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Internet a worthy winnner, but will QE prize have an impact?

Picking the inventors of the internet and the web as the winners of the first Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering makes a lot of sense.

The internet has transformed our lives and society in more ways than we can count – it’s arguably the most important technological development of the 20th century. Choosing to honour those behind a technology that so many people interact with on a daily basis is a strong way to highlight the impact and importance of engineering.

It also reminds people that engineering isn’t just about bridges or other bits of metal. Part of the issue with promoting engineering is helping people realise how varied it is as a discipline, and celebrating the creation of a technology that involved advances in physics, maths, computer science and electrical engineering does just that.

In particular, going for an international group of engineers that included a Brit (Sir Tim Berners-Lee) was a very smart move. It means the prize can establish itself as a genuinely global award but also remind the world that the UK is still making major contributions to engineering as well as having a proud heritage in the field. Plus it recognises the inherently collaborative nature of engineering.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the award will achieve its goals of promoting engineering achievements more widely among the public and attracting more young people to the profession, and whether it will really garner international attention on the same level as the Nobel prizes and raise Britain’s engineering profile in the process.

Speaking at the winners’ announcement this week, Royal Academy of Engineering president Sir John Parker said engineering was entering a renaissance period and being properly recognised. One of the winners, Vint Cerf, described feeling as if he had woken up to find ‘the geeks are winning’.

Whether you’re looking at television schedules, A Level applications or politicians’ speeches, the increased public interest in science and technology in the UK is clear. (It was no coincidence that Prof Brian Cox was on the Prize’s judging panel.)

But the Queen Elizabeth announcement barely registered in Britain’s mainstream media (most papers covered the story but not prominently or in-depth), and never even made it onto the pages of most international news outlets. On the same day, another story that went under most people’s radars concerned a report warning of how an annual shortfall of 40,000 STEM graduates will hamper the UK economy’s much-desired manufacturing-based recovery.

The award announcement itself, which took place in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s London home, felt a distinctly British affair, attended as it was by (among others) Princess Anne, the shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, and several staff members from BAE Systems who’d popped in from the company’s headquarters over the road. Perhaps the formal award ceremony, which will see the Queen herself present the winners with their prizes later this year, will have a more glamorous and international feel.

What doesn’t help is that the new award will in some senses have to compete with a slew of other prizes that already recognise engineering and technology achievements, several of which – including the Millennium Technology Prize and Turing Award – have already been given to some of the Queen Elizabeth winners. Being heard above the noise was always going to be difficult.

On the other hand, anything that gives engineers greater status and enables them to point more clearly to inspiring role models when talking to young people is to be welcomed, even if the impact is limited to the UK. The Nobels have been going for over 100 years. In time, the Queen Elizabeth Prize may come to be held in similar regard.

One thing that might help attract more attention is awarding the Prize in future years to a more visible and exciting engineering project, something that doesn’t tick as many boxes but perhaps has a greater potential to provoke the public’s interest than an element of infrastructure to which we are already so accustomed.

The internet is an incredible achievement, a genuinely world-changing invention like no other and choosing it as the first Queen Elizabeth winner sets the bar suitably high. Yet there was almost something a little underwhelming about the announcement that it had won. It was arguably the most obvious choice, perhaps even too obvious. But while the judges undoubtedly deliberated long and hard before selecting it, the even bigger challenge will be picking the next winner.

Readers' comments (10)

  • I thought the idea of this was to help and encourage current projects? Surely more could be gained for the future of industry by awarding it to the Skylon project or Bloodhound SSC?

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  • The stated goal was to 'recognise world-changing advances in engineering that have made a difference to humanity.' Arguably Skylon and Bloodhound haven't done that, yet.

  • It was a hard news day and the QE Prize was up against it - Cyprus and the Press Charter were bound to take priority over RAE and the EEF report on the 40k shortfall. But we do have to get better at profiling the value of what we do.

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  • Without any disparage to the Queen, what bozo decided to call it the 'Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering', it just doomed the award to failure before it began.

    Hardly rolls off the tongue like Nobel price or Darwinian awards (!) . Adding the reference to a monarch nearing the at the end of her reign is hardly smart and doesn't' help make it an international award either, not everyone respects or loves the royals.

    Why not something more appropriate like the 'Brunel awards...... now that does fire the imagination!

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  • winnner?? - A few points and some ideas:

    As mentioned elsewhere- having a list of all the nominations - or a Shortlist - would allow for a wider public discussion up until the announcement - and better and longer media interaction.

    Imagine (as I suggested again elsewhere on the site) that the shortlist contained Directional Drilling, Containerisation, The Jet engine (or some modern advance on it), Hydraulic excavators, Lean (or Green) production, wind turbines. This would enable a wider discussion about the perceived (or not) benefits of Engineering.

    Also - I think the fact that postumous awards cannot be made is limiting. Look towards The Brits/Booker prizes and learn. Have
    i) Main prize as is - but with a short list - to add 'theatre'
    ii) a World achivement (so can include historical individuals who are not necessarily still with us
    iii) As I've also suggested - a 'most promising' winner - for which Skylon would fit

    Can the Engineer obtain the full nominee list ? We might get a good discussion based on that?

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  • The creation of the internet is fully deserving of an award, one of the most influential applications of technology to date. But that is the issue - it involed electronics, software and a lot of clever thought but very little engineering, which is a sub-set of technology.

    That there is an award at all is excellent and the more that we can excite young people with the joys of logical thought and useful creativity, the better. I just hope that we don't mis-direct them with confusing terminology.

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  • The PR dept of RAEng seem to have been asleep over this one. This warrants at least 1 hr of prime time TV in a similar manner to RIBA's Stirling prize presented by Kevin McCloud. If there is to be a more formal presentation in the future then they have another chance. Tell us about the short list and what nearly made it but didn't; it's all fascinating stuff.

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  • This is more like it (if only limited to UK inventions) Only 4 days to vote for past and future innovations

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  • I agree, any recognition counts. If only the Nobel Prize committee would realize that engineering and mathematics deserve the same recognition as medicine, chemistry and physics do. They could easily substitute the Economic Sciences (is economics even a science?!) prize, which are difficult, if not impossible to validate in real life or as economists like to say "this might work in practice, but will never work in theory".

    I agree with the remarks that all fields of engineering should be recognized in order to avoid the misperception that technology is split into high and low, where high is what most people today think they understand and definitely admire. Most of the high-tech is useful as control, communication, comfort or other ancillary functions. We can fly on an airplane without avionics (primitive, but capable of fulfilling its core purpose), but we cannot fly on avionics.

    In that respect, I would concur with Paul in hoping to see more fundamental engineering accomplishments awarded. This will ensure that young people do not run away from metallurgy, mechanical or other engineering fields incorrectly considered "low" or "traditional".

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  • An impressive article and batch of comments. Highly articulate and interesting - all. No problem in far away Hawaii with either the name or the honoree. Admirable discussion.

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  • Will the QE prize have an impact? I guess that is up to us engineers. Whether we agree with the winner or not, it provides us with an opportunity to have a conversation about it. We can keep that conversation ring-fenced within the engineering community or we can open it out to the wider population. Whether we choose social media, mainstream media or just chat down the pub (or cafe or wherever), if we have the debate in the open it will start to have an impact. Alternatively, we can keep the debate in engineering circles only and let the rest of the world decide what to talk about today. It's up to us to individually (and collectively) chose whether we want the prize to have an impact of die a death. Me, I'm off to the pub for a pint and a chat about the engineering that allows my fellow drinkers to watch a footie/cricket/ rugby match from another country whilst we supp.

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