that demonstrates real change to the lives of people or SMEs who do not view R&D as something that either affects them, or they need to do. 

Engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier.

Of course, this is where engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier. The historian in me still believes we have much to learn from the role of engineering in the history of innovation, and what lessons we can still learn for today on how to achieve large scale systems changes needed for society. 

The challenge we face, however, is how we make change just as convenient and comfortable as possible, when in areas such as climate change and the emissions reductions needed to achieve net zero, require transformations away from current technologies and behaviours that seem daunting.

But it can be done. Indeed it must be done. R&D into new, yet to exist technologies will have a critical role to play in achieving net zero, a target which I signed into law back in 2019. Yet equally if not more important is the impact that research into how we can better use existing technologies to achieve net zero. If 2021 will be dominated by any agreement reached at COP26 in Glasgow in November, it will have to be research that steps up to deliver on the greener future that will be required. 

The issue for the UK’s R&D strategy comes when we move away from the clearly defined narratives of levelling up, building back better, or a green recovery. Mission orientated approaches towards specific goals and outcomes are helpful in supporting these narratives, shaping them and the financial investment needed to deliver upon them. But UK research has also led and shaped a better future by its discovery led nature, based on excellence. This cannot be left aside in the desire to create more challenge-based funding schemes. The creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency is a welcome one, but again this should not be viewed as an alternative to properly funding laboratory focused research across departments in our universities and research institutes, which will still be conducting perhaps 90% of existing R&D research. 

I make this point, for if we are to research for a better future, it is worth reminding that this does not always necessarily mean we need to resort to novelty. Existing funding mechanisms such as QR are perhaps the best means by which to get R&D investment flowing so that it has maximum impact. I’ve seen first-hand also how QR can be used as the mortar to bind various funding streams together, so that organically, research projects can then flourish and attract further private R&D in turn. Equally, funding opportunities such as the Research Partnership Investment Fund or the Higher Education Innovation Fund are working, though I believe with the publication of the Knowledge Exchange Framework, they can be now harnessed to better qualitative data. 

We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% … we just need to change the tyre.

One of the reasons I campaigned strongly also for association to Horizon Europe was along these same conservative principles, that we should seek to preserve and protect long cherished research partnerships that have been forged over many years. It is a philosophy perhaps best espoused by Michael Oakshott—  ‘to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible’. We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% as I would suggest, we just need to change the tyre.

That said, I do believe that there is a case for fashioning a new compact for R&D between government, universities and our research institutes, one based not solely on increased investment, but on how that money is apportioned and how better research can be realised by engendering a better sense of trust within the system. 

Far too often, too many researchers in both university and industry and chasing too many pots of grant funding, the total amount of which will last but a year if lucky before another funding cycle needs to be initiated. An hour wasted on form-filling, on meetings to agree who will conduct the assessment, to meet the demands and conditions of the grant, is potentially an hour of research wasted. The government has rightly instigated a Bureaucracy Review into existing processes, but I wonder if everyone would not be better served by moving towards a model of research funding like Horizon Europe, that has a multi-financial framework, a fixed seven year research programme. 

For the government, such a single research fund might help to rationalise investments from discovery led research and ARIA at the apex, towards more translational and applied research at the base, with missions acting as funding streams. Setting a multi-annual budget would also allow for UKR&D activity to be more agile, to seize potential collaborative R&D activities with international partners, and to break free from the annual cycle of the R&D budget. And at the same time, a single research budget could be clearly communicable to the public and taxpayer, in the same way Horizon has been across Europe. 

Perhaps you may view this as just too ambitious, though we should recognise that, as the pandemic has demonstrated and Net Zero will need to demonstrate in spades if it is to succeed, the horizontal structures of government and society need to be as strong as the vertical,  to which a single budget commissioning research might be the answer. 

Stability

Underlying the purpose of a single budget, and a multi-annual framework aligned to an agreed settlement, is perhaps the most important principle we need for research: stability. You all know the value that stability brings, and the threat to research that instability endangers. Grants are paused, revenue streams dry up, collaborations once possible move elsewhere. More than money can ever buy, stability lies at the heart of a successful R&D ecosystem. That is why it is so important that when considering any policy decision, and its potential to disrupt or delay, analysis is given to how this might impact upon research capacity. 

To this I would like to add two further priorities for delivering better research: security and sustainability. 

Security

Security of course has more than one connotation, both facing inwards and outwards. For the research community, research cannot be conducted effectively without the frameworks and agreements that underpin collaboration. The importance of intellectual property rights and other intangible assets is only growing, and if the UK is to maintain its leadership in these fields, we will need to seek out new means of securing new rights across digital domains and AI. Post-Brexit, we seriously need to address issues around UK IP rights and our relationship with the European Patent Office, but this should also point to a wider review of how the UK can lead on the debates around the future of copyright, trademarks and patents working with the World Intellectual Property Organisation. 

The security of research that has the potential to fall into the hands of hostile agents needs to be guarded against too, which is why the creation of a new unit in BEIS to monitor threats to universities and research institutes is a welcome one. We should continue to seek collaborations across the globe, for research knows no boundaries, but this cannot come at the cost of compromising the value of research that has been funded by the taxpayer. Then there is the question of sovereignty when it comes to critical national infrastructure and assets. Debates around a UK GNSS system in space and UK independence will likely translate across to other new technologies in due course. Post-Brexit, there is a powerful narrative to be explored about how the UK, while working to strengthen its international collaboration in research, can at the same time increase and improve its independent manufacturing capacity in new technologies. 

But security in research, for any researcher, is also about their job. Putting food on the table, looking after their family, scientists and researchers are human after all, even if it seems at times that they perform superhuman tasks. Academic precarity for early career researchers was an area of policy I sought to focus on when a Minister, highlighting the consequences of fixed term contracts and non disclosure agreements that undermined staff and their welfare. Never mind the so-called ‘brain drain’ across the Atlantic, we continue to lose too many excellent researchers from our universities, some who never return to work in R&D again. This is an unacceptable loss of talent, and an unacceptable loss of taxpayer investment in human capital that has been wasted due to lack of foresight. It’s why one of the last announcements I made was that the government should construct a People Strategy for research, to plan effectively how to retain researchers and not lose them through a lack of secure job opportunities.  

Sustainability

To stability and security, I would also add sustainability. By that I don’t mean measuring sustainability by SDGs or in financial terms, though that is clearly important, but in sustaining the institutions through which R&D flows. 

To return to that same Oakshottean principle, we should seek to conserve that which has worked, to recognise and respect the value that our existing universities and research institutes bring to Britain globally. This includes taking care not to threaten university R&D activity inadvertently. Ultimately, this would not happen if research costs were funded at full economic cost. To place research activity at the mercy of international student flows or any other cross-subsidisation seems a dangerous place, and perhaps ultimately unsustainable place, to be. 

Universities and their research have been so outstanding at delivering on international sustainable development goals, turning their focus on how to improve societies across the globe, that sometimes they seem to have neglected their own sustainability. By this I don’t mean their financial sustainability, but the sustainability of their public image. I have campaigned for universities to recognise their value as civic institutions, to become anchor institutions in the towns and cities from which they take their name, if they are to retain wider public support. 

There is so much untapped potential here, for universities to not only highlight their existing importance to their local and regional economies, but to consciously adopt new strategies of setting up walk in centres on local high streets, engaging seriously with future modular and course based provision, to demonstrate why they can be change makers locally as well as globally. Of course there is a wider role here for how all this is measured if it is to be managed, but the intent should come before the process. In an age of competing priorities, the more universities can do to expand their mission, the more likely they are to secure their future. As I have said previously, Red Wall universities can spearhead an educational and civic mission as impressive as the Red Brick universities had, if they are willing to look at how to do things differently, diversify and adapt. Sustainability can and should be local as much as global. 

Call it the Plan Triple S, if you like, but these three words: stability, security and sustainability should underpin any research strategy for a better future. Between them they blend, I believe, the vital importance of retaining and conserving what the UK already does so well, with the potential to achieve even more, building on our successes. 

For ultimately, if we want to research for a better world, we need better research. 

Thank you. 

Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP 

Engineering opportunity: letting down the drawbridge

This week, the EPC published its report on the contribution to social mobility made by studying Engineering. Chief Executive Johnny Rich and Research Assistant Vicky Howell sum up the key findings.

The starting point for the EPC’s new report Engineering Opportunity: Maximising the opportunities for social mobility from studying Engineering is that, on average, Engineering graduates go on to earn more than most other graduates. That fact won’t surprise anyone, but the report explores the story behind it and has wide implications for higher education policy and supporting social mobility.

Compared to other subject areas, Engineering graduates do rather well financially. Starting salaries are already an average of £6,200 higher when compared to the median for all graduates and, by ten years after graduation, that’s risen to £11,700. 

However, we also found evidence that engineering is not a sector in which these salary rewards are restricted to those who already had everything going for them. Even when you take account of characteristics such as prior attainment and socio-economic disadvantage, the salary premium persists. 

In fact, when you look at students who entered Engineering with BTECs – a group which includes many disadvantaged students – their earnings boost is even greater than it is for the high-attaining A level students. Similarly, the data on getting a job and remaining in secure employment is also favourable.

In other words, studying Engineering boosts earnings significantly, regardless of background, and so supports social mobility.

So far, so self-congratulatory. However, our report goes on to acknowledge that Engineering may be a great social leveller, but as a discipline, we are not doing enough to make its advantages more accessible to the students from the very backgrounds who would benefit most.

Just one in eight students in higher education comes from the fifth of areas with the lowest participation rates (Quintile 1 in POLAR4), but in Engineering the proportion is lower still at less than one in ten. 

The reasons for this ‘drawbridge effect’ – where there’s a feast to be had, but only if you can get across the moat – are varied. 

  • Engineering is a demanding subject and so its entry requirements are often demanding too. High tariffs can not only exclude capable students with lower prior attainment, but can discourage them from even applying.
  • Because Engineering is not taught in schools, most people are as likely to think of ‘an engineer’ as someone who fixes a washing machine as someone who designs smart materials, builds spacecraft, or solves climate change challenges. This means Engineering tends to attract those who actually know an engineer in their family. In other words, it replicates its historical social profile.
  • Both outside the discipline and sometimes even within, Engineering is seen as sciency (whereas, in reality, it is often as creative and practical as it is technical and theoretical) and therefore Maths and Physics are often regarded as the appropriate qualifications. In an education system where stretched schools and colleges struggle to offer A levels in these courses and have neither the resources nor the teachers to offer every pupil the chance to do triple science (ie. Chemistry, Physics and Biology) at GCSE, then it’s no surprise this becomes a filter that favours the privileged.

For these reasons and many others, the Engineering drawbridge is in stubborn need of greasing. Interestingly, however, Engineering could be seen to have the potential to be more flexible than most subjects in its entry requirements, not less. The absence of Engineering from the school curriculum means that whatever prior attainment a student might have, it will only ever be a rough proxy for their capacity to succeed as an engineer. 

This has implications for the minimum entry requirements the government is considering for access to English higher education funding. Any arbitrary cut-off tariff would have to relate to the students’ attainment in subjects other than the one they want to study. Not only would this limit social mobility, it would also undermine Engineering’s ability to recruit students to a subject area that is strategically critical in rebuilding the economy.

Skills shortages in engineering are such that school-leavers alone cannot plug the gap. We need what Paul Jackson has described as ‘intersectoral mobility’ – people with experience in the workforce retraining in engineering roles. The drawbridge must be lowered for them too.

The EPC report makes a range of recommendations, many of which would support social mobility both in and outside engineering. 

Among these is a reminder that fair access is worth examining at the discipline level and that well-intentioned system-wide incentives and metric approaches may have unintended consequences at course level where the actual admissions take place. The recruitment challenges of access in Engineering, for example, may encourage institutions to dodge the difficulties by expanding courses with a better record of attracting POLAR Q1 students, even though they may ultimately have less good social mobility outcomes.

Perhaps the most timely recommendation for the government to note relates to foundation years. These are the entry pathway for 12% of engineering graduates, including many of those BTEC-entrants and returners who not only gain most value themselves, but also repay most of their loans and are most important to attract for the sake of the economy. 

The report states, “Foundation courses, ideally with minimal procedural transition into degree study, are more effective than other access courses [AHEDs] because the continuity of study in the same institution supports progression.” 

By way of analogy, it compares the progression of students who start and complete an MEng with the smaller numbers who embark on a BEng and then decide to progress to Masters level. If you set the sights high for student with potential, they will achieve more than they thought possible to start with.

The Augar Review set its gunsights on foundation years as being no more than a more costly alternative to HE Access diplomas. Whatever one thinks of the recommendations of Augar, most of them had their reasoning clearly demonstrated. The proposal on foundation years, however, seemed conspicuous by its lack of any evidential basis. 

When the government responds fully to the Review later in the year, the EPC report (like the Policy Perspectives Nework) suggests that the best service to disadvantaged students, to Engineering and to the nation’s economic imperatives would be to expand foundation years rather than to axe them.

Foundation years – and the opportunity they offer to transition into higher education in general, or Engineering in particular – are critical to lowering the drawbridge for entry and inviting disadvantaged students to the feast beyond. 


For the most part, the data findings of the Engineering opportunity report relate to England only and not to the devolved nations. It is important to make it clear that this was a consequence of the availability of comparable data. We hope to undertake further research in other nations of the UK in future.