Manufacturing a change – The decline of engineering, science and manufacturing in the UK

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2007

In my November 2006 column, I responded to news that the University of Reading's physics department was to close in a piece entitled ‘Physics at crisis point'. In the Guardian on 22 May, Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto also used the projected closure of the department to write an impassioned article, ‘The wrecking of British science'. He points out that during the past five years almost a third of UK university physics departments have either closed or merged, and more young people are opting to study media studies than physics.

We face the prospect of a severe shortage of qualified scientists and engineers, but Kroto has also drawn attention to an even more intractable and important issue - the lack of understanding by the public about scientific and technological problems. Such ignorance manifests itself in, for example, the low level of debate on the role nuclear power can play in curtailing global warming.

Another difficulty is the inability of many people to understand the magnitude of various defined risks. Too often the importance of a risk is assessed, not by its probability, but by its consequence. For example, the risk that a child might be abducted by a stranger is extremely slight, yet because the outcome can be so horrendous, many parents over-restrict the freedom of their children. A report by the Good Childhood Inquiry from The Children's Society revealed that 67% of eight to 10-year-olds have never been to a shop or park by themselves and a third of that age group have never played outside without adult supervision.

The tremendous publicity surrounding the tragic disappearance of Madeleine McCann, while on holiday with her parents, is a consequence of such occurrences being exceedingly rare. But the net effect of the media exposure is likely to persuade parents to further reduce their children's freedom, damaging their development.

The UK loses manufacturing to abroad

There are other reasons for the relative decline in engineering and science in the UK, as described in the recently-published book Fantasy Island: Waking up to the Incredible Economic, Political and Social Illusions of the Blair legacy by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson. They point out that, though Britain still profits from the sale of pharmaceuticals and arms, we are very close to entering a post-manufacturing era. In 2006, our deficit in visible trade in goods - the stuff we make - was more than £60 billion, about five per cent of the GDP. This shortfall exceeds anything the UK has witnessed in the post-war period. It appears that financial and business services are now bigger employers than manufacturing in all but two UK regions.

We are losing our manufacturing not just to the developing world, but also to Europe. Production of Harold Wilson's favourite condiment, HP Sauce, figuratively and literally the essence of Britain, has moved to The Netherlands, and Rowntree's Smarties will soon be made in Germany. We were once intensely proud of our motor industry, but today we are the only leading European country without a significant domestic car manufacturer.

In spite of this, the National Endowment for Science and Technology and the Arts believes Britain has one of the strongest economies in Europe. It is too complicated for me to understand. A think-tank called the Work Foundation pronounced that the four iconic jobs in the 21st century are not scientists, engineers, teachers and nurses, but hairdressers, celebrities, management consultants and managers. I am not surprised, and that is the measure of my despair.


Further information:

November ‘Material Matters'

The wrecking of British Science', Harry Kroto (the Guardian, 22 May 2007)
National Endowment for Science and Technology and the Arts