Tuesday, 25 November 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)

  • I would venture to suggest the Prize is renamed. It already is described as the QE prize which could be confused with Quantitive Easing.
    Why blame the media for being unaware of current leaders in this field after all the Institutions have been so busy creating an elite most of us in the industry gave up on them long ago. We usually engineer because we have a desire to do it despite playing second fiddle to others in companies.

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  • Nice prize but irrelevant. 1 prize every 2 years will have no impact on enticing young people to join engineering as a career. Status resolution just might, and availability of apprenticeships will. As long as they can get a degree in plumbing and call themselves an engineer though, I don't see much hope. So another opportunity wasted, for the sake of five minutes of publicity. Protect the Chartered status.

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  • I am no engineer, but I do enjoy engineering

    So I would like to see more information about how a product was made, and the team work which is involved in making a product

    I have recently travelled in and out of London by train, and the train which I had travelled on had this new TV device fitted to the rear of each seat. Ok some of you might say that this is not that great, but to me it is.

    This TV (Volo: TV) had so many channels, and it covered so many individual tastes on the rail journey but amazingly nothing about engineering! So I personally found this a shame, as I am sure many rail passengers would like to know more about the engineering achievements, as well as the difficulties of building a railway

    The rail network involves so much precision engineering which we all take for granted

    If we look at the trains which have been built over the years, they involve so much precision engineering, along with the seat which we might be lucky enough to sit in!

    So yes it is great to have a TV on a train, but this could show the passengers the engineering problems which face the engineers on a daily basis, and could they do it better?

    This could also encourage more people to get involved within engineering

    It could also be beneficial for First Great Western if they highlighted many of the free museums in London, as this could encourage many more passengers to take a trip to the capital, and into the science museum, war museum or much more.

    It could also be beneficial to show the passenger the engineering works that are undertaken on the British rail network on daily basis, and then they might see where some of their rail fare is being spent

    This type of TV could be beneficial in so many areas, such as a car dealership waiting area when you are having your car serviced, as It could show the customer the design, engineering and manufacture of their beloved motor car, then they might tell their friends about the engineering involved with their motor car

    The other point which should be highlighted in my opinion is how safe so many of these products are compared to “the good old days”. Engineers have made our world a lot safer today from the trains we ride, to the cars we drive

    This TV marketing could cover so many areas, and the cost could be kept down compared to national TV advertising

    Some of you might say what do you know about engineering, and I will reply “not enough”, but I am always willing to learn more

    I have personally decided to undertake an (B Eng) engineering degree with the Open University

    OK, I have a lot to learn within engineering, but I do have 6+ year hands on experience in running my own oil heating business, and 15+ years experience within the plumbing and heating industry (Commercial & Domestic)

    This has all been great fun and I hope that I can achieve my personal goals in life, but I do not want my learning (Open University education) to stop

    I have to admit that I do have many weak areas, so I am concerned if I can make it as an engineer, but fingers crossed I will

    I love my day job as a boiler technician and running my own business, but I would love to be an engineer.

    Engineering is such a fascinating subject, as it will through up many challenges in life which we all like to find a solution too

    Manufacturing plants will never stop amazing me, as I love to see a product being made and then used by the end user
    Engineering is awesome, but it can always be made better!

    In more modern times look at what JCB and Dyson has done for Great Britain

    Both of them have engineered many “Awesome products”, which makes me proud to be British

    These products are “British Engineering at its best”

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  • At this early stage I at least have hope for this award and its intent but unless the ceremony for it is featured on ITV and fronted by Ant and Dec I fear it will do little to improve the general perception of engineering. Mind you, it doesn't help when the government mouthpiece for it on Radio 4 seems to be somewhat befuddled by it all. He almost immediately followed "I don't think we need to protect the title engineer" with a repeated inference that you are only an engineer if you are Chartered and then the claim that "anyone can produce something that qualifies for the award." Is the award for engineers, engineering or inventors? All are linked of course but a bit of focus would help.

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  • As a member of the Institutution of Mechanical Engineers employer's panel I can report that we were having exactly this conversation in our meeting last Thursday. Amongst other initiatives, the IMechE has been working to communicate the importance of engineering to schools through volunteer programmes.
    In my experience, enthusiastic engineers talking about the relevance of engineering to everyday objects such as a smart phone will inspire youngsters who can change the world. If we all get out to our local schools, one of us will inspire a future prize winner.

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  • First I think the Queen Elizabeth II prize is a great idea and shows how the United Kingdom with its industrial heritage can motivate engineers across the world to solve technical challenges. Well done her Majesty for some much needed positive input to a world wide market. The world needs more engineers and technicians to work together in bringing to market the latest technologies ensuring that the planet and its inhabitants remains sustainable.

    At the heart of this is every day products like kettles, boiled water reduces disease, toasters and cars which we in the West we now take for granted.
    In the last 100 years we have seen medical products like scanners, advances in anethisia just to mention a few prevent and enhance quality of life.All these require power and we are seeing major changes in how we consumme and develop products all due to teams of engineers working across disciplines in improving the quality of life for all those across the planet.Come on lets celebrate this award which enables technical minded people to create change for the greater good.

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  • Neil and Steve, your comments are so true

    So fingers crossed this will encourage young kids get involved with engineering

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  • Very laudable, but on the same newspaper we see that universities are axing several thousand courses. Let's hope they are all media studies and not engineering based or otherwise this award may never be claimed.

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  • Nothing more that a Glitzy Gov PR Spin project that's not very well thought out.
    Make just one award for £100k (more than enough if you’re serious) and it's only available to UK Nationals, in UK projects and companies.
    Use the other £900k to fund 100 candidates through Engineering apprenticeships and schooling. - Yes companies are expected to help out here as well to get funding, just like in the old EITB days when apprenticeships were run, seriously and successfully.
    Same deal as before, it's only open to UK Nationals and UK companies.
    Candidates are expected to sign up for a final career in Engineering and of course want to really "work" in the UK.
    We fund enough projects for others via the EU anyway and without any real say in it.
    This should be done in the UK and for those interested in benefitting the UK.
    It has to be in real Engineering too. Excluding all the Arts, Commercial Business Studies and the like which don’t do much to contribute to our Engineering ability to produce real products to sell.
    With no skills to design and make saleable product - we have nothing to sell. So, we don’t need an over biased commercial hierarchy of bean counters and legal contract risk assessors.
    We can save all the accountants absolute £Millions from their bottom lines, overnight.
    - Just stop making anything.
    Stupid right?
    So let’s get serious about doing something "Real" to improve the situation.
    For years we have been hearing endlessly about the Engineering "skills" shortage to which successive governments have not even paid genuine and sincere lip service.
    It’s about time they did something sensible, simple and effective about It.!
    No real rocket science here if you just remove all the PR, Hype and shinny sheen Politics of trying to win advantage over "voters" with press adverts.
    I think the last three governments have effectively Out “Spin’ed” (Out Spun) each other.
    Time to stop. Don’t they realise that most of us just don’t believe any of it any more?
    Spend the money at real grass roots level -if nurtured carefully on things that matter - the rest will start to follow.

    Ex-UK Apprentice, still working in UK Engineering, and still learning and improving skills for 30 years.

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  • I think other countries are better at commercialising their research and ideas than the UK. To make it better, the government should support young people and those who can't afford it, with funding for patents, and protect UK innovation from copycats. Banks, universities and venture capitalists can help fund the commercialisation of the products. The government could fund some of them if they are beneficial to the UK, such as designs for renewable energy harvesting, transport, etc.

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