Coronavirus: why we need to consult engineers as well as scientists for solutions

26th March 2020

Adam Cooper

University College London


The coronavirus outbreak has shone a bright light on the use of experts and scientific advice. In the UK the prime minister, Boris Johnson, is flanked by his chief scientist and chief medical officer when giving updates about his response to the outbreak – emphasising that it is driven by scientific advice. Similarly, the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has urged people to “trust in science” while Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has referred to “consensus among experts”.


But the question I have is where are the engineers in this? Surely, before we shut down the entire society in response to the pandemic, we should check if there are engineering solutions that could help halt or slow the spread of the virus – from door handles that kill viruses to new ways of pressing lift buttons.

In the UK, the government normally consults the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in situations like this. So far, engineers have been relegated to a (respiratory) bit part: answering the sudden call to arms for 3D printing components for ventilators.

But is this using engineering expertise to its full capacity? Engineers have designed safe traffic systems, effective security facilities and airport screening systems. If you want an expert to help you redesign parts of normal life, you’d do hard to beat them.

The obvious place to have engineering expertise would be on SAGE. However, there’s a problem: it’s SAGE not ESAGE or SEAGE, reflecting that science and engineering advice are both different and necessary. The name hasn’t stopped SAGE from calling on engineering experts in the past. But this time round, it seems clear that engineering is not part of the advisory system.

Read the full article at The Conversation