What is the role engineers play in policy?

Person writing on a desk with papers, a notebook and a mug

As engineers, we are involved in every aspect of daily life. We build cities, design software, create food, make cars and keep our critical infrastructure running smoothly. It is a broad portfolio of responsibilities, but at the core of what we do is solving problems. Right now, the world faces some of the greatest problems of modern times, ranging from climate change and disease to global inequality. As governments need to take action to ensure the welfare of their citizens, is it time engineers played a greater role in shaping policy?

In many countries, scientists have a large and well-established role in public policy. In the UK, for example, most government departments have a chief scientific advisor, and initiatives such as the University of Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy link together academic and policy professionals. And as the covid-19 crisis has unfolded, governments of many stripes across the world have been at pains to insist they too are following the science.

What, then, is the role of engineers? Is their expertise included in this scientific advice, or is it regarded as different? Several of the UK government Chief Scientific Advisors are engineers, including those for the Department for Transport and – less expectedly – the CSAs for the Department for International Trade and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Does their engineering background play a part in how they approach their roles?

There are some high profile examples of engineers helping to shape policy, for example senior technical external experts are called upon by select committees to give their opinion on topics such as long term infrastructure planning. In addition, industry bodies such as the Institution of Civil Engineers frequently publish position papers on topics such as northern powerhouse rail or regulation of utilities

Engineers are clearly present in policy making, but is there a common and comprehensive understanding of how engineers are embedded in the process and where the gaps are? We in the Engineering in Policy Network would like to find out if engineering expertise is routinely and effectively embedded into policy decision making, and if it can be done so more effectively. We would like to gather and share case studies and to do that we need your help. Do you have examples of where engineers have played a key role in shaping policy? Let us know at info@engineeringinpolicy.org.uk.