Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Brian Arthur, Director, Public Affairs, The Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE)

  The Institution of Electrical Engineers has a membership of almost 140,000 professional engineers representing a wide range of engineering disciplines including power engineering, electronics, communications, computing, software engineering and manufacturing. The Institution has responsibility for the accreditation of first degree engineering courses and for ensuring that membership of the profession is only granted to those with the appropriate qualifications and experience. The IEE considers that engineering is an essential element of our society, necessary for national wealth and well being. It also believes it is well placed through its membership, which includes academics and engineers working in industry, and companies (through the IEE Industrial Affiliates Scheme) to comment on the outcomes from "Are We Realising Our Potential"?

  The IEE makes the following comments in answer to the questions that you raised in your letter.

  1.  Many of the objectives of the 1993 White Paper have been met. The annual "Forward Look", for example, is an improvement on the previous annual review of the Government's strategy for science, engineering and technology.

  2.  The creation of Foresight is a major achievement but the IEE has concerns that the excellent work carried out by industrial representatives, with only very limited Departmental support services, has not yet fully satisfied its main objectives in fostering improved understanding between academe, industry and Government Departments. This is particularly the case for small companies.

  Foresight needs to be more proactive in disseminating its results and actively seek a broader range of inputs to its panels. It needs to be seen as more inclusive in its process. Furthermore there is some evidence that all companies are finding it difficult to maintain their level of involvement in the current round of Foresight activities.

  3.  The Council for Science and Technology has improved the range of expert advice available for determining research-spending priorities. Given the long lead times involved in funded research programmes it is too early to judge the full impact of these changes.

  4.  The changes to technology transfer programmes to place more emphasis on the exchange of ideas, skills and knowledge, do not appear to have succeeded, particularly again for SMEs. It is suggested that policy should identify and focus on the smaller number of SMEs involved in technology products and markets. Current policy spreads scarce resources too thinly. Small companies face increasingly difficult trading conditions with a high bank rate (compared with other European countries), the strength of the pound affecting raw material costs and the competitiveness of UK manufacturing sector exports, the continued burden of bureaucracy and Government regulation. In such circumstances looking to the longer term becomes a second order priority for companies when their very being is threatened.

  5.  The reorganisation of the Research Councils has focused more attention on wealth creation and quality of the life issues. There are some encouraging signs but, as with all long-lead-time research, it is difficult at this early stage to find quantifiable evidence of improvement, for example, in wealth creation opportunities for UK industry.

  6.  A properly constructed and funded evaluation programme is required to compare the situation before and after the 1993 White Paper. Given the continuous nature of change in science, engineering and technology, without such a programme it is not possible to quantify any changes attributed to the 1993 White Paper. In assessing the impact of the White Paper it is not wise to rely on anecdotal evidence or assertions, which are notoriously unreliable in these policy and strategy areas.

  7.  The proposals contained in the recent consultation on Science and Innovation Strategy are appropriate as a statement of top-level objectives. The problem comes in the interpretation and delivery of these objectives in government programmes and actions. Current government departmental programmes contain a myriad of sub-critical programmes which are under-resourced and sometimes overlapping. The lack of focus creates confusion, unnecessary bureaucracy and wasted effort for companies.

  8.  The one key area missing from current strategy is focus at the implementation level. As stated above, current programmes do not concentrate on a few major issues, tackle them quickly and effectively—and then move on to tackle other priorities. The majority of government programmes in Engineering and Technology are under-funded and under-resourced. Many do not recognise the real life business issues and problems of SME's, which employ the majority of people in the UK. In particular, funding of the large gap to translate university research to the point at which banks or venture capital will support business plans for a new product. Perversely, the same programmes offer no help at all to middle-sized and larger organisations to encourage them to grow to become global players that will make a major contribution to UK GDP. The Government is seen as not appearing to value the UK manufacturing industry sector as a contributor to wealth creation or to seem truly concerned about its future.

  9.  The key features of a modern strategy should be relevance and wealth creation underpinned by excellence in education and training, an appropriate scale of assistance from government (when needed)—and a light regulatory touch.

  The IEE will be pleased to provide further information on request.

13 June 2000

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