Helena Pozniak
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A fast-changing world needs scientists and technology experts

The Telegraph

From household robots to flying cars and “smart” houses, certain inventions that scientists predicted would be commonplace by now haven’t quite got there. In other areas, however, technology and science have made astounding leaps and many of today’s jobs would be unrecognisable to a previous generation — laser eye surgery or app development, for example — just as careers in the future will be radically different.

New technologies such as 3D printing, wearable computing and graphene promise to disrupt traditional businesses or forge new markets. “We are often broadsided by a new technology that no one saw coming or imagined would be used in a certain way,” says Mark Champkins, inventor in residence at the Science Museum, London. He imagines, albeit tongue in cheek, a world where food designers create 3D-printed dinners, editors assemble bespoke augmented reality, and “dream augmenters” help sleepers make the most of their brains as they slumber.

What we do know is that we are fundamentally short of science and engineering professionals at all levels, and sectors such as space, energy, food security, medical science and a vast range of information technologies will be hungry for skilled labour in the years to come. Government figures have forecast around 2.74 million engineering job openings between 2010 and 2020 and a subsequent need for double the number of engineering graduates coming through — up to 87,000 every year — to meet demand by 2020.

While the Government has ring-fenced spending for scientific research and partnerships are forming between universities and business, this can lead to disproportionate focus on “high end” scientific careers, believes Yvonne Baker, a Chartered chemical engineer and director of the National Science Learning Centre in Heslington, North Yorkshire. “Many young people are interested in science, but they don’t think ‘people like them’ go on to have scientific careers,” she explains. Hundreds of different types of apprenticeships exist across science and engineering, however, and these can lead to a range of university-level or professional qualifications.

When a survey conducted by Engineering UK asked members of the public three years ago to name the engineering innovations of the last 50 years that have had the greatest impact on the way we live, two thirds of respondents could not name anything at all, says Paul Jackson, Engineering UK’s chief executive. When the survey was repeated this year, around two thirds of respondents could actually identify an engineering advance that had a direct influence on people’s lives — clean water, the mobile phone and personal computing, among others. “The range and impact of engineering has been fundamentally misunderstood,” says Jackson, who describes the discipline of engineering as the practical and creative application of maths and science. Or, in the words of Albert Einstein: “Scientists investigate that which already is; engineers create that which has never been.”

While it’s difficult to second guess precisely what careers will be on the rise in the next decade and beyond, it is certainly possible for students to arm themselves with a set of skills and knowledge that will prime them for the careers of the future. “Maths and science open the door for so many careers and will always impress colleges and universities as well as employers,” says Eleanor Lamb, careers manager at Engineering UK.

Beyond GCSEs, mathematics with physics or chemistry — or both — is essential for many careers, including those related to medicine, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, space science and life sciences. A revamp of the school curriculum to replace ICT with computer science — or learning how to make rather than use applications — has been widely welcomed by technology industries. Too few girls, however, are opting for it at A-level; only 7 per cent for the year 2012/13, according to Government figures.

While certain technologies that look promising today may well turn out to be “clunkers” — in the words of minister for universities and science David Willetts — mathematicians and scientists can rest assured that their skills are highly transferable, and it’s not unusual to leapfrog between related industries. That said, there are some safe bets. “We know we are going to need transport, to keep the lights on, and to have access to water, even if we don’t quite know how we will get it all,” says Jackson.

Life sciences, a vast range of information technology, energy and material sciences are among sectors outlined by the Government as strong candidates for growth over the next 20 years. The space sector is also drawing attention, currently growing at 7.5pc a year and expected to offer a further 115,000 jobs by 2020. Where once naval ships would drop a bucket over the side and insert a thermometer in the water to report the results to meteorologists, now satellites use sophisticated sensors to deliver millions of ocean readings daily.

And Britain is a world leader in high performance small satellites, with around 40pc of the world’s supply made by Surrey Satellite Technology in Guildford. The UK space sector is six times more research-and-development-intensive than the rest of the UK economy, with graduates making up two-thirds of employees. Besides engineers and technicians, the space industry needs software designers, mathematicians and researchers in physics, geology, climatology, biology and many more areas to design experiments and use space data to learn more about the earth. By 2020, the UK aims to take 10pc of the world market — £40 billion out of a predicted £400 billion — with the greatest growth and opportunities expected in areas involving satellite services, such as television, communications, mapping and imaging. “Key technical subjects will be engineering and IT combined with geography, biology or healthcare, for example. The bulk of new jobs will focus on innovations that may not even have been thought of yet,” says Jeremy Curtis, head of education, UK Space Agency.

While satellites measure climate change, future scientists will need to work out how to produce food for an ever-growing population amid new weather patterns. Global warming has seen an increase in plant disease and the next generation of plant scientists is needed to develop crops that are more resistant to disease, flooding and drought. Scientists are also developing biofuel alternatives to fossil fuels and focusing on the use of plant science in the pharmaceuticals industry.

In fact, the UK hosts world leading research centres, says a report produced by the Society of Biology, which also calls for more graduates and asks for more targeted apprenticeships and industrial studentships as well as postgraduate courses. “Plant scientists have a vital role in developing better food and non-food production systems, biodiversity management and conservation of the natural environment. The need for them has never been greater,” says the report.

Another sector striding ahead is robotics — in part due to the emerging requirements of an ageing population. “The next generation of robots is likely to have enhanced capabilities in reading, grasping and poise that will make their presence among humans natural as well as valuable,” according to a report released by the Department of Business and Industry. Developing a robotic arm with the expertise to grasp a packet of cornflakes, or a device that understands the difference between porridge and sugar puffs, requires a huge range of software. Europe is the world’s leading robotics region and British universities are playing an important role. Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaboration between universities and industry, is spearheading Britain’s research into service robotics. And the University of Hertfordshire has developed a robot that is able to help children with autism play and communicate. Other technologies forecast to develop in Britain include: “big data” — managing vast amounts of complex information to analyse and solve problems; synthetic biology — creating regenerative medicine and organisms that meet a need, such as “bugs bacteria” that eat waste, for instance; energy storage; and advanced materials — using graphene in computing, for example. Exciting things are happening in UK universities, but industries are only as good as the skills of their people, points out Jackson. “If you want to ‘future proof’ your career, you need to have the basics, engage with maths and science and stay up to date,” he says.

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