Engineers need to be more forceful if they are to get their message across to politicians, an audience at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) heard on 21 February. Labour MP Ian Gibson, who addressed a joint meeting of ICE and IMechE on the subject of 'Talking to politicians', told listeners that engineers still have a lot to do when it comes to engaging with politicians and the general public.
"Politicians know damn all about science, but they're good at soundbites," said Gibson who came into politics from an academic background; he served as the dean of the school of biological sciences at the University of East Anglia from 1991 to 1997.
Gibson, who sits on the select committee on innovation, universities and skills as well as being a former parliamentary chair of the office of science and technology, said that "engineering should be an easy sell" in this regard. "Engineers actually make things happen," he explained. "It's engineers not rock stars who build the bridges and sink the wells in the third world," he added.
Gibson conceded however it was difficult to get a technological message across in a political environment which favoured "policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy."
On the practicalities of dealing with the media, Gibson had advice that was more tangible during the question and answer session.
"Engineers need to have a harder edge when it comes to selling their message to the media and to politicians." He also advocated getting more young people involved in this aspect of their respective institutions' mission. But he allowed that this was easier said than done when a younger audience member ventured that "most young people cared more about the Ministry of Sound than a ministry of science and technology".
The need for more media training in the profession and even the hiring of PR companies were also mooted by several audience members.
Conservative MP John Redwood however told NCE that the best advice for engineers was not to engage with politicians at all if they could help it.
"You need to know what your message is and then you have to talk about it, write letters, go to the media. Getting your message across is really just a subset of marketing and selling and sometimes you need to sell that message to government," he said.
Redwood warned against the soft-shoe approach: "Wining, dining and schmoozing is not the way to go about it. You must always bear in mind that government must always be scrupulously above board."
At the end of January, the innovation, universities and skills committee announced that it was holding what is expected to be a wide-ranging inquiry into engineering with the provision of engineering skills in the UK likely to be high on the agenda.
The committee will examine case studies in particular areas of interest, the first two of which will be announced at the same time as the main inquiry. The deadline for written submissions to the general inquiry and for the first two case studies will be 15 March 2008.
"This is your chance to really get that message across," said Gibson. Focusing on the skills issue, Gibson suggested that engineers should be asking themselves the question: "What kind of engineering students do we want to produce?".
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