Sir James Dyson has called for manufacturing businesses to appoint more scientists and enginners to executive roles. Photograph Jonathan Player /Rex Features
Sir James Dyson has called for a march of the scientists and engineers through British boardrooms as he launched a £1.4m professorship at Cambridge University with a warning that the academic status of inventors is not reflected in the executive world.
The eponymous billionaire creator of the bagless vacuum cleaner claimed that his peers are undervalued by technology and manufacturing businesses in the UK, who pay their best brains well but give them few senior roles. "Engineers and scientists on the whole are undervalued, although not always underpaid, and not always drawn into the top of businesses as they should be," said Dyson, citing the example of Japan's Honda, which is led by an engineer. "Manufacturing is about making technology products and exporting them around the world. Therefore the people at the top of businesses should be people who understand technology and have a vision for the future. You do not always find that at the top of manufacturing companies or engineering companies."
Dyson is chief engineer at the company that bears his name, which made profits of £206m last year, though its chief executive, Martin McCourt, does not have an engineering background.
The business has committed £1.4m over ten years to fund a Cambridge professorship in fluid mechanics – the scientific discipline that inspired the Dyson suction device and airblade hand dryer. However, the research projects instigated by the professor – also funded by Dyson – will focus on technology that has no specific use but could prove invaluable in years to come. Dyson is co-operating with Cambridge on carbon nano-tubes, which have not been attached to a commercial product yet but are being considered as an alternative to copper wiring or, in one more far-flung idea, as a means of anchoring satellites to earth.
Dyson admitted that the "speculative" research generated by the professorship might come to nothing, but his company will have first refusal on technologies produced by the research. "They are researching in areas in which we are interested but they can do what they want to do. We are hoping that something interesting comes out of it. If it does we will take it up and hopefully commercialise it." Cambridge University will retain the patent and licence the technology.
Dyson urged manufacturing and technology companies to follow the examples of Rolls-Royce and GlaxoSmithKline by investing in academic research, replacing state funds lost to spending cutbacks. "It is important for technology companies to be doing this sort of unapplied research. We need to do it and people like Rolls-Royce and GSK are doing it. Any company that considers itself a technology company should do it, particularly if the government cannot afford it."
The inventor, who has penned a report for David Cameron on increasing Britain's manufacturing exports, said the private sector has a better track record of "picking winners" than the state.
"It is better for us to be funding this than the government. It is very much in our interest to pick winners when the government is not so good at picking winners. They tend to get keen on something whereas we just want something to work." While exports are vital to Britain's economic recovery, he added, that ambition requires the invention of technology that in turn needs to be funded.
Dyson added that the professorship, on top of further funding for postgraduate students from the James Dyson Foundation, underlined the world-class stature of British universities. "The other universities that we invest in are wonderful," he said, referring to the foundation's recent £1m investment at universities such as Bath, Bristol, Cambridge and Imperial College. "So often the best work is coming out of British universities."
Dyson added that non-UK companies tended to benefit from the work. "Companies overseas appreciate it better than British ones."