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Engineering diversity is key to tackling global challenges, says Sir Patrick Vallance at IMechE 175 event

Joseph Flaig

'Engineering has a major central role to play in global challenges, whichever ones you choose to pick,' Sir Patrick Vallance told the audience at the IMechE 175 event
'Engineering has a major central role to play in global challenges, whichever ones you choose to pick,' Sir Patrick Vallance told the audience at the IMechE 175 event

Engineering must become more diverse to rapidly tackle the “huge” societal challenges facing the world, said Sir Patrick Vallance at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers last night (27 January).

With climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and numerous other issues threatening lives and quality of life around the globe, the government’s chief scientific advisor stressed the importance of diverse experience and thinking to creating effective engineering solutions.

Speaking at the launch of the institution’s 175th anniversary celebrations at its headquarters in Birdcage Walk, Westminster, Sir Patrick focused on “invention, the ability to use that invention, and what creates the impulse to allow that to be better.”

The work of engineers is central to solving problems caused by modern trends, he said, such as healthcare challenges related to ageing populations, environmental collapse and mass migration caused by climate change, and the privacy infringements and increasing inequality that can result from increased interconnectivity.

“These are issues of global concern that are getting more and more concerning,” he said. “There’s no doubt that engineering has a major central role to play in the global challenges, whichever ones you choose to pick.”

Now a household name thanks to his key part in formulating and promoting the government’s response to the pandemic, Sir Patrick highlighted the importance of engineering in the fast-paced reaction to the growing threat in early 2020. Rapid research, vaccine development, understanding transmission and mass testing have all been enabled by experts across numerous sectors, he said, from automation and lab robotics to computational fluid dynamics. “Without engineering, they simply couldn’t have happened,” he said.  

While the UK is learning to live with Covid-19 as it becomes treated more as an endemic disease, climate change is a challenge that becomes more pressing with each passing year.

“We need to invent new ways of trying to solve the problems relating to carbon emissions, but it’s worth remembering that if you haven’t invented and discovered it now, the chance of being able to deploy that, at the scale required in the time required, is very low,” Sir Patrick said during his talk, which was streamed online. 

He stressed the need to focus on solutions that already exist, and to work on massive deployment of existing technologies at scale, while also supporting the development of promising new routes to emissions reductions and growing industries such as renewable energy, large-scale batteries, heat pumps and nuclear power.

Systems engineering and systems thinking “have got to be central” as engineers mitigate and provide adaptations to climate change, he said. “We’re not going to be able to tackle these things that as a society we care about, and we need to care about, without really understanding how we come up with engineering solutions.”

‘Big, difficult problems cannot be solved by monolithic thinking’

Despite engineering’s paramount importance in tackling global challenges, Sir Patrick highlighted a problem that the sector itself has to solve – diversity. With only 12% of the UK engineering workforce made up of women in 2020, and similar issues relating to recruitment and promotion of engineers from different backgrounds, “we don’t have as much diversity as we need,” he said.

“The problems that we’re all trying to tackle are huge, important societal challenges… things that if we can solve, the world will be a better place. And we know that big, difficult problems cannot be solved by monolithic thinking, they cannot be solved by monolithic groups that all look the same, have the same background, have the same belief structure, the same knowledge base.”

Taking part in a question-and-answer session with IMechE president Peter Flinn and chief executive Dr Alice Bunn after his talk, Sir Patrick set out some potential ways of increasing diversity, in a response to a question from former president Carolyn Griffiths.

“Clearly it isn’t something that government can solve, the government can do certain things but this is a societal issue,” he said. “You ask any child about those global challenges and they want them to be sorted out, they’re interested in it and they want to see a solution to that, and actually they know there are practical solutions to it, and that’s exciting, and that’s something people want to get involved with.

“Very often, I think what’s happening is that engineering isn’t positioned quite in that way, so people end up thinking of engineering as something different, separate from that, rather than a problem-solving answer to the major societal challenges.

“I think we’ve all got to work to get this right, to get teachers and others encouraging as many to get into this field and into science, and I do think that’s possible. We can see big changes, we can see levels of enthusiasm for these things is quite high, and I hope we’re on the cusp of seeing this changing, and the numbers are all moving in the right direction – but it would be nice if they moved a bit faster.”

Finishing his talk a few minutes earlier, he had praised the mission of the institution.

“Just as it was in the mid-18 century, just as it was in the mid-19th century when this institute was formed, engineering – in all its guises – remains absolutely central to solving the big challenges of the day, and is a way in which those challenges get settled,” he said.

“The modern aim of this institute is improving the world through engineering, and I think that’s exactly what it can do.”

For more information on the IMechE’s 175th anniversary, visit the celebration’s homepage.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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