I was picking through yesterday’s announcements thinking about the sector based approaches that have been a feature of some of our recent work, but the point that caught my attention was the emphasis on re-balancing the economy. It seems self evident that encouraging innovation and high value added activity will make a positive difference to economy. Every time I put the car radio on I seem to hear a coalition spokesperson commenting on the importance of science and engineering or the need to train more scientists and engineers or encourage more young people into science and so on. The reality of what I see seems quite different. So in this post I’ve allowed my professional reflections to merge with my personal views as I draw on my children’s experiences. I think this says more about the reality of a ‘re-balanced’ UK economy than any general comments I was going to make about the Budget Statement.
Yesterday Chancellor George Osborne announced an extra £200m for science, good news and very welcome as a start. Not surprisingly Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, agreed with that view and has also commented that “The repeated references to science and innovation in the chancellor’s speech show a commitment to science and engineering being the basis for a sustainable economic recovery but it will only happen if we are willing to invest heavily, like many of our competitors”. The key point here being the need to invest in the sectors.
At the weekend Ann and I met up with our son and daughter and my son’s girlfriend, we had coffee and cakes, walked around a Christmas market and did the sort of things you do when you’ve got adult children. Sitting round the table at lunch were three twenty somethings, all products of our top universities. One with a masters degrees in Bio-mechanical engineering, one with a masters degree in Automotive Mechanical Engineering and one with a Bsc in Human Genetics and an Msc in Human Evolution. Are they all working in extraordinarily well paid jobs and being head hunted at every turn? – are they hell as like. Don’t get me wrong they’re doing well, they work hard, they are happy, enjoy what they are doing and are a great deal more fortunate than many other young people, but I’m having serious doubts about how long they will continue to stay in the UK.
The geneticist works in a University Hospital Laboratory in London doing important research into the genetic treatment of cancer – Leukaemia. For the last 3 years they have been on sequential three month contracts, being given notice along with a new temporary contract every 12 weeks because there isn’t enough money to risk keeping them past that point. Try getting a mortgage or even a long lease on a three month contract. As for pay, they would probably do just as well or better working as a council officer in one of the London Boroughs (assuming they still have any left).
The bio–mechanical engineer simply couldn’t find anything in their field when they graduated with an excellent degree. They have therefore applied their considerable ability as a mathematician to working as an auditor for one of the country’s top accountancy firms. They are doing very well but is that the best way to use our engineers?
The mechanical engineer had a similar experience on graduating. With a good degree and an ICE award they could have taken short term contracts for work experience but had already done a year with Rolls Royce before university so were looking for something more stable. They made it through selection to a place on the IBM graduate programme but after a year in IT were keen to get back to engineering. Fortunately their University was keen to have them back and offered a modest bursary to do PhD research in ‘clean’ engine development. However, budget cuts meant that the already modest offer was significantly reduced before it was finalised. After several difficult weeks of decision making they took the offer with future optimism outweighing shorter term gains, but it’s going to be a very difficult few years.
So, just how important are young engineers and scientists to the future economy of this country? I suggest that Mr Osborne asks these three young people about how valued they’ve felt since setting out on their careers. If he’s feeling really brave I’m sure they could round up their ex-university mates – most of whom are in a similar position – for a lively discussion.