Queen Elizabeth prize must be given every chance to shine

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford, news editor

This week sees the announcement of the third recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the biennial award that celebrates an engineering innovation that has benefitted humanity on a global scale.

The first £1m QEPrize was jointly awarded to five pioneers of the internet including the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners Lee. Two years ago it was the turn of Dr Robert Langer to step forward and accept the prize for developing a range of medical innovations via materials science.

Estimated to have had an impact on two billion lives, Dr Langer’s achievements include the use of polymer capsules to slowly deliver large-molecule drugs inside the body over a long period of time. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor has also developed artificial skin and wirelessly controlled electronic drug implants.

The Engineer noted on the day of Dr Langer’s award that the QE Prize was created as a way to celebrate engineering, promote the profession to young people and highlight Britain’s pre-eminence in the field.

Two years is a long time between awards and it had escaped this author’s mind that the organisers don’t issue a short list of possible winners.

Back in 2014 Alec Broers was chair of the QE Prize judging panel and he told The Engineer: ‘We have decided not to [create a shortlist] because we don’t want to have losers. 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.’

It should go without saying that The Engineer will be covering the QEPrize this Wednesday and giving it the prominence it deserves, but can we say the same of the nationals and broadcast media? If previous awards are anything to go by then coverage will likely be kept to a minimum in terms of airtime and column inches.

To a non-technical audience, the inclusion of Tim Berners Lee in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics probably did more to bring him into the public’s consciousness than any award from his peers.

If the organisers of the QEPrize want to push engineering that little bit further into the public domain then maybe they should rethink the shortlist strategy and consider the sort of news it will be competing against when the winner is announced on Wednesday.