Tuesday 19 March 2013

National Science and Engineering Week: Britain’s growing Tech Sector

This week is National Science and Engineering Week, the UK’s widest grassroots celebration of all things science and engineering. The theme this year is Invention and Discovery, a theme particularly relevant to Britain, given our great history of discovery and invention. However, recently it feels as if we have been falling behind countries such as Germany, which seems to make everything from washing machines to cars, with its multinational corporations.

The problem we have is that in recent years of the work of engineers has not gained as much respect as it has done historically. In Germany, the profession of engineering is highly respected and perceived as an aspirational career, with engineers achieving the same prestige as doctors. I share the view with James Dyson that this is not the case in Britain. Dyson believes the best time to foster the potential of an engineer is at childhood and that continuing to study mathematics beyond GCSE level is key. 90% of German students continue with maths after 16, compared to Britain where we have the lowest levels of post-16 maths study in the developed economies. A week to celebrate science and engineering is incredibly important to help generate excitement for scientific professions and guide young people to make important subject decisions for their future.

Growing Technology Sector

Google Campus
Whilst we may not currently be as pioneering at mechanical engineering as we once were, according to Matt Cowan of WIRED, the tech sector in London is a new world with talent, ambition and global success – and he thinks it’s about to explode. The biggest internet companies have recently started investing in London. Facebook has just opened its first engineering office outside the US, in Covent Garden. Google sees the potential of Britain’s tech start-ups and last year set up Campus, a seven-story building right next to ‘silicon roundabout’ that provides workspaces, free wifi and mentorship opportunities to fast-growing small businesses. No matter what people say about Google’s UK tax arrangements, it is certainly contributing directly to London’s tech community. There are other government initiatives helping this sector to boom, including the introduction of an ‘entrepreneur’s visa’, and tax breaks for early investors through initiatives such as the Enterprise Investment Scheme.

Taxing Growth

There is further to go before we feel the full benefits of this growing industry, and we need to nurture it. According to Robin Klein, venture partner at Index Ventures, at least 20-30 companies (e.g. Wonga, JustEat, Zoopla) are ready to IPO but their growth is being hampered by taxes. Index Ventures, along with the CBI, TechCity, NESTA and the City of London are calling for the abolition of stamp duty on investments in the AIM market as a straightforward way to encourage more capital into the technology sector. The London Stock Exchange is also arguing for the tax not to be applied to its new High-Growth Segment when it launches later this month. Waiving the tax would promote growth for minimal cost considering the duty on AIM shares accounts for only 3% of total stamp duty revenue. This is something George Osborne could easily announce in the budget tomorrow. It would not only garner praise from the above mentioned institutions, but also contribute to the growth that all, including the chancellor, so crave.

Current State of British Engineering

Vietinbank, Hanoi.  Built
by Foster + Partners 2010
There are positive signs that maths is becoming increasingly popular post-GCSE. Last year around 80,000 students were entered into A-level maths and this number is predicted to rise to 100,000 this summer. You could argue that Britain is experiencing a golden age of engineering. We have just built a whole Olympic Park, on time and under budget, Crossrail is creating a new railway system right through the centre of London – a huge engineering fete in its own right. Similarly HS2 has been given the go-ahead and will create a new high speed railway line from London to Birmingham and further to Scotland in the future. Internationally, our architects are often the preferred choice for new buildings worldwide (just look at Foster + Partners’ project map), creating technically innovative buildings. We engineer and build Range Rovers in Solihull that are delivered all over the world; we make vacuum cleaners and probably the best hand dryers on the planet.
Last year the Raspberry Pi computer, a British invention, was launched to international acclaim. It is a tiny computer, costing just £25, designed to be a ‘breadboard’ for people wanting to learn about computer engineering. Google is giving 15,000 of them to British schools for free to help get young people familiar with computing. Hopefully with this host of great recent achievements Britain has had on the world stage and weeks like the National Science and Engineering Week we can encourage the next generation of Scientists and Engineers and continue these successes in the future.

Richard Sowler

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