Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 52

Supplementary submission from the Royal Aeronautical Society


  1.  The UK aerospace industry has been one of the unequivocal successes of UK manufacturing. A consistently high investment in research and development, both public and private, has been translated into an impressive export record. UK-based companies produce world-class goods and services for the civil and defence markets. The UK is especially well represented in civil aero structures (especially civil aircraft wings), aero-engines, helicopters, complex weapons, communication satellites and a comprehensive range of equipment and electronic systems. While much of this is designed for incorporation into international programmes, the UK retains a high-level of systems integration and associated systems engineering competence. This is high value employment, drawing upon the skills and competence of the UK scientific and engineering base.

2.  UK aerospace has been well supported by successive governments. Repayable launch investment has funded UK developments in civil aircraft wings and aero engines. Investment in technology acquisition, notably in composite materials, has helped UK industry to retain its position in key sectors. The relative openness of the UK to inward investment has attracted U.S. and European firms, with concomitant commercial and technological gains. As exemplified by the Centre for Manufacturing at Sheffield University, this has led to the creation of centres of excellence that benefit other industrial sectors. This underlines the value of aerospace as a vehicle for technological diffusion throughout UK manufacturing. While there are obvious geographic concentrations, aerospace, especially through its extensive supply chain has an impact in many UK regions, especially a number with low levels of research intensity.

  3.  In the Society's view, this record justifies continuing support for aerospace and for measures designed to maintain the underpinning technology and skills base. In particular, we would point to the challenges posed by sustainability. Growth in civil aerospace is now predicated on the development of environmentally friendly aircraft and engines. This will be necessary to reduce the carbon footprint of airliners, their high altitude emissions, as well as noise levels on take-off and landing. Achieving the stringent targets now accepted by industry and increasingly set by regulation will depend upon developing better understanding of the scientific and technical factors explaining aviation's impact on the environment. This in turn will drive research into novel materials, structures and mechanics that will enable aerospace to achieve sustainability by the 2020s. The UK is already in the forefront of this research; there is a clear case for reinforcing success and existing competence in green aerospace technology.

  4.  The development of better models of high altitude climate change and carbon reduction technology will also have wider benefits for UK manufacturing. The challenges set by aerospace are especially demanding and will help to drive the adoption of environmentally friendly products across the board.

  5.  Similarly, UK competence in space science and technology represents a further broad-based catalyst for British leadership in the exploitation of earth-resource satellite systems, advanced communication and data gathering and transmission that has had, and will continue to have an economic and socially transforming effect.

  6.  The requirement for future success will require a renewed dedication to supporting technology acquisition through reinforcing the partnership between government, industry and academia. The most demanding element will be to ensure an adequate supply of trained personnel in the relevant engineering disciplines, as well as in the applied environmental sciences. The UK has found it hard in the past to maintain an adequate base in these areas.

  7.  The recent decline in the demand for maths and science graduates in the financial services sector may afford some relief for companies seeking to recruit skilled personnel, but this may only be a temporary shift in individual career opportunities. It does not address the issue of supply of scientific and technologically trained young people through secondary and tertiary education. There are no new and easy solutions, but government and industry must continue to press for long-term improvements in the quality and attractiveness of engineering syllabi and the adoption of more holistic approaches to training.

  8.  There may be a need to address the balance of competing priorities in order to support aerospace and its associated science and technology base. But this need not be as drastic as it appears. Aerospace is a multi-disciplinary sector and its requirements help to push the state-of-the-art across many varied areas. Equally, with the right training and commitment to lifetime learning, people will not necessarily be locked into one industrial arena, but be available as a general skill base for the UK economy.

  9.  Aerospace is a future orientated industry. The UK has a world-class aerospace sector and is still protected to some extent by high barriers to entry. However, many countries, especially in the newly emerging economies of the Far East, have targeted aerospace as a growth sector and a focus for high levels of investment. These countries will challenge the UK's position in world aerospace. The UK has few such remaining world-class sectors and it would seem wise to maintain this capability and to afford it some priority in national policies towards science and engineering research and education.

April 2009

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