chris wise engineer

An engineer in their Lordships’ House

Off to rub shoulders with the Establishment. First stop…the House of Lords to give “evidence” to their Lordships’ committee on STEM education. Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, not Alan Titchmarsh. Ushered in through Westminster Hall, paying engineering obeisance to its technologically staggering 600 year old hammerbeam vault. Following in the footsteps of the soon-to-be-condemned Charles 1st and Guy Fawkes, I thought I knew just how they felt. But not to worry, their Lordships were charm itself, perceptive and engaged in their questioning. Enough to turn your knees to jelly, especially as the first question came from Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow, a scientific colossus, a pioneer in cosmic microwave background radiation, a man who has almost seen the Big Bang. Gently he asked: “What vision do you offer to your recruits?”…quite a question from a man whose vision is normally carried out with a 76m radio telescope.

Of course, Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is the man who said: “When a scientist makes a discovery…he or she has no clue what the applications are going to be”. Cue the by now well-rehearsed response that, of course, if you actually want to make something, my Lord, you don’t need a scientist at all, you need a bleedin’ engineer. Anyway, it would have been impolite to say that, or to rub their lordships noses in it so to speak by mentioning the fixing of the Great Stink by engineer Joe Bazalgette. Rees has also written on sustainability in a book chirpily entitled “Our Final Century” about what might happen if humans don’t get a grip of themselves on this planet (apparently it’s called “Our Final Hour” in the USA because Americans like instant gratification). Because he is far too intelligent a man to use the overused S word, instead, he looks at us with a cosmological perspective which, sort of, makes us look rather small and temporary. Anyway, the point of this gathering of the undoubtedly great and the aspiring perspiring good was for their Lordships to hear from people who employ STEM graduates, and first up were the industrial giants from Rolls-Royce, GlaxoSmithKline, Microsoft and Siemens. Small and temporary they might be to Lord Rees, but their testimony was fairly blunt…..placing little reliance on the universities to deliver them much other than raw materials. They took the view that they would look after the specific shaping of the raw recruit for their own particular special purposes. I had a moment when I swear I could hear the fiendish Bond villain Blofeld cackling away in his lair as this was said.

Then it was the turn of the SME’s, and I suddenly realized I was the sole representative of our dear Reader and our beloved building industry. By this time, I too was feeling small and temporary, especially alongside Vectura, who use particle science to make neurological products to treat asthma,  Parkinson’s Disease and migraine, when all I know about is bricks. I spent some time suggesting to their Lordships that they should ask the Commons to put “D” for Design into their handy mnemonic, partly because if you type “Creativity” into the website of the Dept for Education, you get into an endless loop with the word “Imagination”, a surreal surfing experience probably thought up by a civil servant upset by the Cuts. But back on earth, there’s a reason the Lords are doing this. In 1998, the Blair government came up with a framework for primary school to teach an hour of Literacy teaching and an hour of Maths teaching each day.

Although well-intentioned, this important policy has been, by any global measure, spectacularly incidental. In the last ten years, the OECD “Pisa” rankings show the UK has plummeted in the world rankings from 8th to 28th for maths so from 2011 the framework has been dropped. And as we’ve also descended from 4th to 16th for science, where we are for engineering, or for design, I don’t know, but you don’t have to be a genius to suspect we may be on the way down there too at least as far as the statistics show. The hard-pressed scientists of tomorrow may have a lot of competition. But I’d hazard a guess that the UK will still be up there in 20 years time, despite our apparently woeful performance in global scientific and mathematical attainment at school. As for creativity we already know the political answer….we’re trapped in an endless cycle with “imagination” on Parliament’s website. I’d just like  The Design Hour.

On to the 1851 Royal Commission, which is still giving out study grants to the tune of £2 million a year from the proceeds of the Great Exhibition and the founding of Albertopolis.


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