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Should we invest in science or engineering?

There has been a heated debate between engineers and scientists about where government funding should be applied for greatest benefits.  Lord Browne (Royal Academy of Engineering) has advocated spending more of the £4B science budget on engineering and high value manufacturing whilst Lord Rees (Royal Society) has maintained the benefits of investing in pure sciences.
 

The theories behind these two views are that investment in engineering and manufacturing can bring much more immediate benefits to the economy than investing in pure science.  The scientists say that investment in pure science may not produce immediate benefits but is essential for the long term growth of the economy and to retain the scientific base in the UK.

Within the work of the KTNs there are discussions on the correct balance between investment in "challenge lead" activities, that may bring more immediate and tangible socio-economic benefits, and the more traditional "technology push" activity of industry and engineers.  

Within this landscape of applied research or pure science, challenge lead or technology push there are investment opportunities that do not fit neatly into the traditional boxes - one of these is the Square Kilometre Array.

This is an internationally funded project to build the next generation of radio telescope for investigating the origins of the universe - as such an apparent pure science activity.  Another perspective of the SKA is that it is the largest data acquisition and data processing project that has ever been conceived and that the advances gained in the design and construction will shape the electronics and ICT sector for many years to come.  There are many examples from NASA of how their work has lead to practical products - and 802.11 (wi-fi) came from work by Australian radio astronomers.  

These arguments provide a very interesting backdrop to the Square Kilometre Array project and could form a strong case for the UK to invest in the building of this next generation radio telescope.

The UK has an excellent pedigree in Radio Astronomy, as a scientific discipline, and the SKA will provide an instrument that will enable significant  advances in our understanding of the origins of the universe.  But it's design and construction is also a huge engineering task that will provide advances in technology and manufacturing that will be applicable to many areas.

Thus the SKA provides the opportunity for engineering excellence to allow pure science to advance. The fact that projects like the SKA can provide a wide range of benefits has already been recognised by the European Commission who funded a project to report on the benefits of SKA (under their COST programme).

Engineering is a practical science and some of its greatest advances are made when engineers are asked to do, apparently impossible, tasks for the first time.


So maybe more of the science budget should be allocated to areas that can advance both engineering and science in equal measure.  It would also promote closer links between industry and universities - engineers and scientists.

To learn more about the challenges and promise of building the Square Kilometre Array join the SKA SIG - ktn.innovateuk.org/web/ska and book your place at the "Square Kilometre Array - An Industry Perspectiveconference on the 16th September in London.

Nigel

nigel.rix@espktn.org

 

Comments

Comments

4 people have had something to say so far

an interesting piece Nigel. I did some work towards a study for the South African government to demonstrate the benefits of investing in the pathfinder stage of SKA. It was clear that these Big Science projects bring benefit on so many levels from direct engineering and supply contracts, through spin-out technologies, education and training and even tourism. As with CERN however one of the biggest economic benefits is that it enables companies to develop technical capabilities by working on such challenging projects. The technology developed may often only have a niche use but the skills developed by the companies help them to develop products and services for a much wider set of customers. An interesting difference with SKA is that in many cases there is more than the usual market of a handful of pieces of kit if this array of thousands of telescopes goes ahead.
Posted on 06/09/10 17:24.
The question should be "how much should we be investing in science and engineering" and not "should we be investing in science or engineering". Today we have a decreasing number of students intake to STEM (Science Technology Engineeirng and Mathematics) subjects in Highe Euducation (HE) and Further Education (FE) institutions. In schools it is not clearly understood what should be done and how much support is required to assist teachers to get students to be interested in STEM subjects. What are the changes we need to implement and what sort of reviews shoudl be carried at primary, secondary education levels to improve interest and uptake of these subjects. Astronomy remains an important area asit is vital to understand and technolgy for science and engineering to work together in developing products and services for teh rapidly changing world we now live in.The debate is one that requires collective contribution, collective consideration and immediate action. Education, statutory, voluntary and the business sectors need to come on board and act to make a difference. The sitaution calls for innovation and creativity.
Posted on 11/10/10 09:13.
Nigel - your distinction between the RAE and RS cases is a good way to stimulate debate and the event you ran on the SKA illustrated how useful is the role of the KTN in working to close the 'gap' between 'big science' projects and engineering solutions that create wealth for the UK.

Simon's comments reinforce the argument for KTN involvement as there is not always a clear and reliable path forward. The case for the KTN in this position is very strong and, in my experience, provides a benefit to those projects that have a very long time-frame as commercial exploitation of emerging technology can be stimulated before the main project is completed. But it does require experience of both the academic and business worlds to be able to make potentially valuable links - which is where the KTN plays its part.
Posted on 11/10/10 10:50.
Given the overlap between science and engineering it is worth recognising how much these areas complement each other and move on to look at where the UK advantage lies.
Perhaps we also need to look at the other side of this debate and consider how industry can be more tied into what is developed within the research environment as the boundary layer is often the major issue. KTNs offer a world leading capability to deliver connections and provide the link to emerging ideas and technologies that offer so much. We should be looking at a reasonable balance of challenge led curiosity reserch and technology pull. Recognising that these should be in areas of uk strengths. There is no point in developing a manned space programme when our expertise lies more in the satellite and sensor technologies.
I have no shame in focussing on the commercial outcomes and the SKA is an ideal example where the UK leads on the science but doesn't focus on the commercial opportunities. UKTI has a dedicated secttion focussed on international larage science faclity opportunities but this needs to be marrried to KTN approaches, Reserch Council considerations and industry bodies.
One final new example in the life science area the sequencing of genes and the analysis of information is a reserch, engineering, and informatics issue. What is sometimes lost is the recognition that most such advances are now multidisciplinary so parhaps we should invest more in mechanisms to link different expertise together as that is a key UK strength.
Posted on 09/11/10 09:12 in reply to Antony Hurden.

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