Lord Browne: eyes on the prize

Posted on 15 Jun 2016 by The Manufacturer

Can a glittering prize do anything to solve the recruitment crisis in British engineering? TM Editor-at-large Nick Peters questions Lord Browne to find out.

Lord Browne, chairman of trustees, Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
Lord Browne, chairman of trustees, Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

British manufacturing will need two million new engineers in the next 10 years, but the educational system is only capable of delivering half that number.

The CEO of Siemens, Juergen Maier describes the talent shortage facing British engineering companies over the coming decade as “falling off a cliff”.

As a result, politicians and business leaders are urgently trying to encourage more young people, particularly girls, to regard engineering as a job that offers great pay, prospects and security. Yet they are clearly falling short.

As part of the mission to raise the profile of engineering, the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering was created in 2011 as a biennial celebration of great engineering that has benefitted humanity. It is a tall order and it has taken truly awe-inspiring achievements to win the £1m prize.

The chairman of trustees for the QEPrize is Lord Browne of Madingley, the former chief executive of BP.

(TM) The fact that we have to create a prize to attract attention is a pretty poor indictment on the state of engineering in the UK, is it not?

(Lord Browne) No, it’s a statement about the position of engineering globally. After all there are Nobel prizes for various branches of science, and there’s the Field Medal for Mathematics. There was nothing equivalent with a global impact in engineering.

And so it was right to think of building a prize that looked at excellence in engineering worldwide, in order to give people the aspiration to become engineers and do well. People should think about these great engineers who are winning the QEPrize and say, “How did they change the world and what can be my contribution to that?”

In this country, we’ve got such a long and distinguished reputation for engineering innovation from James Watt through to James Dyson. And yet in recent decades we’ve been unable to foster that same innovative spirit to the world-leading degree of old. Who’s to blame for that?

It’s not blame, it’s culture. Engineers have not got a great public profile. There have been great engineers doing great things, but they have been hidden away. I think now they are beginning to gain recognition.

After all, people understand that an iPhone is an engineered product. And there are British designers who are also great engineers like Jonny Ive and James Dyson. People get it. It’s something to do with making their life better, making it exciting, and that is about engineering.

Post-war, there was a loss of confidence in British manufacturing. For instance, there was the cancellation of the TSR-2 strike aircraft in the 1960s; the government ordered American F-111s that contained significant British engineering that we wouldn’t back. Are we still suffering from that lost national nerve?

I think there are only a few moon shots any nation can undertake, and at that time Britain was running several moon shots, not just the great TSR-2, but also Concorde. Even the US, the great powerhouse, concluded that after they got a man on the moon they had to really cut back the space programme.

But the point about these projects is that they did give people aspiration. It was terrific to see people engineering an impossible task of getting someone on the moon and getting them back safely. It is amazing to think that we engineered a passenger airplane that flew faster than any other. It’s great to imagine that we could do it again and that young people can think about extraordinary products that will make our lives better.

Obviously, artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, all these sorts of things are what people are thinking about today. They will be ubiquitous and many of them will have a lot of British content.

Yet as we speak, manufacturing has slipped back into recession for the third time in eight years in this country. Is there something we’re doing wrong or is it simply global competition that’s holding us back?

It is to do with global competition, but it is also to do with products. People come to the UK for our brilliant, innovative design, but the final product isn’t made in the UK because of cost. We have to turn our intellectual brilliance into practical products that people want to buy, but there are limits because we have a high cost society.

Can we get manufacturing done using less human input and can we do more robotic manufacturing at the right sort of cost? We shall see that develop over time.

We’re also not producing enough engineers to meet demand, which means we have to go overseas to recruit them. Companies often find it difficult to navigate contradictory government regulations and policies on visas and immigration. Is there anything you would want to say to the Government on that, on behalf of engineers and manufacturing, that will help companies fill that need?

We educate and train some of the greatest engineers in the world. We have some of the greatest engineering universities – we punch way above our weight in the world in this area – and we need to remember that. But the engineers we produce don’t all stay in the UK, they go overseas.

Some people who are educated in great universities overseas need to come here as well. So we need a free flow of engineers and scientists around the world. It is a two-way street. If we shut our doors and if we don’t allow people to come in, people will surely shut doors against us.

The nuts and bolts, the raw materials for the engineers of the future are currently in our schools as we speak. Getting young men and women to take STEM subjects at A Level is proving very difficult, particularly young women. How would you address that?

Girls need to be encouraged by schools and parents to go into engineering and not to be told things like, “This is not an occupation for women.” That is simply not true. It’s wrong. It’s very out of date. So cultural change is needed.

The Royal Academy of Engineering and the QEPrize are doing a lot to encourage people to come into engineering and see the products and the great advances in society that engineering create.

Nominations are now open for the Queen Elizabeth Prize of Engineering, until August 26 2016.

To learn more about the criteria for entry, go to www.qeprize.org/nominate