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Government making better use of engineering advice, CSA says

John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has told MPs that the government has become a more intelligent consumer of engineering advice.

Beddington was speaking at a hearing on 14 December as part of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s inquiry into engineering in government.

The inquiry is a follow-up to the 2009 report, “Engineering: turning ideas into reality”, which concluded that governments fail to make the most of the UK’s engineering base because they lack the relevant expertise, and should appoint chief engineering advisers.

Beddington said there has been recognition of the need for authoritative engineering advice in government departments. He said there would be announcements of CSA appointments this week, which will be “favourable in this direction”.

He also highlighted the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s decision to appoint a chief engineer as a good example of such recognition.

However, he said it should be up to each department to decide whether they should appoint chief engineers. He argued that the situation at the Home Office—where the CSA works with engineers but doesn’t have a chief engineer—works well.

Beddington also highlighted some work he had done on an institutional level to improve the situation, such as making sure that the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering sits as an ex-officio member of the Prime Minister’s council for science and technology.

When asked by the committee whether the number of engineers in government has increased, Beddington responded that there have generally been cuts to staff in individual departments, but no disproportionate cuts among engineers.

At DECC, however, there has been an increase in the number of senior engineers, he added.

Andrew Miller, the chairman of the committee, also brought up the issue of the UK’s engineering skills base and asked whether it would be threatened by raised tuition fees.

“Do you think that the potential impact on the future supply of engineers have been given sufficient consideration when [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] and the Department for Education are developing policies?” asked Miller.

But Beddington didn’t seem alarmed: “I think they were certainly thought about, I think it is probably too early to judge whether there has been a significant detrimental effect,” he told the committee.

“I think it’s interesting that some evidence I’ve see indicates that there is a decline of engineering in Scotland, where tuition fees have not been imposed,” he added.

However, he added that it’s certainly important to “up the image of engineers” and quoted the Queen Elizabeth prize for engineering as a good way to do so.

“The hope is that we will show that the UK takes engineering very seriously,” he said.

Meanwhile, in its written evidence to the inquiry, Imperial College said there is “considerable scope” for improving the links between the engineering community and government.

Although it welcomed DECC’s appointment of a chief engineer, it warned that such posts “cannot plausibly scrutinise all the engineering decisions taken by central departments and their many agencies.

Similarly, Engineering the Future, a professional alliance created in response to the 2009 report, agreed that there was room for improvement in the engagement between engineers and government.

For example, it said in its written evidence, more chartered engineers should be appointed in “key roles within the civil service”.