James Dyson: “The government must recommit itself to engineering and science at university”

"A strong education system goes hand in hand with a vibrant science and engineering industry. Insights from deep in the research labs of British universities will ultimately be commercialised, patented and exported"

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Which invention from the past would you most like to have been responsible for?

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Frank Whittle’s jet engine was a triumph. It revolutionised the way we travel. His first jet-propelled aircraft, the Gloster E28, took off from RAF Cranwell in 1941 – outperforming the legendary Spitfires that fought in the Battle of Britain months earlier. Jet propulsion allowed planes to go higher and faster. But the RAF was not interested in the technology. Apparently the bright sparks were more interested in things with propellers and myriad moving parts, so Whittle went ahead and developed it himself. Engineering is about constant frustrations and setbacks – a good dose of obstinacy is found in the very best engineers and he certainly had it.

In terms of manufacturing, can we ever compete with low-wage economies like India and China?

High-value manufacturing and research and development must be our focus and this requires an army of highly skilled engineers. The development of the world’s best technology will allow Britain to continue to compete internationally. We already have world beaters in the aerospace, pharmaceutical and automotive industries, but we need more.

Do we provide inventors with enough legal protection?

Generally, yes. But the costs of fighting patent cases at the High Court can be enormous – this is a barrier to inventors needing to protect their ideas. But the Government has made a good job of streamlining the process at Patents County Courts, which is good news for small and medium enterprises who can hardly afford lengthy and complex disputes.

Have you had product ideas stolen?

Yes, but I have always battled to protect what is mine. An early case was with Hoover: first they tried to discredit my cyclone technology and then they copied it. More recently copies of our Air Multiplier™ fan (left) have been a problem, too. We spent £3 million defending the intellectual property on our Air Multiplier technology last year. It is a never-ending battle and a distraction. I would rather spend the time focusing on developing new ideas than protecting them. Dyson research labs are now in total lockdown – our research is simply too valuable to risk being stolen.

What single thing should the Government do to support invention and boost manufacturing in the UK?

The Government must recommit itself to engineering and science education at university level to ensure we have the world’s brightest engineers. A strong education system goes hand in hand with a vibrant science and engineering industry. Insights from deep in the research labs of British universities will ultimately be commercialised, patented and exported. Materials like graphene – discovered at Manchester University – offer hugely exciting opportunities for new technology. Engineering postgraduates need to be encouraged with generous salaries. A salary of £7,000 a year for postgraduate research is insulting – hardly enough to incentivise smart minds to stay on. Rather tempt them to develop their ideas and supply British industry with technological insights by offering competitive salaries of £30,000 a year.

Is it committed enough?

I am heartened that the Government has shown a willingness to make the UK a high technology exporter. But I am concerned that we are sometimes distracted by the glamour of web fads and video gaming rather than the development of tangible technology that we can export. There seems to be an obsession with Shoreditch’s so-called “Silicon roundabout”. We should be more concerned about creating engineering clusters like Germany’s mittelstand (small and medium enterprises in German-speaking countries) or replicating the success of the biotechnology industry in Cambridge.

How do attitudes to science and technology in the UK compare to other countries? Is there anything we can learn from abroad?

Look to Asia – there is a real commitment to science and engineering. In Singapore 40 per cent of graduates are engineers. The best and the brightest are incentivised with cash payments and rewards for studying applied science degrees.

Are our universities producing enough scientists and engineers?

This year we will have a deficit of 60,000 engineering graduates. Who will develop our future technologies? The Government must do more to attract the brightest and best into engineering and science so that we can compete internationally. Twenty-six per cent of engineering graduates do not go into engineering or technical professions. More worrying is that 85 per cent of all engineering and science postgraduates in our universities come from outside the UK. Yet nine in ten leave the UK after they finish their studies. British knowledge is simply taken abroad.

Which areas of modern life would most benefit from the attention of inventors, scientists and engineers?

You do not need to look far, some are small but incredibly frustrating and some are global in their scale. Problems like over-population, bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and a looming energy crisis are pressing. This year’s winner of the James Dyson Award, Dan Watson, tackled the huge problem of overfishing by inventing retrofittable rings for trawler nets that allow unmarketable and juvenile fish to escape. Simple engineering used to brilliant effect. Hopefully it will play a part in protecting the world’s fishing stocks and earn Dan some money.

Is there an invention that represents the holy grail for yourself ?

Developments in motor technology offer enormous potential. We have invested more than £100 million in digital motor technology over the past 15 years and have a team of 100 dedicated motor engineers at our research headquarters in Wiltshire. The 20th century demanded that motors became bigger and better. The challenge ahead is to make them smaller, faster and cleverer. To do more with less.


Vote for your number one invention! Make your choice from our list of 50 and vote in our poll

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The Genius of Invention season starts on Monday on BBC2