Engineering advice in academia: where are we at?

One of the impetus for creating this network was to highlight the roles engineers play in the policy process, roles not always discussed in government or industry practice. This blog post looks to academia: has the use of engineering advice in policy making ever been an object of academic study? 

A 2020 article by UCL’s Dr. Cooper and colleagues tackles this question, making the case that engineering advice has not been a focus in academia perhaps because the science advice literature is thought to include engineering advice. However, the authors argue that science and engineering should be distinguished to fully understand the roles engineers play in the policy process.

While it is understood that there is overlap between the two, the authors explain that scientists study the world to understand it whereas engineers, like policy makers, ‘make something’ to improve some aspect of the world. This distinction has consequences for both academia and practice in that it shows the need to study engineering advice independently, highlights its importance for policy and implies that engineering and policy might work hand in hand or compete in certain circumstances.

This initial observation has led Cooper and colleagues to carry out a small-scale qualitative study at the UK’s former Department of Energy and Climate Change. This included several interviews of mid-level policy officials working on engineering related topics.

The interviews returned the following findings of utmost importance for engineering advice:

  • Policy officials turned to engineers for knowledge on the technical performance of different technologies, a perspective not found in science advice. This included help on understanding standards to support heat pump performance and the different industry positions within this market. 
  • Effective use of engineering advice relied on its visibility. Policy officials were often unaware of the engineers’ work or couldn’t easily understand or access it. This resulted in policy development occurring in parallel, where policy makers and engineers would work on solutions to a problem separately, rather than together.
  • The latter was less of an issue in policy teams with ‘embedded’ engineers (engineers working as policy makers), with the embedded engineers noting the complementarity of engineering advice and policy practice.

The authors conclude that engineering’s ability to answer questions about real-world effects makes engineers perhaps a more pragmatic group of experts. This in turn, makes engineer’s knowledge more potent for officials wanting to make policy that works. The final line of the article makes the case for a new strand of (academic) research into ‘engineering advice’. 

Of course, further work is needed to understand engineering advice in different settings and identify what constitutes best-practice in this area. My PhD research, carried under the supervision of Dr. Cooper, aims  to further the academic understanding of engineering advice. I am currently using ethnographic methods to uncover how engineers and policy makers interact across the UK government with a particular focus on renewable energy production modelling. The Engineering in Policy network is also a great forum to continue this discussion and capture a diverse range of views and experiences from our members. If you have any thoughts on this topic get in touch with us!