New competition highlights pressing need to invest in British engineering

THE industrial revolution propelled Britain to world leader status in new technology and engineering: railways, roads and mass manufacturing. We pioneered the era. The technology we created fuelled growth around the world.

Now, 150 years on, we face a different climate and competition. Countries like China and India are no longer content with assembling products; they want to generate the ideas too. We need to step up our game. Ambitious countries are investing in research and development (R&D) and churning out engineers. They are savvy – they know it’s where the money lies. Each year India produces 1.2m graduates. Iran and the Philippines both produce more than the UK. They are developing a highly skilled workforce, creating powerful technology. It is time to renew our ambition.

In Britain this year, we will have a deficit of more than 60,000 engineering graduates. By the time today’s primary school children are of working age, the UK will need more than 2m engineers. To have a fighting chance of competing, we need more, and we need to put our faith in the engineers we have – investing in them and their ideas.

R&D is slow and risky. It took me over 15 years, with plenty of rejection from large manufacturers along the way, to bring my bagless vacuum cleaner to market. Luckily, I am stubborn. The pace of change has quickened but the risk of failure remains high and many businesses are disinclined to take a leap of faith and invest in an idea.

Science, technology and innovation policies are thankfully central to the government’s long-term strategy for economic growth – but it won’t happen overnight. At Dyson, we are developing technology for the next 25 years, because it is more about the slow burn than the eureka moments. The UK should echo this long-term approach, setting its sights on the breakthrough technologies that will power our growth for the next 100 years. New battery technology and advanced materials like Carbon 60 – conceived in our great British universities in collaboration with forward thinking businesses – can generate this growth .

In 2010, I was asked by David Cameron to consider measures to help Britain become a leader in high technology exports. One suggestion was to increase the generosity of R&D tax credits – to incentivise investment in long-term R&D. The coalition responded and increased the generosity of the scheme.  It was a bold policy, made for the right reasons. It is working. Patent applications rose 29 per cent in 2011, and investors have reacted positively.

Now, we need similar long-term decisions to correct our shortage of engineers and scientists. Encourage our best undergraduates to study subjects of vital importance to the UK. Make science and engineering degrees valuable. Increase the number of grants offered and give engineering postgraduates generous salaries. 

The high quality applicants who submit their work each year to the James Dyson Award show that creativity is alive and well – it just needs some support. Last year’s international winner was a British inventor, Dan Watson. He developed a device engineered to support the sustainability of fishing. With the prize winnings, he finished prototyping and his invention is undergoing tests with a government body. Dan’s idea was simple yet intuitive – it is exactly what we should be backing.

We should stop attracting international students, only to kick them out once they have finished their degrees. Of all engineering and science postgraduates in our universities, 85 per cent come from outside the UK. If we send them home, we are doing little more than training up the competition.

But we also need to go back to school – we need to inspire young people to be inventors and to think big. We need to teach young people how the skills they learn in science and maths can be applied to design and technology. Students need to be introduced to the iterative design process – taking things apart and questioning. Design. Build. Test. By doing this we may just inspire them to take their studies further and study the subject at university.

Development of new engineering and technology will be central to Britain’s future growth. So let’s back our engineers at all stages, they will be solving the biggest problems we face and they need our support.

Sir James Dyson is an inventor, industrial designer, and founder of the Dyson company.