The government’s Spending Review should include support for innovation, especially to achieve the aims of net zero emissions, resilient infrastructure and nationwide digitalisation, according to recommendations published by the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) today. The UK should aim to be not just a science superpower, but a science, engineering and innovation superpower, enabling it to deliver the maximum economic and social returns from its investment in science.
In a joint paper compiled by the NEPC, over 40 engineering organisations representing more than 450,000 UK engineers recommend that government invests in its proposed actions to help decarbonise the economy, and create a national workforce planning strategy to create jobs and spread opportunities more evenly across the nation. It says the UK could position itself as a market leader in low carbon technologies but achieving net zero carbon emissions depends on a resilient infrastructure system – the net zero and resilience agendas must be achieved together.
The 2020 Spending Review is one of the most important in a generation, coming at a time when the UK is in recession and the impact of the pandemic has increased inequality. Careful and considered decisions must be made now about physical and digital infrastructure in order to drive economic recovery and provide skilled jobs. The paper calls for long-term evidence-based infrastructure needs to be addressed, with individual regions being given the freedom to create infrastructure strategies. It also recommends building world-class digital connectivity and infrastructure that is fast, secure and resilient enough for an advanced digital economy.
The COVID-19 crisis has hugely disrupted further and higher education and risks reducing the diversity of young people going into engineering. The paper highlights that the UK must now plan for its long-term engineering and technical skills needs, with an education system fit for the future and an ambitious plan for training, up-skilling and re-skilling. World-leading ambitions on net zero, infrastructure and digitalisation are threatened, it warns, if we do not have enough people with the engineering and technical skills to deliver them.
Key actions for government recommended by the paper include:
- Education: Address the long-term UK skills challenges across all sectors through the creation of a national workforce planning strategy. Support this with a new evidence-based STEM education strategy to address issues such as chronic shortages of physics, mathematics, computing and technology teachers and diversity challenges in STEM subjects.
- Education: Ensure long-term funding sustainability of high-cost, laboratory-based subjects in further and higher education. Boost the number of people completing higher technical qualifications and engineering apprenticeships, which have flatlined over the past five years.
- Infrastructure: Incentivise offsite manufacturing for new projects and low-carbon retrofitting for existing buildings to improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.
- Digital: Invest in broadband and 5G to support an advanced digital economy and expand the Made Smarter pilot to support small businesses across the UK to upskill, adopt digital technologies and create new supply chain opportunities.
- Innovation: Make the UK more attractive for businesses to invest in R&D here through funding mechanisms and joint ventures between government and industry and increase Innovate UK's budget and freedom on how they spend it.
- Energy: Invest, at the scale needed to trigger transformational change, in low carbon heat technologies, carbon capture, usage and storage, low-carbon hydrogen production and nuclear generation capacity.
Professor Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says:
“It is a crucial time for government to take practical actions to help the economy recover while addressing inequalities and reducing our carbon emissions. The actions proposed by the Academy and its partner organisations in the National Engineering Policy Centre reflect the level of UK engineering expertise available to address the challenges of developing the UK’s transport infrastructure, energy supply and digital networks to deliver an inclusive, sustainable economy. Done well, this will create more jobs and prosperity across the nation, addressing the needs of our future society.”