A winning idea for engineering

Senior reporter

Inspiring engineers of the future is a topic on many peoples’ minds at the moment. The engineering community, of course, has been talking about how to encourage more young people to enter the profession for a long time.

But now there is an economic imperative, the government is also getting into the debate and has suggested creating an international Nobel Prize-style award based in the UK to ‘help to create the excitement that would help give British manufacturing a brighter future’.

Although few details of the prize have been announced, it’s certainly welcome to hear politicians talking about the importance of young people aspiring to be great engineers.

And the award itself really could raise the profile of engineering and highlight the many achievements for which engineers are responsible. Indeed, one wonders why Alfred Nobel didn’t create such a prize in his original endowment. He was, himself, an engineer, the holder of 355 patents and the inventor of dynamite.

The problem is that it’s very difficult to manufacture the kind of prestige and publicity that the Nobel Foundation enjoys. There are already a number of prizes for engineering, not least The Engineer’s own Technology & Innovation Awards, that are well respected within the industry but largely unknown outside of it.

The government will have to plan very carefully if it wants its grand idea to become seen by the wider world as more than another trade event. It says it is working with private sector firms to create an endowment that will fund the prize. Too much corporate involvement could certainly damage its credibility, although the likes of the Man Booker prize show private sponsorship can work.

You could do what the Swedish central bank did and persuade the Nobel Foundation to take over administration of its economics prize, which wasn’t included in the original awards. But then it would be held in Sweden, not Britain.

This raises another question: how successful would an international prize be in raising the profile of British engineering? The UK still has many fantastic engineers and inventors, and our scientific papers are the second most cited in the world. But when it comes to industrial output, in many sectors we’re sadly no longer the global leaders we once were.

If the prize rewarded discoveries and inventions by individuals then we’d be as successful as we are with the existing Nobels. If the award went to companies and products then we might find it much more difficult to compete.

Of course, it would be horribly cynical to avoid creating a prize just because Britain wouldn’t win it, or skew the winning criteria to give ourselves an advantage. It certainly wouldn’t help the award’s reputation.

Seeing the world’s greatest engineers gather in Britain, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, would still have an inspiring affect on young people to go out and achieve great things themselves.

Still, if the aim of the idea is to promote British manufacturing, it might be pretty demoralising if UK companies were passed over again and again. Then again, it might help motivate industry and government into stronger action for developing the sector.

An award like this isn’t going to be easy to get right. But we shouldn’t let the challenge stop us from bringing the idea to life. The rewards could be much more than a trophy on the mantelpiece.