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Blog Series – Breaking BEIS: Risks & Opportunities for Engineering Policy (3/4)

By laurent.liote.19, on 1 March 2023

This 4-part blog series covers the recent dismantling of the UK government’s department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and what it means for engineering policy. We take this opportunity to look at what we can learn from the creation and internal organisation of BEIS to reflect on how machinery of government changes affect engineering in and for policy. This blog series is written by final year PhD candidate Laurent Lioté, working on engineering advice for energy policy and part of STEaPP’s Engineering Policy Group.      

“Growth, bills and inflation”: making sure economics is not at odds with engineering

Back in January the Prime Minister articulated his vision for the country, stressing the need to halve inflation, grow the economy and reduce debt. I am not going to discuss this in this post… However, of particular relevance for us today is how these promises have made it into the new “post-BEIS” ministerial remits.

The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero is tasked with “securing the UK’s long-term energy supply, bringing down bills and halving inflation”. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology’s remit is to “drive innovation, create new and better-paid jobs and grow the economy”. As we pointed out last week, both ministries are responsible for technically oriented policy fields (energy and innovation, respectively) yet their mission statements are very focused on economics concerns. Again, the economy is important, no doubt about that, but this economics-driven framing of energy and innovation policy could be at odds with engineering expertise. Let’s take a historical look at how this might manifest itself.

Going in back in time, DECC’s (The Department for Energy and Climate Change, BEIS’ predecessor) mission was to establish the UK as a world-leader in the fight against climate change. As we established, this led to an increase in in-house engineering expertise. Later, with the Conservative Party now in power, the vision shifted to “how can we use climate policy efforts for economic advantage”, which was closer to the view BIS (The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, BEIS’ other predecessor) had over the issue. When DECC and BIS merged to form BEIS, the focus of the energy and innovation portfolio thus became more about economics than science and engineering.

This shift in focus had two impacts on engineering advice for energy policy. First, it meant that engineers were less involved in policy vision setting (as opposed to economists) which constrained policy options down the line. Indeed, at BEIS, engineers often mentioned that alternative technical options could have been viable, but they weren’t able to suggest them early enough in the process to shape policy direction accordingly. Second, and linked to our first point, the engineers were sometimes at odds with the policy advisers as the technical solution proposed did not match the economic-driven policy imperative (i.e. the technical solution was too costly).

This doesn’t mean that engineering and economic advice are mutually exclusive, far from it. However, there are a few lessons to learn from DECC and BEIS that might prove useful for the new departments. First, despite the economic framing of their mission, the new ministries will benefit from involving engineers (and leveraging engineering expertise) when setting policy directions. Second, and this is more for the engineers and policy advisers working within the new departments, it is always useful to be clear on what the policy is aiming to achieve from the start. I talk about recognising mutual expertise and developing interactional expertise in more detail in this article (if of interest!).

No matter what, energy and innovation policy will always require a mix of engineering and economics (and many more disciplines) – it’s just a matter of recognising the importance of both and acting accordingly. Which brings me to my final question, engineering is undeniably important to energy and innovation policy so why does it still not get an explicit mention in the ministries’ names or remit?

Find out in next week’s episode of Breaking BEIS!

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