Focus on engineering to overcome global challenges

Britain has always been a hotbed of engineering ingenuity – a quick glance around the South West will conjure up iconic names such as Brunel, Smeaton and Trevithick.

But as a nation, we now face a challenge. Amid a number of complex issues, and government pledges about increasing productivity while enhancing research excellence, the Royal Academy of Engineering has projected an annual shortfall of 20,000 graduates for the coming years.

Thus, the launch of our own School of Engineering comes at a very opportune time and could put Plymouth centre stage – both regionally and nationally – when it comes to inspiring the outstanding engineers of the future.

Many of the key challenges facing society today – such as access to sustainable development, and creating sustainable societies and economies within the context of geopolitics – are both complex and global.

Living with the impacts of climate change, and tackling the energy trilemma of security, equity and sustainability, requires collaboration to ensure technological advances and engineering solutions are fit for purpose, sustainable and will be of real value in improving people’s lives.

Engineering has always been all about finding the technological solutions to global issues, and areas where new technology is developing rapidly include big data, high performance computing, advanced materials, new energy systems and autonomous systems.

But it is imperative for engineers to work closely together with natural and human scientists, and other disciplines, to find solutions that are not only technologically proficient but also easily and widely implementable.

The UK government’s recently published Industrial Strategy highlights a desire to improve living standards and economic growth by increasing productivity and driving growth across the whole country, with the need to build on excellence in research and innovation a key component.

It stresses the need to ensure that capital, institutional influence and government attention is targeted there effectively. It also aims to boost STEM skills at all levels, and to promote the commercialisation of research by bringing together sectors and places to meet the priorities of business and the needs of society.

From a regional perspective, the recent Science and Innovation Audit commissioned by the then Department for Business, Innovation and Skills identified areas of world-leading research and innovation in the South West and Wales region, including aerospace, microelectronics, energy generation, environmental technologies, and digital systems.

The South West also boasts high tech marine and marine renewables resources, with infrastructure unique in the UK, alongside pioneering research and development capacity.

In fact, it was this area that was identified as an opportunity for growth to capitalise on the region’s unique natural environment and marine renewables assets to establish a world-leading marine renewables test-bed for commercialisation.

School of Engineering aims to expand University’s reputation for world-leading research and teaching

Marine engineering will remain a key focus but it is now planned to expand the School's reach across not only the sciences, but also elements of the arts, architecture, medicine and dentistry

Read our news release about the launch of the new School

As a University, we are already well down the road of cross-industry – and in fact, cross-discipline – collaboration, with close working relationships between engineering and natural sciences as well as medicine, arts and human sciences.

The new School can build on this, allowing us to promote and raise the profile of engineering and to tackle real world problems and global challenges, working together with industry partners in direct response to the government call.

Embedded as a significant contributor to the region, and with strong industry engagement, we have one of the largest Industrial Advisory Committees in any UK university, who support our programmes with student placements, site visits, guest lectures and dissertation project interviews.

This model of industry-facing and research-informed teaching – supported by well-equipped and supported laboratories and teaching spaces – ensures sustainability and resilience and the agility to respond to industry need.

Building on the successful model for achieving strong teaching-research-commercial engagement nexus, exemplified by the COAST Laboratory, we have ambitious plans to further improve our facilities and provide our students and researchers with innovative and exciting environments in which to study and work.

In an exciting new initiative, the university is developing plans for new flexible laboratory spaces in a multi-disciplinary collaborative environment, where research, teaching and commercial activities share the same spaces.

Our vision is to develop flexible central teaching labs and project spaces, linked to adjacent research labs, supported by dedicated instructors and specialist technical teams.

At the heart of engineering has always been the synthesis of scientific knowledge to find creative, practical solutions to problems in the real world, and our research seeks fundamental understanding of scientific problems, which also have immediate use for society.

Engineering has a role in bringing areas of science into practical applications so that new knowledge is not only sought for its own sake but for the benefit of mankind.

As Robert Louis Stevenson once said:

“Even the mechanical engineer comes at last to the end of his figures … face to face with the discrepancies of nature and the hiatuses of theory. With the civil engineer...the complexity and fitfulness of nature, are always before him. He has to deal with the unpredictable, with those forces (in Smeaton’s phrase) that are subject to no calculation and still he must predict, will calculate them, at his peril.”