In 2012, the Journal of Computational Physics published 490 papers, in 2002 the same journal printed only 273. For the Journal of Biomechanics, 2002 saw 147 publications and in 2012 there were 536. This trend can be seen all over the academic world, with competition increasing and the number of research publications rising. Whilst although some elitists in academia may question the relevance or impact of some submissions, the trend is nevertheless quite clear – human knowledge and understanding is increasing, and at a greater rate every year.
The academic system on which the modern world is based and through which a vast number of inventions and discoveries are found goes back to the age of enlightenment. The reformation of society using reason through the scientific method, brought news and information of the latest discoveries to households across the developed worlds. The academic system allowed specialists in every field to announce discoveries (and their proofs) for exploitation by industry. Thus the most promising discoveries can be quickly developed further and put to use for consumption by the general populace – thus improving the quality of life. This system has been very successful, take for example the recent discovery (2004) of how to extract graphene from bulk graphite. The application of graphene may have a hugely disruptive effect on the digital world with the potential to bring significant improvements to electronic devices. Indeed this system of scientific research and reporting has been so successful that as emerging economic powers have risen such as China and India, so have their contributions to this system of collaborative discovery and learning.
Unfortunately the frontiers of science, maths, medicine, engineering and other fields now extend far beyond what can be reasonably expected for non-experts to understand. Indeed, with publications titles such as “Mechanical and thermal properties of composites of cis and trans-polyisoprene blends filled with Al-powder ”, it is entirely reasonable to expect non-experts in that field to not understand latest advances. This however, may have overriding consequences for national industry as a whole – it can only be expected that if industry leaders can not be inspired by the latest discoveries then the potency of a collaborative academic-industrial world is reduced. This can already be seen in the case of graphene for example. Despite being developed by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester, little has been done by UK industry to follow up on the discovery since. This became evident in January when CambridgeIP categorised the list of patent publications on graphene by country. China came top with 2,204, USA was second with 1,754, South Korea followed with 1,160, and the UK? 54 patents ~ 1% of the total. However this trend is not new, in the 1940s Eric Laithwaite began working on a linear induction motor which formed the foundation for maglev trains, these now hold the international record as the fastest trains in the world – having reached record speeds of 361 mph in Japan. In this case it was the Japanese that saw the potential for this technology and exploited it nationally, whilst the UK transportation system is still currently struggling with its Victorian heritage.
The lack of British industry to capitalise on these advancements to their full potential has been common ground for decades. However, the question “why?” can be answered by looking at the health of the engineering sector. Whether electronic, medical, mechanical, civil or aeronautical fundamental discoveries such as graphene and maglev require engineering strength to transform into real-terms benefits. This is fundamental but can be further capitalised upon by a more general understanding by industrial leaders of modern advancements. The solutions to this problem may even seem quite apparent – more focus on science and engineering earlier on in the education system followed by longer and more comprehensive graduate degrees, ones that bring graduates of today to speed with the latest technology. Individuals should be encouraged to join technical fields out of passion and not purely for wealth - In 2009 less than 50% of graduates proceeded to become engineering professionals. Also, more investment in the engineering industry, although the financial crisis has highlighted the precariousness of relying purely upon the financial services sector, public investment in the industry should focus on development of coming generations from school to industry and not just purely upon increasing borrowing to engineering firms and start-ups.
Thus to promote this kind of growth, an engineering prize has been announced (Feb. 2012), akin to the Nobel prize to motivate the engineering industry. This has been coupled to a call for more engineers and an attempt to increase borrowing to industry. However, the general approach seems scattered and not systematically thought through. Announcements of such schemes focus mainly upon where the UK lies relative to China/India and how this will be used to take the UK out of recession. This is rather myopic and instead plans should focus on developing the nation as a whole for the next 5 decades or more – not just on short term goals to please voters. The scientific and engineering potential of the UK is immense and has been proven throughout its history. However, without appropriate long term planning by the government and sustained encouragement (despite whichever political party is in power), the industry will become divided and opportunities will be missed.