Engineering is vital for medical innovation – we need to close the skills gap

For decades, advances in engineering have been essential to some of medicines greatest innovations. But if the current global skills gap facing the engineering sector (as revealed in a new report) isn’t addressed, innovation could slow and patients and practitioners alike could suffer.

The gap has been revealed by the Create the Future report by the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which polled 10,000 people across 10 countries. It found that from the UK to US, China to Germany and South Africa, the demand for skilled engineers wasn’t being met with supply.

Long term, if this demand for innovation is not met then the medical industry will be impacted, with some of the biggest innovations in healthcare having been driven historically through engineering excellence. Many don’t make the connection between the two industries: yet innovations including MRI scans, prosthetic limbs and enhanced medicine delivery systems would not have become commonplace in medical facilities worldwide without engineering advances.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) was developed in the early 1990s and provided a scan which helped understand which regions of the brain were more active than others. Whilst this is now commonplace, it was a key breakthrough at the time.

Thanks to this progress, we are now in a position whereby we are close to mapping white brain matter and crossing fibres, specifically measuring the physical connection between brain regions and their specific impact on different parts of the body. This insight could be particularly useful potentially when treating victims of significant brain trauma.

More recently, innovation by my colleague Dr Hugh Herr, who invented a bionic foot and calf system, as well as our own work and that of others in tissue engineering has led to artificial skin and could potentially someday enable the creation of a range of body parts including corneas, cartilage, new blood vessels, pancreas and spinal cord repair. As research continues, the hope is to reach a point where we can create virtually any new tissue or organ, as required.

The potential for these developments to fundamentally change the lives of patients globally is immense and reinforces why we must think long and hard about the existing skills gap and how to address it.

Firstly, there needs to be a greater focus on championing the link between engineering and the way it impacts people’s lives each day. Engineering is not simply bridges and roads, it’s robotics, AI, computing, smartphones and software. It’s also new ways of creating lifesaving medicines and medical devices, and its new materials and nanotechnology.

Through increasing this understanding, one of the key goals of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which rewards an engineer(s) responsible for a ground-breaking innovation that has been of global benefit to humanity, I’m confident that young people in particular would be inspired to join the profession.

Secondly, particularly in the UK and US, there needs to be more emphasis on the importance of engineering at all levels of education. This is something we see in other countries such as China, where engineering as a career is emphasised at an early age and clear attempts are made to drive applications at degree level. For example, in China in 2014, three times as many students studied engineering than the next most popular subject, medicine.

There has been a long history of engineers and scientists working together across the world to deliver innovations which revolutionise the lives of patients. The prosperous future of the relationship is something we must fight to protect in the future.

Dr Robert Langer is the winner of the 2015 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering