21st century learned society

18 June 2013
Professor Andy Hopper

Professor Andy Hopper

What does it mean to be a learned society in today’s modern world, asks IET president Professor Andy Hopper.

What defines a learned society has not changed dramatically in the last 50 years. What has changed significantly is the way a learned society delivers its services and benefits.

First and foremost a learned society exists to promote an academic discipline or profession. That has always been the case for the IET, but the way it has been promoting engineering has evolved to make sure its members remain effective in the way they champion the subject to a wide range of audiences.

One of the key duties in promoting the profession is to share new research and thinking via journals and conferences. The IET has a proud history in this respect, and a modern approach to reaching today’s diverse audiences. Take, for example, the IET Prestige Lectures, which are highly topical, accessible and well attended. They are also accessible via IET.tv, one of the world’s largest engineering video archives, enabling them to be viewed from anywhere in the world and kept as an audio-visual record for future consumption. The recent Young Professionals’ Prestige Lecture on Raspberry Pi was a sell out and has been viewed on IET.tv by over 70,000 people.

The IET’s learning obviously has a great tradition in academic journals. Today, many of those journals and resources remain world-class tools for leading academics and practicing engineers, for example, the highly-cited Electronics Letters rapid-communication journal. The latest IET journal is ‘open access’, offering engineering researchers a new way of making their work available to others while providing valuable, free-to-view content for the international engineering community. The Journal of Engineering is an industry first – the first open access journal launched by a not-for-profit, professional engineering society. Meanwhile Inspec, the world’s definitive bibliographic engineering and scientific database, with over 13 million abstracts, continues to drive research and fuel innovation.

Technical depth in specific subject areas is very much part of what a learned society does, and the IET strives to have this across all its academic and practitioner publications. Professionals at the sharp end of engineering and technology rely on the IET’s technical expertise.

Knowledge within the IET is not just shared through journals, but also via magazines, books, events, websites, webcasts, archives, databases, standards and much more. Increasingly this knowledge is available digitally in order to cater for the needs of a global and mobile engineering community.

Being a modern learned society also means that the IET is very active in the education sector. As a not-for-profit body we are trusted by the public sector to provide high quality resources. Every year, the IET engages with thousands of schools to help inspire young people towards engineering. The Faraday programme alone makes a massive impact on thousands of teenagers every year – bringing more young people into the exciting world of engineering and technology.

Volunteers and staff also work directly with universities and colleges in the UK, China and India to help give students the best possible start in their training and preparation for work. Connected to this is accreditation, a real growth area for the IET as more and more universities and businesses realise how important it is to gain official external recognition for quality when it comes to developing engineers.

It’s not just resources and quality assurance that the IET contributes when it comes to developing and inspiring engineers. Every year, through a range of scholarships and awards, the IET gifts over £500,000 to students and practitioners. In that way the IET shines a light on the benefits of learning as well as providing the knowledge content itself.

The IET strives to support members directly, whatever their stage of life. That is the ethos behind its 'professional home for life' membership proposition. That support is manifest in so many ways, from physical geographic communities, called Local Networks, to specialist interest groups that span geographic boards, the Technical Networks, through to online communities that are actively engaged in the IET’s professional networking and collaboration platform, MyCommunity. In 2012 these communities held over 1,500 physical events all around the world.

Another key part of a learned society, that has not changed, is acting as a professional regulator. The IET remains a standard setter for individual companies, academic bodies, industry, members and the profession as a whole. The IET recently established a dedicated Standards division that publishes authoritative codes of practice, using its expertise to achieve consensus on best practice in emerging and established technology fields, with a strong contribution to the emerging electric vehicle infrastructure.

Today’s learned society is also about influence, through evidenced-based thought leadership on key issues that affect society. The IET works directly with the UK Government and Parliament to ensure that public policy reflects the insight that professional engineers offer. From High Speed Rail to Smart Grids, it is engineers who most intimately understand how the theory behind these policies will be implemented in reality.

Influence is also exerted in the public square through the volunteers who are IET media spokespeople. There are approximately 100 IET media spokesmen and women who are all volunteers and have contributed to the IET’s most successful year ever in terms of media profile, with over 4,000 media reports referencing the IET in 2012.

The volunteers, members and staff of the IET are focused on delivering these (and other) public benefit objectives through the dissemination of engineering and technology knowledge. That is what it means to be a learned society in the 21st century. However, none of this could happen without the hard work of dedicated members who volunteer their time and energy to these causes. They are causes worth striving for.

If you would like to know more about being an IET volunteer, please visit www.theiet.org/volunteers

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