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We need a chief tech officer in Whitehall

  • Lack of engineering experience at the heart of government hampers UK business, argues Andy Hopper

  • Out of a total number of 650 MPs, it is disappointing to note that only 12 of them have any form of engineering degree. Contrast this with more than 140 who have gained law or history degrees. With this disparity, it is hardly surprising that there are no cabinet members with any engineering qualification or practical experience of the sector.

    With so much of our future economic success rooted in large-scale infrastructure projects, high-speed communications and advanced computing technology, surely we need to have leadership in place that has the right practical experience and an appreciation of the engineering challenges and opportunities that lie ahead?

  • If this does not exist within parliament, the short-term answer is to turn to the House of Lords, where we could create peerages to draw on the UK's best engineering talent.

    We are not short of world-class engineers worthy of a place in the Lords. And while we are changing things, how about taking a closer look at the ranks of senior civil servants and government advisers, where professional engineers are also conspicuous by their absence?

    Since the 1960s we have had chief scientific advisers, but the UK also needs a chief engineering and technology adviser. After all, many companies have at last woken up to the fact that they need to have a chief technology officer (CTO) or IT director on the board to recognise that technology underpins their competitiveness, efficiency and future success. So why not have a chief technology officer for UK plc?

    In the US earlier this year, Todd Park became the second person to hold this post at the White House since Barack Obama created the position in 2009. Park has founded two successful hi-tech companies – valuable experience for a British government that could do more to nurture tech start-ups.

    Take the preoccupation with intellectual property (IP), for example. While IP is important, it may have little value on its own. Government and universities must make IP more freely available to SMEs. If taxpayers have already funded universities to create the IP, why should they have to pay twice? Instead, universities should be encouraged and given incentives to kick-start the development of new technologies and products by giving IP to innovative businesses.

    The Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremonies in the summer celebrated British engineering talent from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Tim Berners-Lee. But if we are to remain at the forefront of engineering and harness emerging technology for UK plc, we need people with expertise and vision at the heart of government.

  • Professor Andy Hopper heads the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory and is president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology