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Holding out for a hero

Ask a member of the public to name a great British engineer and you’ll probably get one name: IK Brunel. Ask for a living person and you’re more likely to get a blank face. While pure science boasts multiple prominent figures leading debate in popular intellectual and media circles, engineering remains in the background, seen as functional, important but not particularly exciting.


Great, but not exactly current

The public perception and image of engineering was a key topic of debate at this week’s UK Manufacturing Summit at the IMechE. The institution’s chief exec, Stephen Tetlow pointed out that while many engineers know Britain is the world’s sixth largest manufacturing nation (or seventh, depending on your league table), all you hear in the pub is how we don’t make anything any more.

Business minister Mark Prisk highlighted the fact that 43 per cent of graduates have a STEM related degree but only five per cent go into manufacturing. Perhaps there isn’t so much a shortage of skills as of one of enthusiasm. The session’s conclusion was that we need a better supply chain of young people, grabbing their attention while still in primary school, and nurturing their interest through A levels, degrees and apprenticeships.

We’re still left with the well-worn question of how to get young people (and the population in general) more excited about engineering. And one of the more interesting ideas of the day was a call for a TV show promoting the sector. Given the wealth of activity and innovation that goes on in Britain alone, this stuck me as a genuinely interesting proposition that really could work.

There are countless projects that could capture the imagination of the public. As a journalist for The Engineer, I frequently find myself explaining stories I’ve covered to friends who have no technical background but are fascinated nonetheless. (There’s always the possibility they’re just humouring me but my friends are generally pretty ruthless).

An engineering TV programme could reveal to the public how much manufacturing work still goes on here, and highlight the need to preserve and build the sector. Factory floor visits wouldn’t make for thrilling viewing, true, but testing the latest engine prototypes or seeing spacecraft with British-made components in action would get people tuning in.

Modern computer graphics can bring potentially dry and difficult subjects to life, as witnessed by the multiple well-received physics programmes of the last few years. And meeting the people whose lives are changed by technology, whether patients of robotic surgeons or developing world communities benefiting from new energy solutions, would hammer home the impact of engineering ideas on the real world.

Vital to any successful factual TV show are its presenters. You need intelligent, charismatic and entertaining guides to keep the pace, make people smile or gasp and explain the difficult bits without sending everyone to sleep. Engineering needs a TV champion. And at the moment there isn’t one.

Sure, there are journalists and presenters who occasionally cover the topic. Former Scrapheap Challenge presenter and sometime Red Dwarf star Robert Llewellyn has navigated Channel Five viewers through a reworking of Discovery Channel show How Do They Do It? and produced his own YouTube series (as well as hosting The Engineer awards for the past two years).

But what’s really needed is a voice that resonates with a younger audience and can connect the predominantly middle-aged white male world of engineering with our more plural, modern society. And that’s why no member of the Top Gear team should be considered. The last thing that’s needed is a badly dressed, conservative motormouth making jokes based on crude stereotypes.

And that’s not to say a middle-aged white man couldn’t do the job. Just look at Prof Brian Cox, the man who’s made science, if not quite cool, then mainstream, accessible and current. Indeed the words used at the IMechE summit were ‘a Brian Cox of engineering’. Cox is seemingly everywhere at the moment, so if he were given the role his fame would probably overshadow the whole project. But this should be the model.

Given the dearth of famous engineers or even famous people with engineering degrees, the field is open to suggestions. Dr Mark Miodownik, presenter of last year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, is currently working on television projects. And there are certainly plenty of science writers out there who could have a great stab.

The Engineer’s features editor, Stuart Nathan, suggested author and journalist Angela Saini, apparently described as the person who 'makes geeks cool'. An engineering graduate and former BBC reporter, she’s just published a book about the rise of India as a scientific superpower, entitled Geek Nation.

Unless we can find someone who can help grab the attention of young people and the wider public, we’ll just have to get working on a time machine so we can bring back Brunel.

Readers' comments (32)

  • I'd give it a go!

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  • Perhaps the fact that the UK's current poster boy for STEM, Prof Brian Cox, is a middled aged (yikes!) white male is an indication we don't need to necessarily look outside that demographic for our engineering hero.

    Sorry to call you middle-aged Brian. Things can only get better.

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  • Fascinating debate through these comments. Just wanted to raise awareness of an initiative that we're working on as part of MACH 2012 ( - the centenary of the UK's premier manufacturing show.

    The idea - to bring teachers and students into direct contact with the industry at a large trade show.

    The machinery, technology and processes are already at MACH, so this is an ideal opportunity to showcase this to youngsters.

    The key, of course, will be to identify how these machines contribute to our every-day life and create a story that captures the interest.

    For what it's worth, I'd like to volunteer Denzil Lawrence, Adrian Allen and the team at the AMRC as representatives for our industry. As well as being passionate advocates for the sector, they have harnessed the cream of UK engineering talent, along with the knowledge and know-how of our top companies, to create a powerful model which is now being copied across the world.

    If it wasn't such a competitive industry, this would surely make a fascinating documentary series.

    If you've not already seen it, their MANufacturing TRAnsporter (an HGV with on-board Mori Seiki lathe and 3D cave) provides an opportunity to take some of these technologies direct to schools.

    BLOODHOUND SSC, whilst hugely impressive and inspirational, has a limited life cycle and it's not clear how it will be run once the record is broken...

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  • what's needed is a fictional series, look what Silent Witness has done for forensic science recruitment. As a non-engineer, and female, I've watched rough science, bang goes the theory, and that thing about recreating bits of the titanic with equal pleasure. But all time favourite has to be 'It'll Never Work'.

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  • When not on Top Gear James May has some credible engineering knowledge.

    The guys from Bang Goes The Theory are pretty cool as well:

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  • A good starting point might be getting the younger generation to realise that all the wonderful gadgets that now seem to run their lives, Mobile Phone, iPod, Facebook etc. would not work without the equally wonderful Engineering & science and behind these now everday things.

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  • Whilst he may not fit the criteria described, I think if he were to read this article he would be disappointed not to have been, at least, acknowledged. He researched many and went on to present several excellent Science and Engineering based programs. Step forward Mr Adam Hart-Davies.

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  • The other point is, were people like IBK considered 'Heroes' at the time? Sure they led big projects and paved the way for the future, but how many people at the time actually knew about them outside of their fields?

    I believe it is the same for today, in 50 or 100 years there will be names known from these times, such as Jonathon Ive - for Paul Wickens example that will go down in history...

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  • How about Jem from Bang goes the Theory? An experimenter, and enthusiast, and an engineer...

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  • Catch 'em while they're young - get into Primary Schools with a good presentation of practical science. I remember a guy at school from NASA doing amazing things with liquid oxygen! Did we leave the session wanting to be astronuats and rocket builders? You bet!

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