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Engineering Tied to Economic Development

By Kevin Wilcox

A new report by the Royal Academy of Engineering finds that, globally, countries that invest the most in engineering reap economic benefits.

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There is a demonstrable link between a country’s overall investment in engineering education and practice and its gross domestic product per capita, according to a recent research report.

November 8, 2016—A new research report in the United Kingdom from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) helps make the case for increased spending on engineering education and infrastructure, finding that there is a direct link between a country's investment in engineering and its overall economic health.

"There is a demonstrable link between engineering and economic development across the world," said Hayaatun Sillem, Ph.D., the deputy chief executive officer and director of strategy for the RAE, who responded in writing to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. "This is something that many of us will have expected, but this is the first time that we have had quantitative evidence of engineering's contribution on a global scale."

The report, Engineering and Economic Growth: A Global View, was commissioned by the RAE and developed by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, an independent economic forecasting and analysis consultancy headquartered in London. Data from 99 countries were examined to create an "engineering index," which quantifies such factors as employment levels, the diversity of the workforce, and the amounts invested in research and infrastructure.

The index reveals a strong correlation between the strength of a country's engineering industry and its gross domestic product per capita. Generally, countries with the strongest engineering industries have the highest gross domestic product per capita. The index also indicates a strong correlation between how much a country spends on engineering and how strong that country's engineering industry is. Such a link may be expected, but the relationship is not linear; greater investments return disproportionately stronger results. And this is true even if a country has other limiting factors, such as low life expectancy or a paucity of international trade arrangements. The authors assert that this means that developing countries with weaker engineering industries can still reap the benefits of even small investments in engineering.

"I think that in the U.K., there is an understanding that engineering contributes to economic growth, and there is certainly a very good understanding within the profession of its contribution," said Sillem. "What I don't think is particularly well understood outside the profession is just how much engineering contributes to growth, across a variety of industries and areas of society, and the tangible impact that it has on everyone's life."

The research revealed other findings that may be useful in guiding a country's engineering profession investments, he added. "The index rankings were useful ways of comparing different countries' various strengths and challenges in engineering," Sillem said. "The variables that were used to calculate these produced interesting findings about which countries, for example, have higher proportions of female engineering graduates, and where the 'hotspots' of the future might be based on the need for, and projected growth in, engineering."

The Centre for Economics and Business Research collected and analyzed data from the World Bank, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the International Labor Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Eurostat to develop its engineering index, which includes data on employment, wages, gender, investment, the number of engineering businesses, engineering exports, and the quality of both the built and the digital infrastructure.

 One of the challenges the researchers found was a lack of detailed data in some countries. "For us, one of the most significant findings was how limited some of the data sets were," Sillem said. "Much more comprehensive data will be needed to help the engineering and international development communities work together to achieve [improved] development outcomes, and to help policy makers make informed choices that enable engineers to help build sustainable societies."

Indeed, the lack of data was one reason why the index covers only 99 countries. Of the countries ranked, 34 are in Europe and 35 are in Asia. Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland rank highest on the index. The United States is ranked 14th, between France and Slovenia.

Overall, the research found that those countries that are members of the International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences fared well in the rankings, accounting for 15 of the top 20 spots, joined by Hong Kong, Austria, Singapore, Luxembourg, and Italy. Some of the 26 council member countries, however, ranked in the middle, among them South Africa, Mexico, and Argentina.

The United States ranked especially high in engineering education, boasting four of the top five schools. Stanford University tops the list, followed by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, is fourth, and the University of California at Berkeley is fifth.

The authors note that although no country comes close to the United States in top engineering departments, the United Kingdom has 9 programs in the top 100, while Australia and Germany each have 7. Hong Kong also is well represented on the list, having 4 engineering departments in the top 100.

The new report builds on earlier research by the RAE that focused on the United Kingdom, where "engineering has a relatively low profile, and perceptions of engineering are narrow and old-fashioned, for reasons that are many and complex," Sillem said.

"At the academy, we are working with industry partners to address this, and I'm sure that when the public understands the diversity of modern engineering better, they will also appreciate the significant contribution it makes to social and economic growth," Sillem added. To that end, the RAE recently began a new LinkedIngroup.


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