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A Nobel prize for engineering?

13 May 2013
By Ralph Adam
Internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee HonFIET

Sir Tim Berners-Lee HonFIET among Internet pioneers to be first recipients of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

In 2011 the British government’s launch of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering received great coverage and was widely applauded. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, called it the ‘Nobel prize for engineering’.

It is a biennial international award celebrating engineers whose work ‘inspires, benefits and advances society’. The winners may be of any nationality but must have been directly responsible for an advance in knowledge that has provided a ‘significant’ benefit to humanity. The IET’s president, Professor Andy Hopper, was enthusiastic: “Most importantly to me, this prize is about showing off the best of the best and reminding society that world-changing innovations are so often born inside the minds of engineers…My hope is that this prize will, in the years ahead, become one of the most revered and respected prizes in the world.”

An independent trust, chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley, runs the award fund while the prize itself is managed and delivered by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The initial award was made in March 2013 to five ‘fathers’ of the Internet and the web: Bob Kahn, Louis Pouzin and Vint Cerf for their development of the Internet's robust packet-based transmission systems, Tim Berners-Lee for the World Wide Web and Marc Andreesen for the first Web browser, NCSA Mosaic.

Pouzin’s inclusion helps recognise the hidden role of Europeans in the Internet’s development: as well as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), important contributions were made by many Belgian, British and French researchers, such as Robert Cailliau (co-developer of the Web), Donald Davies (National Physical Laboratory), Peter Kirstein and Britain’s Joint Network Team (JNT – later SuperJanet). France was a key player with, in the 1970s, probably more databases than the rest of Europe put together.

At the launch event Lord Browne said: "Engineering underpins every aspect of our lives…But too often the engineers behind the most brilliant innovations remain hidden. The Prize aims to change that. It will celebrate, on an international scale, the very best engineering in the world. I believe that this prize will inspire the public, especially young people, with a sense of the excitement and the importance of engineering."

Browne’s feeling was echoed by Cameron who hoped teenagers would again be encouraged “to dream of becoming engineers as they once did in the age of Stephenson and Brunel”.

But, is that realistic? Do such role models work? Or is it more important to have well-trained, enthusiastic teachers to show even the youngest children that engineering is not only exciting, but also the key to solving many of the world’s biggest problems?

According to the IET’s latest research, only 19 per cent of those aged between 12 and 16 know what engineers do. Yet the UK needs to double its numbers of engineering recruits, with an estimated requirement of about 90 000 by 2020.

A high-profile prize is an excellent idea, but much more needs to be done: a stronger public image is essential for the profession, as is an educational infrastructure with world-quality facilities.

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