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Mechanical engineering research ‘too narrow’

Mechanical engineering researchers “must involve themselves” in addressing societal problems and engage in inter-disciplinary research, a report on the state of mechanical engineering research in the UK has said.

The EPSRC-commissioned report, “Review of mechanical engineering 2011”, was published on 10 August. It argues that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s funding for mechanical engineering research is too narrow and needs to shift towards “greater diversity in application”.

For example, says the report, EPSRC mechanical engineering portfolio does not reflect concerns flagged by the community that research on renewable and alternative energy sources is increasingly important.

There is also scope for mechanical engineering research to have a deeper impact on society, the report says, since it is an area that underpins many others.

It says the community’s ideas on which emerging technologies could contribute to solving societal challenges are “disappointingly conservative”—as revealed in community surveys during the review process.

It therefore recommends that more work on understanding the “key technological challenges that the community should be working towards, to further the aims of these societal challenges”.

It also recommends greater collaboration between UK researchers and leading researchers abroad, since many societal challenges are global issues.

The EPSRC announced on 21 July that research focus on UK societal challenges is an important part of its new “importance” funding criteria—alongside impact on the UK economy; potential to grow key industries; and benefit to other research disciplines.

Based on importance criteria—and excellence—the council has started to map which research areas will get increased or decreased investment. For engineering, it has so far decided that water engineering and synthetic biology will grow, while investment in material engineering in ceramics and engineering approaches to manufacturing operations should fall.

The report also calls for a greater flow of researchers between academia and industry. Although this works well in terms of trained graduates moving into industry, it is less effective in the other direction, it says.

The UK therefore needs to emphasise the benefits of continuing along an academic career pathway as a viable option, it says.

“Making this case is especially important at a time when graduates and post-graduates are likely to be under greater financial pressures than before,” reads the report.

It also advises the research community to explore different opportunities for doctoral training opportunities, as the EPSRC has announced it is cutting the number of PhD studentships it funds—from 2,902 studentships in 2010-11 to 1,900 in 2011-12, a drop of 35 per cent.