Queen Elizabeth prize: possible pitfalls, possible glory

Senior Reporter

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.