Entrepreneur Sir James Dyson has produced a report titled Ingenious Britain for the Conservative Party urging a raising of the profile of science in the UK to help diversify the economy and boost growth. The pdf of Ingenious Britain can be downloaded here.
James Dyson makes the same argument that he made in 2004 when he gave the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, that the British economy cannot be sustained as merely a service economy. Manufacturing is the key to future success and it should lie in high tech goods where we have a competitive advantage. In fact things are now worse since his 2004 lecture as Design and Technology has been phased out of the curriculum at many schools since it was made non-statutory.
The part of Dyson’s report title Education: Getting young people excited about science and engineering made me think about James May’s Toy Stories which showed that although children initially thought stuff like Airfix and Meccano was boring that given the chance to play with it they really changed their minds. I think that if each class of maybe Year Six in schools were given a Meccano set then we’d end up with a lot more people going into engineering. Ironically Meccano is a British engineering success story that due to lessening interest in engineering in this country ended up becoming a foreign success story. Meccano is the only French manufacturer of toys that are internationally recognized, manufacturing part of its line in France.
Dyson believes that his company represents a good model for future British economic growth whereby the assembly of the products is done overseas but all the important engineering research and design is done in the UK. If this is to be the case for future success for British companies then we need to produce more engineers in our universities. In fact our universities are producing many excellent engineers unfortunately rather than being homegrown a large proportion of these are from overseas and many then return home to work.
Analysts of the current British economic crisis argue that the pound needs to remain low in order to boost are exports. But I believe that this does not need to be the case if the products we are exporting are competitive in ways more than just price. The Dyson vacuum cleaner is an excellent example, it is more expensive than rival vacuums but the benefits are worth the premium and it sells extremely well overseas even when the strong pound created an even greater premium in price than seen in the UK. Truly innovative products which are protected by patents can sell well and command a premium overseas.
Much of the British economic growth of the last few decades has been due to greater consumerism but the recession has brought that to a head and we are unlikely to see growth in the same way. We need to be more than just a nation of shopkeepers and because engineers are generally paid better than people in the service sector then a move to a greater proportion of the workforce being comprised of engineers is a good thing in many ways.
As well as the encouragement of engineering as a career choice Dyson recommends that tax breaks should be given in order to encourage investment into the development of innovations which do not necessarily produce a quick return on investment but do represent good long term growth.