Aiming to make things work better
Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, is a passionate advocate for economic regeneration through science, engineering and technology. Interview by Nick Smith
To get into Portcullis House in Westminster you need to pass through the sort of rigorous security procedures similar to those at Heathrow airport. There are metal detectors, luggage scanners and password-protected revolving doors. Someone takes a photograph of you before presenting you with a bar-coded visitor badge. A junior official collects you and will be in your presence for your entire visit. Photography is not permitted and there are armed policemen everywhere. I’m surprised my digital voice recorders make it into the building.
If this all seems a bit intimidating then the Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science quickly puts you at your ease. As Chi Onwurah and I take out seats in Meeting Room ‘O’ she points out that I have two identical DVRs, with a look of mock horror suggesting this might be over-thorough. I reply in the affirmative, explaining that I’m making a contingency for one redundancy failure. She laughs. ‘That’s right,’ she says: ‘you’re from the engineering magazine, aren’t you?’
We’re sitting in one of the most expensive office blocks in London. Home to 210 MPs, Portcullis House is on the north bank of the Thames, literally overshadowed by the Houses of Parliament. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, especially considering that its design included a new interchange for the Jubilee Line beneath it. We have exactly one hour, and given that I want the new Shadow Minister’s views on everything from women engineering to skills shortages, there’s not a moment to lose. But first I want to find out how Chi Onwurah – a remarkable woman of unremarkable origins – became Labour MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central, holding one of the key opposition roles in the SET sector.
‘I always was interested in science, although I seem to remember at the age of about five I had a brief interest in becoming an artist and got my mother to buy me some oils that I then never used. But, I’ve really been interested in science all along.’ She pauses as she tries to recall what initially inspired her: ‘no one in my family was a scientist or an engineer and so I had no real exposure to that world. But whatever it was, I’d do scientific experiments in the bath, and my ninth birthday present was a microscope.’
The big question for Chi was how to pursue that interest, whether as a pure scientist or an engineer. As she came to choose her A-levels it became clear to her that what she really wanted to do was ‘make the world a better place, and that for me is what engineers do.’ She was further inspired by the famous words of one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century, Albert Einstein: Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been. The die was cast. For Chi the world of engineering was a land of imaginative opportunity: partly a chance to be ‘involved in the progress of the human race, and partly it was simply an intellectual challenge.’
Chi’s background is hardly conventional for a person holding high office in public life: a black kid from a council estate in Newcastle, and the product of a one-parent family that had very little money. But, undeterred, she forged ahead, and here at the seat of British political power she remembers with pride and affection the reason she was able to become an engineer in the first place: ‘I benefitted from great local schools with great teachers who supported me in my choices.’ She remembers that there was a general assumption at the time – one that she too once believed – that girls couldn’t be good at science. But thanks to her teacher – Mr Dixon – this assumption was overturned. And with that her expectations changed. ‘I became good at maths because I was told that I could.’
This was a defining moment, because for Chi there was no structured careers advice on offer and there was little understanding at her school of what a career in science and engineering might mean. She remembers her work placement in a laboratory, testing sausage rolls for their meat content (‘I think it was 23 per cent’). But that was the closest her school could find to giving her exposure to the scientific environment. Even so, her comprehensive school played its part. A strong-minded female headmistress encouraged the SET subjects, while in Chi’s physics class there were more girls than boys. But her options were limited. In the classroom she was solving simultaneous equations, while in the real world she was finding out that not everyone wants to know how sausages are made.
What followed next was a ‘very bad time’ in the early Eighties reading electrical engineering at Imperial College, a place she describes as a white, male, public school environment. She felt that neither her professors nor her contemporaries were able to interact with women on an intellectual level, which she found ‘unhelpful in terms of encouraging me into the profession. The only women these people seemed to have met were their sisters. I’ve since been told that they were frightened of me.’ At one point she considered diverting her career towards the legal profession that she fleetingly though might be more suited to a black woman from a northern comprehensive. But she persevered with engineering.
The result of which was that in 1987 Chi became an engineer, and in the career that followed she played many roles including hardware and software engineer, as well as product manager. She eventually found herself European Market Development manager for an American company during the Dotcom crash. As with so many others, she found herself out of work for a time, but she managed to reset her career trajectory as a consultant in Nigeria; a country she’d often considered working in, not least because her father was Nigerian. At that time in the Western world there was ‘a lot of disillusionment and cynicism about technology, whereas elsewhere you could see how it was helping development.’
In Nigeria she assisted in the expansion of the telephone network, where the existing fixed line had a penetration of only two per cent. Within a year of Chi’s involvement this figure had risen to ten per cent. ‘We were literally improving communications, and that had an exponential effect on improving the economy and society.’ One of Chi’s proudest moments was when she handed her father the first mobile phone in the city where he lived. ‘I could see the difference we were making to people in the Nigeria and I wanted to bring that sort of change about in the UK.’ Chi returned to the UK in 2004, ‘looking for a job in public service.’
Roles in opposition
Today Chi is a Member of Parliament as well as Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science. She describes the latter position as being two jobs in one: ‘in opposition your role is to hold the government up to account. That’s important because the government is taking decisions that are going to determine our economic future.’ She elaborates, explaining that part of this role is to examine policies in innovation and science, drawing out the implications of proposed cuts in these fields, and to make clear to the electorate what are the implications of these issues. But the second part of her role – ‘which is more positive’ – is to assist in the development of her party’s policies on innovation and science.
This is important too, for several reasons. Central to Chi’s political philosophy is that the route to escaping the economic consequences of the current financial crisis is through growth: ‘you don’t recover from a crisis just by cutting back. You recover by growing. And a huge part of the engine of growth is science and technology, and the new industries that can secure the recovery in a sustainable way’ (see sidebar). Another reason is that there is ‘possibly for the first time in history’ currently a cross-party consensus that the SET sector is a critical part of our future. ‘For decades we have seen ourselves as part of a service economy – an explicit policy during the Thatcher government – and this has become an increasing part of our culture. But now everyone seems to agree that we need to grow our industrial and manufacturing base. And this is a great opportunity for science and technology to take it’s place at the heart of our economic life.’
But isn’t this exactly what great academic and scientific institutions such as the IET have always wanted? ‘Definitely. And it’s something that most engineers and scientists want as well. But my background in engineering and politics probably gives me a unique understanding of how this can be achieved. Engineers and scientists need to stand up for what we do more. We concentrate too much on hard skills – ‘what is the answer to the equation?’ – and we don’t concentrate enough on communicating the importance of what we’re developing. Another aspect of this is to champion the sector in politics and policies generally. But perhaps most important of all is the development of policies that will enable innovation and science to flourish. And that’s complicated.’
Chi goes on to explain that one of the ways of doing this is through the Technology and Innovation Centres, which she feels are not being supported by the coalition government, while RDA-funded centres are closing due to lack of funds. ‘So there are concrete policies we can support – or expose – that are having an impact on our innovation capability. Part of my job is to show that.’
Women in engineering
If science and technology can be seen as one of the components of economic growth, one of the obvious obstacles is the much-discussed skills shortage time bomb. ‘If you look at the IET report that I helped to launch in September 2010, one of the findings is that half of employers don’t think we’re going to have the skills we need for the new economy. So it’s clear that we’re not attracting people into engineering and technology further education. And that’s a huge issue.
Chi says that the responsibility for getting new blood into the sector lies with everyone, from the government through to industry and the institutions. ‘We should be more engaged with young people and schools. I think the image people get of our industry is often formed by the time you’re halfway through primary school. So while communicating with teenagers is important, we need to do more for younger age groups.’ The reason for this is that developing skills ‘is a long-term game, and we need to do more to change and improve our image. But to do this we need to look ahead, five, ten, fifteen years.’
To demonstrate how we’ve failed in this area the Shadow Minister gets out some figures. When she went to Imperial College in 1984 the proportion of women reading electrical engineering in tertiary education was an embarrassing 12 per cent. ‘And now, today, it’s exactly 12 per cent. Nothing’s changed in a quarter of a century. If you factor in that two-thirds of women don’t return to STEM after their maternity leave, we have a profession that is not representative of society.’
For Chi this is a major issue, primarily because we’re unnecessarily and artificially reducing the skills pool by not tapping into women – and ethnic minorities – as a resource. But also she sees the exclusion of women, for whatever reason, from the sector as a barrier to SET taking its place at the centre of our society, and in so doing providing stimulus for economic growth. ‘My experience as an engineer of 23 years is that there are aspects of the scientific and engineering culture that put women off. I have quite often felt excluded by being the only women in a boardroom like this.’
Changing the culture of an industry isn’t an easy task, Chi acknowledges. ‘We’ve been trying to do it for half a century. There isn’t a silver bullet, and any one expecting there to be a situation where in the next few years 50 per cent of all engineers will be women will be disappointed. But I have a sense of urgency about this that many in the profession don’t share. So many in our sector are complacent. We have to go out there and engage with society in a more positive way. We have STEM ambassadors and so on, but we’re not doing enough.’
The clock has wound down and Chi needs to get to her next appointment. But I’m allowed one more question, and so I ask if the plight of women and ethnic minorities would be helped if there were more parliamentarians with an engineering education. ‘There are more lawyers in parliament, or members with PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, than there are those with a background in science. So it probably would help. But what I’d say to our profession is we need to engage with the public through schools, industry and politics. And we need to emphasise that a career in engineering is a good starting point for other careers. The analytical mindset that training in engineering gives you is incredibly useful in other areas. As an engineer I like to focus on what I can do and change for myself. It’s every single engineer’s job to champion the profession that they are part of.’
I wonder what advice Chi would give to the parents of young children who may not know what a career in engineering may hold for them. For her it’s simple: ‘engineering and science are all about finding out and discovering and making things work well. And that is part of what we want to do as a human race – part of our natural fight for survival. But it can be great fun too, because we’re always answering questions. One of the greatest threats to existence is boredom, and a career in engineering means you’ll never be bored. There’s always a question to answer, and you can always make things work better. The world is not perfect.’
Innovation: The engine of progress
Speaking at the Annual Conference of the Professors and Heads of Electrical Engineering on 12th January 2011 at the IET’s headquarters at Savoy Place, Chi Onwurah highlighted some of the challenges facing the SET sector today. Here are some extracts from her speech.
‘Standing still is not an option. If government and industry can work together to invest in innovation I see a strong future. We need to be more commercially ambitious… But I am concerned at the messages going out to school students now as funding and support are cut… It is absolutely essential that all those involved in the profession shout out loud and clear how important engineering is to our country’s future; particularly to creating the quality jobs of the future and securing a sustainable recovery.
‘Properly regulated industry in a fair society, innovation should be the engine of progress for all. We need new industries if we are to have a balanced economy; one which is resilient to future crises. The financial crisis showed us the consequences of putting too many economic eggs in one basket.
‘I think the answer is around four main themes – a competition environment, infrastructure, skills and finance… Government should be active in ensuring a level playing field. For example, agreeing standards in audio visual encoding, developing a supply chain for wind power or rolling out the next generation broadband…
‘Government has a role in education and therefore helping put in place the skills we need. We need to ensure we provide the skills for the future as well as addressing any current shortfalls. We need more engineers and technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs. We need great engineering education if we are to continue to be world class in the face of increasing competition. ‘
This article first appeared in the Member News magazine of the Institute of Engineering and Technology