Oil’s ‘Sun King’ Lord Browne shines a light on Britain’s coronavirus response

Linda J. Dodson

Engineering Covid comeback

At heart, he remains first and foremost an engineer with a passion for science and technology and the role it can play in society.

Browne believes that drive to innovate is more important than ever in the fight against Covid-19, a pandemic that has now killed 380,000 people globally, and as Britain and other nations look to rebuild after a recession that has put millions of people out of work.

It’s no coincidence that the nations that marshalled the strongest response to the virus have been those with the best engineering pedigree, he claims.

“Look at Germany,” he says.

“Because they had a very strong industrialised base in medical equipment and testing, they were able to do things others were not able to early on. So far they are reaping the rewards – a much lower death rate.”

In the same way, he says it is scientists and engineers who hold the key to a sustainable recovery – not politicians or businessmen.

“If we’re going to get back to normal life we need a way of containing Covid-19 and that will be a combination of engineering and science. The science will produce a vaccine and someone has got to engineer billions of doses,” Browne says.

Born in Germany, Browne grew up in Iran – where his father also worked for BP. After returning to the UK he gained a first class degree in physics from the University of Cambridge before joining the company himself in 1966 while still a student. “Get a real job,” his father had said.

Nearly half a century later, the crossbench peer believes there has been a big shift in attitudes and there is far too much pessimism about the role science and technology can play.

It’s a view that he seeks to partially redress in his latest book, Make, Think, Imagine, which is published in paperback on Thursday.

It offers a positive perspective on the role of science in tackling some of the world’s most intractable problems, including climate change and diseases such as Covid-19.

“I think the solution is not, as some people say, less engineering, less science. It’s more engineering and more science, which [can] solve the problems of the day,” he says.

A former president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Browne says he was never ashamed of working in the oil industry. He always believed the scientific expertise developed by big companies such as BP could ultimately help solve the world’s problems instead of making them worse.

That sense of purpose played a key role in his decision to rebrand the company with the slogan Beyond Petroleum in the late Nineties – a move later widely criticised as “greenwashing”. Now, as the world switches to green energy, Browne may simply seem ahead of his time.

Diversification required

Either way, after a career spent overseeing some of the world’s biggest industrial projects – including BP’s developments in the North Sea and Alaska, Browne believes the experience of the past five months should serve as a vital lesson for the UK after losing vast tracts of its manufacturing industry over many decades.

“We have to diversify,” he says. “[UK manufacturing] is too focused on automotive and aerospace – two sectors that have been heavily affected by the global downturn.”

Britain needs to get better at cultivating other industries, including pharmaceuticals, which are essential to the nation’s welfare, he says.

With close ties to leading universities, drugmakers such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline spend billions of pounds on research in the UK – but outsource much of their manufacturing activity overseas.

Although Britain is home to global pharma titans, this lack of domestic manufacturing capacity for drugs, protective gear and other equipment was a critical factor in the country’s sluggish response to Covid-19. As cases surged, it was forced to rely on fragile supply chains stretching to China, India and beyond.

“Reshoring of some of these activities is inevitable,” Browne says. “We have to be selective and decide what is important to us and what is in the UK’s national resilience plan.”

Rewriting the rules

The new focus on resilience is upending decades of accepted wisdom about globalised supply chains, he believes. “In industry we were all taught for many years the best way to run a business was low inventories and just-in-time manufacturing.”

“That was defined as efficient – a way to cut costs and capital. These things will change. People will think carefully about what they need to have onshore.”

Rising trade tensions between the US and China are another factor changing the way businesses think about the future as key resources become more scarce, he says.

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