Friday, 22 August 2014
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Queen Elizabeth prize: possible pitfalls, possible glory

Engineering has an image problem in the UK, and it’s as much to do with a belief that Britain just doesn’t compete at a global level as it is a misguided association with greasy overalls.

So the new Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, launched by the government and the Royal Academy of Engineering this week, is a welcome move to counter the misconceptions and ignorance that many people have when it comes to British engineering.

You just have to look at the media coverage of the prize for evidence of the problem. ‘Whatever happened to our golden age of engineering? The Queen gives her name to a prize to find new talent,’ said George Alagiah on the BBC News at Ten last night, somewhat missing the point that the award will recognise the achievements of established engineers as well as inspiring young people.

The Telegraph published an article pessimistically titled ‘Will Britain ever win the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering?’. The Guardian barely gave a mention to the award while running a piece asking ‘Why doesn’t Britain make things any more?’, an interesting analysis of the manufacturing industry’s decline but without recognising its still substantial role in the economy.

Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News said: ‘We produced engineering titans of the past. Why not now? We produce experts in law, accountancy, banking. Why not engineering?’ It was up to her guest Paul Westbury, chief executive of Buro Happold, to set her straight that Britain does indeed still produce great engineers.

‘The biggest problem that the profession often has is that we’re too quiet about [our achievements],’ he said. ‘Engineers get so focused on solving the problems that are in front of them that they don’t spend enough time shouting about it.’

He’s probably right: despite the schools’ programmes and busy press offices run by Britain’s engineering firms and institutions, more could certainly be done to make the sector more visible in public life. (Although the current downturn has already led to a renewed emphasis on manufacturing and skills.) And mounting vigorous campaigns to win the new prize could definitely be one way of doing this.

By rewarding individuals at the top of their field, the prize could also create some posterboys or girls for engineering that could provide huge inspiration to young people. Science has Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox to name a few. Engineering is limited to Brunel and James Dyson.

A researcher at the BBC rang The Engineer office this week to ask if we could suggest some prominent engineers they could interview about the prize. It was telling that not only could they not think of any on their own, but that the list we provided was of people likely to be well known to our readers but probably not to the general public.

Part of the award’s success will depend on how it is run. Appointing Anji Hunter – former senior aide to Tony Blair and ex-director of communications for BP – as director of the prize means it will likely exploit publicity opportunities to their full potential. But if judging is a secretive affair, as it is with the Nobel Prizes where only the winners and not nominees are announced, then this might preclude the kind of direct publicity campaigns for entries that I just mentioned. And if the biennial prize wants to gain true international recognition, then we probably shouldn’t expect a British winner for several years – which could lead to more articles along the lines of the Telegraph’s.

Ed Miliband, who was at the prize’s launch along with David Cameron and Nick Clegg, missed the point when he said the award could do for Britain what the Nobels have done for Scandinavia. The Swedes (and Norwegians) have become known as the judges not the winners. Following this pattern would only serve to reinforce the myth that Britain has lost touch with its great engineering heritage.

The competition will, of course, be fierce, but readers of The Engineer will know from the projects featured in our pages and entered into our own awards (the winners of which will be announced in two weeks’ time) that the UK produces world-class examples of engineering and innovation every year. Even if a foreign winner of the first prize produces sneering headlines in the papers, this is a contest that Britain can and will (eventually) win.

It will take more than this prize to change the image of engineering and encourage more young people to enter the field, especially in the short-term. We still need a better careers advice service, more public engagement and to challenge, as Paul Westbury put it, the language of ‘factories’ and ‘lawnmower parts’ used by the media to describe the sector. Dare I say it, perhaps engineering companies need to have a serious think about the salaries they are prepared to offer top graduates to help prevent them from being poached by the City.

But the Queen Elizabeth Prize will bring some much-needed prestige to the sector and help elevate the profession to a more deserved status. Perhaps then journalists won’t struggle to think of world-class British engineers.


Readers' comments (24)

  • Remember NESTA? A giant £250 million fund set up in 1998 by Gordon Brown to promote science & technology. A great idea highjacked by the empire builders and other bureaucrats. The QE prize will go the same way - innovators will be sidelined.

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  • Surely we cant compete with the Chinese on mass production and engineering. Why not concentrate on what we are really good at such as fashion, music, entertainment, sports medicine etc...

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  • The problem engineering has is
    1. It's quite a vague term taking in many different disciplines and sectors.

    2. It's not defined by amazing new things as it was in Brunel's time. Yes new tunnels bridges, cars, bio-engineering etc are amazing feats, but they are simply expected!

    Perhaps this is a compliment to engineering, that it's so here it's not noticed anymore!

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  • Perhaps one of the problems with recognition of engineers, their achievements and the profession as a whole is how content we appear to be with the misuse of the word "engineer". Just about any job title can include the word, in some cases greatly devaluing it and misleading non-engineers as to the nature of engineering.

    It's hardly surprising that so few young people aspire to be "engineers": do they want to replace parts in household white goods for a living, or design the next space shuttle?

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  • The prize misses entirely the key requirement of this century, the need to continually contract and converge the Resource intensity of societies whilst living within global resource and sink availability.

    Any prize that doen't put these requirements at the core of the judging criteria is not fit for purpose.

    And as far as politicians are concerned we can fairly say that ~ the sustainability of any society is inversely proportional to the number of lawyers per capita.

    Those whose income depends on the failure demand generated by society cannot make rational decisions as to the effective distribution of precious resources.

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  • Engineers are designers and problem solvers.Our ingenuity is put to task when we bring our designs to fruition by 'making it'.
    We cannot innovate and prosper if we continue to buy outside our own countries and export our technology to China and elsewhere. We engineers/builders in the UK and the USA are as good as any in the world and better than most. However , if we do not manufacture, all is for naught.

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  • Nature's Laws -those which we Engineers manipulate to the benefit of ALL mankind- are the same in Tubingen, Tokyo and Tunbridge Wells!
    It cannot be differences in these that presently differentiate between various countries contribution. No, it is the difference in man's laws and their practice which gives other Nations an edge. A patent protection system which provides 98% of benefit to patent agents and only 2% to inventors: a salary structure which pays a patent agent exactly six (6!) the salary of the Engineer (my son) who thought of the idea... do I need to go on?

    I set out, not only to demonstrate the skills of Engineers -in which group I am honoured to include myself- but to show just how little other so-called professions actually do to support UK plc. I have taught my students at 4 Universities to always use a Capital letter whenever they use the word Engineer or Engineering. I suggest everyone else does the same. MJB

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  • Engineering is not recognised because people take things for granted, and have no knowledge of their "bling" came about. In the first instance i would blame schools and their teachings as they are predominantly results based. This means a curriculum is biased and trimmed of anything deemed unnecessary to obtain these results.

    Subjects often have fancy titles, how about "science and technology" which sounds impressive and means nothing. Here is the conumdrum, pupils assume they will walk into highly paid jobs at or near the top of the ladder with these qualifications. What they lack is practical experience of anything hands on, so how does theory translate into a rounded engineer? This was recently highlighted by the construction industry when a number of companies reported they were spending the first six months with apprentices teaching them the basics. They defined this as pupils entering their joinery programme and could not use basic hand tools, measure, or even draw a basic dimensioned working sketch. This is because subjects such as woodwork, metalwork, and technical drawing fal under the remit of "science and technology" and chasing targets means these subjects are often not available in schools, or limited to the chosen few.

    Merely being realistic with pupils and providing the basic practical skills in schools would improve their skills and employability considerably.

    Apathy among the general public is rife, they don't want to know how their products work, merely that they do. They want their cars to start first time every time, and their mobile phones to connect every call without delay. They expect their computers to do everything for them instead of having to learn about a subject, here is the opportunity to promote engineering.

    How about running schools awards for engineering, defining the clear areas of engineering, and teaching how these areas combine to work together. Move these awards on from schools to apprenticeships so its an extension, and do not exclude anyone. At the very least it will stimulate lots of intererst in engineering and get people talking about it.

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  • The trouble with a prize is that the only entrants will be engineers with known technology. Who is going to throw in valuable planet changing technology to a chance win, and an obvious loss to the inventer, set up a fund to purchase the technology from the inventor and you will have a new world, also add a couple more zero's to the money.

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  • Can anyone find a link to the Cathy Newman interview on C4 news as it was hilarious and id like to share it with my engineering friends? Thanks in advance.

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  • You can watch it here: http://www.channel4.com/news/catch-up/display/playlistref/171111/clipid/171111_ENGINEERING_17

    It should be available until Thursday 24 November.

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