Respect where it’s due

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Awards ceremony is always a heartening affair for those who worry about the state of technology in the UK.

The night, which culminated in the presentation of the MacRobert Award, had plenty to reassure those who fear that the spirit of innovation is being swept away in a tidal wave of apathy concerning people who actually aspire to make things rather than, to pluck an example from thin air, appear on Big Brother.

So congratulations to Process Systems Enterprise, the company that scooped this year’s gold medal for its mathematical modelling systems.

For guests of a certain age, it was a special treat to see veteran broadcaster and science and engineering enthusiast Johnny Ball honoured for his ability to convey his passion.

The appearance of this timeless communicator inevitably inspired discussion of how engineering, maths and science present themselves to the wider public.

Several speakers on the night commented on the fact that in an era in which environment and energy-related issues dominate headlines on a daily basis, the people who can actually solve the problems – above all, engineers – remain largely invisible.

It was pointed out that without the practical application that the engineering community can bring, literally nothing will happen in response to the hand-wringing of the politicians, activists and commentators.

One phrase that particularly resonated was that engineers are among the select group of people able to not just talk about changing the world, but to actually do it.

If this all sounds rather dramatic, perhaps a bit of drama is what is needed if engineering is really serious about raising its profile.

Until now, the focus of making engineering engaging and attractive to the wider world – and to the next generation in particular – has been to stress that it is fun. Nobody exemplifies this approach better than the great Johnny Ball.

In the age of climate change and dwindling energy supplies, perhaps the message should be rather different. Something along the lines of ‘this is deadly serious, and if you want us to sort things out you’d better start giving us the respect we deserve.’

Andrew Lee, editor