Get talking: engineering power

Materials World magazine
7 Apr 2015

Geoff Snape returns as a guest columnist. This month, he asks, where are all the science and engineering specialists in UK Government, and what can the industry do to generate funding in the field?

Engineering power

Each national budget produced by the governments of developed countries has extraordinary sums allocated to science and engineering, running into billions. However, by the time this gigantic cake has been carved up to the eventual recipients, the pieces appear to be mere crumbs. The surprise is not that so little is allocated but that there is any to allocate at all, since hardly any of our UK politicians have even the vaguest knowledge of these subjects. The contestants on BBC Radio 4’s Brain of Britain are even more challenged in this regard.

Ever since I was a science undergraduate, I have followed the composition of successive governments according to the number of appropriately qualified MPs. Apart from Government Ministers and others at the top of the hierarchy, they have not been graduates, although this has changed over the past 40 years and even those graduates were not in the fields of science or engineering. There has been a small number of medical doctors and the number of scientists or engineers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. 

It must be said now that UK MPs do not have much in the way of general or even specialist knowledge of any of the traditional academic subjects, including science, engineering or arts and humanities. From media reporting and also my own experience as a former local councillor, these MPs can be split into two types. Firstly, professional career politicians who have been party stalwarts since the age of 18, and secondly, amateur career politicians (popular local councillors) who have shown more than an ounce of common sense but are not too clever, as they may be regarded with suspicion by the local party. So, where are all the experienced scientists and engineers? Are they not interested?

To stand a realistic chance of becoming an MP, you need to be selected by your local party. Even before you get to that stage, you need to be on the approved list, which is decided at the party’s central office in London after a meeting with the local party agent. The application form for this basically has one question – ‘What have you been doing for the party all your life?’ (at the expense of the rest of your life, in which one acquires knowledge and useful experience). The question is then repeated at the meeting with the local agent.

In other words, if you have actually gained useful knowledge and experience in every field of human endeavour, including science and engineering, you cannot be selected to even stand as an MP, let alone be elected.

If there are any young scientists and engineers out there who think they may want to enter politics at some later time in their lives, now is the time to hitch your wagon to one of the major parties. Because, like just about every other career, you have to make that decision very early on and stick with it.

So, how on earth does science get any Government funding? The answer, of course, is in the advice they take from civil servants, directors of Government research establishments and learned societies. Presenters of TV programmes have a particular responsibility. Even Sir David Attenborough’s pleas regarding overpopulation (the key driver of all extinction scenarios and humanity’s problems from pandemic transmission to war and climate change) appear to be falling on deaf political ears. So far, only the Chinese have realised this. 

Unless a convincing case is put by specialists, in layman’s language, to demonstrate that science can show us why we are heading for extinction and that technology can give us the means to avoid it, then we are playing brinkmanship with – as far as we know – the only intelligent life in the universe.

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