As the Queen Elizabeth Prize opens for nominations for a second time, one of the UK’s most eminent engineers explains why it’s just one of the elements needed to raise the professsion’s status.
Alec Broers is a man used to tackling the seemingly impossible. As a young Cambridge researcher, he pioneered the creation of electronic circuit patterns as small as a virus. Later, at IBM, where he was given free reign to pursue his work in any direction he wanted, he helped define what could and could not be done with nanofabrication. And back in the UK he set up an organisation to help ivory tower academics work more closely with the business world. Now, at 75, he still finds time to sit in the House of Lords and chair the Diamond Light Source synchrotron and the Transport Knowledge Transfer Network.
But even he was inevitably going to struggle to win universal acclaim when given the unenviable role of chair of judges for the new £1m Queen Elizabeth Prize, the UK biannual initiative that’s blatant in its attempt to become ‘the Nobel Prize of engineering’ and that is now accepting nominations for the second time. ‘The reactions I had were mixed,’ Broers says of last year’s decision to award the inaugural prize to the creators of the internet and world wide web. ‘The president of Caltech said to me “how will you follow that?” On the other hand, I’ve had people saying it was rather dull and “couldn’t you have found something really exciting that was new?”’
It’s one of several times during our interview that Lord Broers acknowledges the inevitable difficulties — and limits — of trying to promote the image of modern engineering with an award that will often go to (as Broers puts it) ‘geriatric white men’ for things they did years ago. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony arguably made far more people aware of British web inventor Tim Berners-Lee than any prize ever could, even one awarded by and named after the Queen. But he remains assured that the QE Prize is a good way to raise the status of engineering, particularly among young people, and that the internet was the right first-time winner.
‘The purpose of this prize — and it will be a gradual process — is to educate people about what modern engineering is,’ he says. ‘We need, particularly in the UK, means of explaining to people what engineers do. EngineeringUK surveys show that less than a fifth of 12 to 16 year olds know what engineers do. So by identifying an accomplishment that people can see as being of massive impact, [we can] say: “Engineers did that; that’s an exciting thing to do”.’
Sharing the prize between five people, he adds, from the first computer network engineers to the programmer of the first popular web browser, also illustrates how modern engineering encompasses a range of activities and is often a collaborative process that can take years to come to fruition. Gone are the days of the valiant lone inventor, of Frank Whittle and James Watt, says Broers.
And it’s this approach he plans to replicate when judging the next set of nominations, rather than seeking one key person to reward. ‘Initially we look for what are the outstanding accomplishments that have brought benefit to mankind,’ he says. ‘Then we go into the very difficult task of trying to find the people who made the major contributions to that field.’
Broers’ CV reads like a checklist of the major public positions an engineer could aspire to in British society: vice-chancellor of Cambridge University; president of the Royal Academy of Engineering; chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. Not bad for an Australian who came to the UK on a choral scholarship and then left to spend 20 years in the US. In 2005, he used an invitation to present the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures to call for a better public understanding of technology. Having spent over a decade thinking about public engagement with engineering, he has some claim to being able to judge what achievements will capture people’s attention.
The Daily Mail’s only mention of the award was in an article about princesses Beatrice and Eugenie’s fashion sense.
Unfortunately, much of the media — especially outside of the UK — don’t seem to agree, based on the response to the QE Prize announcement last year. The Daily Mail’s only mention of the award was in an article about princesses Beatrice and Eugenie’s fashion sense. ‘In some ways it was disappointing in that it didn’t get huge coverage,’ admits Broers. ‘I haven’t quite understood
why the media didn’t want to do more with it. They basically said they would only be interested if there were an Oscars-type approach to it. When we pointed out that it wasn’t appropriate for this kind of prize they weren’t interested.’
Although he’s determined that the QE Prize should retain a Nobel-style level of seriousness, he recognises and accepts the inherent limits that brings. ‘Even the Nobels are fleeting and people don’t understand what it’s actually about,’ he says. ‘And there’s always debate about whether you should recognise established accomplishments — and that’s what the QE Prize is about — or exciting new ones.’
If the internet was the obvious choice for the prize’s first year, the questions now are how to find a suitably substantial follow-up that will also excite a public used to looking for the next big thing in technology; and how to bring a bit of glamour and excitement to attract the media without slipping from the high standard set by the first award.
‘There are all sorts of small, exciting things: Raspberry Pi [the credit card-sized computer designed to teach children programming] and that sort of stuff would be popular with the really geeky set,’ says Broers. ‘But on the other hand it would be easy but I think wrong, because of the fashionable position of IT at the moment, to make this an IT prize.’
Indeed, he concludes that the first few prizes may continue setting the standard in a variety of fields of engineering. Even that won’t be easy, however, as is evident from the many ideas already running through his mind. ‘There are many areas that are controversial to a certain extent: what about high-rise buildings?’ he muses. ‘There’s civil engineering. What about tunnelling? There are so many things having huge influence on the way we lead our lives. It would be very exciting to find advances in transport, autonomous vehicles or something. Medical engineering is one where
the advances are very modern and all around us.’
One thing he and the other judges have decided for certain is that there won’t be a shortlist in the vein of the Booker literature or Stirling architecture prizes, even if that would help create more media buzz and public debate. ‘We have decided not to do that because we don’t want to have losers,’ he says. ‘If you look at the Nobel prize, very often the people on the shortlist one year almost certainly come through in future years… But if you have a shortlist then those who don’t get the prize are sort of thrown away and it’s more difficult the next time to bring them forward and say “this is the one this year”, when it was only third last year.’
’I was with the head of a bank the other night whose nieces are engineers and he was utterly amazed at how little they’re paid.’
Does he think public understanding of engineering has improved since he gave his Reith Lectures nearly a decade ago? He claims to believe so, noting in particular the many initiatives to encourage more young people and women into the field. But beyond that it’s harder to pin him down on clear successes, and he argues that British engineers still have a problem with social status that’s not helped by the lack of a protected title, and what he sees as falling standards in university admissions and unduly low salaries. These aren’t new complaints but it’s rare to hear such a prominent figure in the engineering establishment make them.
‘I was with the head of a bank the other night whose nieces are engineers and he was utterly amazed at how little they’re paid,’ he says. ‘Anybody from the financial world just can’t believe it: I mean why do we do this? And it’s not the average — the average isn’t that bad — it’s the spread. The brightest graduates should earn twice the average… If you’re in manufacturing where innovation is important, the bright person can be 20 times the value of somebody else and that’s what tends not to be recognised.’
For someone still so active in the public and private sectors, Broers is remarkably candid (although perhaps that’s more reflective of the degree to which so many public figures today have any semblance of opinion media-trained out of them). Perhaps anyone with a biography as long and impressive as his is less inclined to worry about rocking the boat. And although he places a great deal of stock in the QE Prize, he clearly understands that it won’t solve all of engineering’s issues — or that picking the recipient is in any way straightforward. ‘There are no simple single answers to any of this,’ he says. ‘What we seek is a deep contribution of engineering creativity that’s still evolving in an exciting way.’
Chair of judges, Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering
1959: BSc physics, Melbourne University, Australia
1962: BA electrical sciences, University of Cambridge
1965: PhD engineering, University of Cambridge
1965: Researcher at IBM USA
1977: Appointed IBM Fellow
1984: Professor of electrical engineering and fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge
1990: Master of Churchill College, University of Cambridge
1992: Head of Cambridge University Engineering Department
1996: Vice-chancellor, University of Cambridge
1998: Knighted for services to education
1998: Co-founded the Cambridge Network
1998: Non-executive director of Vodafone Group
2001: President of the Royal Academy of Engineering
2004: Granted a Life Peerage (became Lord Broers)
2004: Chairman, House of Lords Science and Technology Committee
2005: Presents the Reith Lectures for the BBC
2008: Chairman, Diamond Light Source Ltd
2010: Chairman, Technology Strategy Board Knowledge Transfer Network for Transport
2012: Chairman, judging panel of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering