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

Senior reporter

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.