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How can engineers make a difference in the policy development process?

6 February 2013

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On 6 December, the Royal Academy of Engineering played host to a CSaP Professional Development Policy Workshop for early-career engineers. Bringing together policy officials and academics with first-hand experience of the policy development process, the workshop presented examples of where engineering advice has played a significant role in how policies and decisions are made.

Chaired by Dr Robert Doubleday, a panel of engineers and scientists described a broad range of policy areas where engineers can make an important contribution. Examples ranged from opening up opportunities for engineering firms to trade internationally, to providing urgent advice in life-threatening situations such as the 2011 Japanese nuclear disaster – where advice was needed on whether Brits in Japan should remain or be evacuated – and addressing the balance of interest between industry, science and pragmatic engineering in the 2010 volcanic ash problem.

“Having an understanding of systems is important”, explained one panellist as he went on to describe how some government departments were ‘technically illiterate’. It was noted that although DECC is now employing an increased number of engineers, there was still a shortage of people with analytical skills to carry out other non-engineering jobs in government.

Subsequently, many engineering issues are outsourced; the Royal Academy of Engineering is a much used source of advice to government, which in turn makes use of its Fellows, staff and secondees from academia for their engineering expertise.

However, there is a challenge for engineers who have never been involved in the policy process – it’s not enough to be correct; it’s also knowing how and when to present the evidence. “The ability to effectively communicate technical information to non-scientists can have a real impact on policy, and is key to having a successful career as an engineer in government”, explained one panellist. “You have to keep repeating yourself” she said, “and keep the message simple without diluting it.”

“It’s a two-way process”, explained another panellist who is currently on secondment in BIS, “you can learn a lot from non-technical people too. The point was also made that policy makers are busy people, “so be concise, get to the point, and above all identify exactly what they are looking for and address that immediately – they are more likely to respond positively to information they can get to grips with easily.”

For more information on this workshop, including a list of speakers, please click on the event in the right-hand panel.

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