A worthy winner of a worthy prize

Features editor

The choice of Professor Robert Langer as the winner of the second Queen Elizabeth Prize will help it assume the prestige it needs to achieve its goal of promoting the many roles of engineers and the benefits they bring to society

Robert Langer is a worthy winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize. Firstly, he’s personally deserving. His work has been vital in saving many lives and promises to be instrumental in improving the quality of many more.

Controlled release drug delivery systems were thought impossible by many in the pharmaceutical field, but Langer’s design of deep-pored polymer matrices which allow large drug active ingredients to diffuse into the bloodstream made it possible to administer drugs that just weren’t possible before because they would have been broken down by the patient’s metabolism before they could reach their target; his invention of drug-coated stents is also saving lives.

Robert Langer

The potential of some of Langer’s other work has yet to be felt: he has designed waterproof wound dressings that use the same surface mechanisms as gecko’s feet to adhere to the skin, which could even be used inside the body; a polymer gel that could replace damaged vocal cords; and is working on several other drug delivery and tissue engineering innovations.

He’s also an entrepreneur, skilled at getting his inventions into the marketplace, and an inspiring speaker and teacher. As judging panel member Brian Cox pointed out, hundreds or even thousands of engineers chose their career thanks to his influence. He’s also claimed to be the most-cited engineer in history.

But it’s also a good choice for the Prize itself; because Langer’s work illustrates the achievements of engineering in a sphere that most of the public probably don’t associate with engineering. The perception of the sector is changing; but it’s still mainly seen as to do with big, solid stuff, to put it rather crudely. For most of the public, ‘medical engineering’ is connected with imaging equipment, prosthetics and surgical techniques, not tiny things like drug particles or squishy things like gels and tissues. This award will help to change that; which was one of the goals of the Queen Elizabeth Prize in the first place.

It’s probably fair to say that the first Queen Elizabeth Prize was a bit of an anti-climax. That’s not to say that it didn’t go to deserving recipients: the internet is a truly world-changing innovation that’s enriched billions of lives, and its inventors made the conceptual engineering leaps that made it possible. Perhaps we just underestimated how difficult it would be to launch a truly prestigious prize — ‘the engineering equivalent of the Nobels’ — from scratch.

Because the truth is that is just impossible. The prestige of the Nobels doesn’t come from their origin, or even from the prizes themselves, although the reward is considerable and a CD-sized solid gold medal isn’t to be sniffed at (or dropped on your foot, we’d imagine). The prestige comes from over a century of previous winners: who wouldn’t want to be in the judged the peer of Einstein, Bohr, Rutherford, Fleming, Crick, Kipling, Churchill et al?

You can’t just put up a million pounds in prize money and expect instant prestige. That comes from continuity, history and constant excellence. If the Prize continues to go to winners of the calibre of Robert Langer, and if it is well-publicised by the mainstream press and broadcasters, then it’s well on the path to achieving that prestige and meeting its goal.