A Nobel Prize for ... engineers?

March 22, 2012
It is relatively easy to name a few big-name scientists off the top of your head. It is nearly impossible for the average Joe or Jane to do the same for engineers

It is relatively easy to name a few big-name scientists off the top of your head. It is nearly impossible for the average Joe or Jane to do the same for engineers.

No wonder, then, that engineers often complain that they get no respect from the public. Surveys of public perception bear out this impression. A Harris Poll in 2007 found that only 30% of Americans hold engineers in high regard.

But a new competition aims to change all this. Called the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, it will be run by the Royal Academy of Engineering. The winner gets more than a bowling trophy. This contest will award £1 million to an engineer or group of engineers responsible for what judges feel is the world’s greatest modern-engineering advancement which has had a demonstrable benefit for humanity.

You might think of the Queen Elizabeth Prize as a Nobel Prize for engineers. That’s certainly the feeling you get from conversations with its judging panel. “The Nobel has been about people who have generated knowledge that has somehow improved human welfare,” says Professor Calestous Juma, an international development expert with Harvard University and one of the Prize judges. “But if somebody identifies the fact that you can kill a bacteria using a compound, somebody else has to figure out how to actually make it into a drug. The people who manufacture the drug are never honored, only the people who came up with the idea. The Queen Elizabeth Prize honors those who translate the ideas into practical solutions.”

The Queen Elizabeth Prize could put engineering on equal footing with science, where many would argue it deserves to be. After all, several Nobelwinning achievements wouldn’t have been possible without engineering achievements that preceded them. For example, says Juma, “We would not have had advances in science without new observational instruments that were developed by engineers.”

There are numerous engineering prizes today, but they lack visibility. In contrast, Juma thinks the Queen Elizabeth Prize will help change the public image of engineers to one of people who solve global problems. “Over the past 50 years, there have been a lot of negative perceptions of engineering,” he says. “When a dam breaks, people initially blame the dam and then blame shifts to engineers. Environmentalists blame engineers for being the source of environmental problems. So engineers are under enormous scrutiny and must constantly defend their actions. But if you look at all the improvements in human welfare, we are really reaping the benefits of engineers, people who maintain and fix things.”

You might wonder how in the world Prize judges will be able to quantify the “benefit to humanity” of specific entries that could conceivably range from rocket engines to medical devices. That’s a good point, Juma admits. “We are just getting started. If we got into a discussion about categories, it would delay the whole thing by five years. The trust that runs the prize will have to grapple with those kinds of questions,” he says.

Interestingly, Juma hopes the Prize will get the attention of young people in particular. “Look at science fairs for school kids,” he says. “Though they’re called science fairs, the exhibit tables usually display something constructed as an engineering project. We want to help young people get to the point of saying, ‘I want to go out and solve a practical problem and not just debate it.’”

—Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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