Time for science super heroes

By Graham Evans MP, The House Magazine

Monday 24th January 2011

In recent years it has become very trendy to talk about the need for a resurgence in British manufacturing. Politicians from all sides have talked so frequently about the importance of rebalancing the economy that it has become something of a cliché.

But cliché or not, if we want to get the economy back on a sustainable footing, then we will need a strong and vibrant manufacturing industry. And contrary to the fears of some trade unionists, the manufacturing industry can’t just operate with robots. So if we are going to have a renaissance in manufacturing, we need to have a highly skilled and flexible workforce.

As someone who has worked in the manufacturing industry most of his life (starting at BAE Woodford, which was well known for making aircraft such as the Lancaster, Vulcan and Nimrod), I am slightly baffled that some people seem to have discovered the importance of the sector only recently. None of my constituents need telling about how essential manufacturing is to our prosperity, past, present and future. In the centre of Northwich, there is a striking mosaic which simply says three words: salt, waterways, chemicals. These are the three elements which completely shaped the town and dominate its history.

On a recent visit to one of the biggest chemical companies in the world, I noticed on the wall of the reception, some drawings by local primary school children. The managing director explained to me that they had asked the children to draw pictures of what they thought the factory would be like, prior to their visit. The drawings were bleak, full of fire and smoke and people wearing gas masks.

Now these misconceptions perfectly highlight the problem the manufacturing industry has in attracting the brightest and best into the industry. Children who have such negative views of manufacturing are hardly going to go on to pursue a manufacturing career. And this is something we need to correct.

Manufacturing covers a broad spectrum of jobs: designers, engineers, researchers, managers, dreamers, inventors, and even sales and marketing. These are the people who are creating the wealth in our economy and we need more of them.

There is a growing skills shortage in the hi-tech manufacturing sector and in this era or globalisation, we need to sort this out if we are to have any chance of competing internationally in future. So we need to do more to encourage young people to choose to study science, mathematics and engineering. We need to challenge the misconceptions about the industry, which is getting greener and  more efficient all the time. But we also need to teach children more about the importance of manufacturing to our history. Too many children are taught an almost Marxist version of history when it comes to the industrial revolution, focusing on exploitation and misery and ignoring the massive long-term improvements in the standard of living.

The Dyson Review is an excellent piece of work that sets out many of the things we need to be doing to harness the ambition, skill and ingenuity of young people, such as improving the financing of hi-tech start-ups. If we succeed, those primary school children who drew those grim pictures could be the ones leading entirely new industries in the future, providing thousands of jobs and creating new wealth.