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Is UK engineering research on the brink of collapse?

01 October, 2003

Is UK engineering research on the brink of collapse?

UK engineering research is in an extremely precarious position, warns a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering. The Future of Engineering Research* challenges the Government to boost the dwindling supply of skilled engineering graduates and to solve the staffing and funding crises in university engineering departments.

"The gravity of the situation must be recognised before it does irrevocable damage to our economy", says the report`s author, Academy vice-president and former Rolls-Royce director of engineering and technology, Phil Ruffles (above). "Our ability to generate economic and social benefits from engineering depends entirely on skilled personnel. But 46 university engineering and technology departments have closed since 1996, and many others are severely under-funded."

In 1991, engineering attracted 10.7% of all successful applications from UK students through UCAS. Ten years later, this figure had halved. The Academy is urging the Government to improve the quality of mathematics and science teaching in schools, to expand efforts to recruit women into engineering, and to incorporate business and communication skills into engineering courses.

"Our ability to teach engineering is also under threat," Ruffles warns. "A demographic timebomb is ticking away as increasing numbers of academic staff face retirement by 2010. Many engineering departments are already struggling to retain staff. Recruitment rates need to rise by 22—36% just to maintain current staff levels.

"The implications of this are enormous," he continues. "We have experienced failings in our transport systems in recent years, but what will happen when the electricity or water supply industries suffer from a lack of knowledgeable engineers? What future is there for technological advancement if we cannot provide an engineering education for our most able and creative youngsters?"

"There have also been big changes in the wider engineering research base," Ruffles reports. "Industry has dismantled many of the large corporate research laboratories and is tending to spend less, both on speculative long-term research and on technology demonstration. The research process is now inherently more efficient, but also vulnerable to market failure."

The UK is deeply dependent on the health of industrial R&D, but companies here invest much less than their international competitors, the report says. The average ratio of R&D spend to sales is only 2.2%, compared to 4.4% in the US.

"Government needs a national research strategy to identify the UK`s engineering strengths and vulnerabilities to help it combine short-term research priorities with longer-term objectives," says Ruffles. "The cracks are starting to appear and we must act now if we are to secure a sustainable economic future and to improve conditions for society at large."

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