We have a Nobel Prize for authors, chemists, activists and economists. And although engineering has its own Nobel-equivalent awards, if Alfred Nobel were alive today, he’d advocate for an engineering prize too, writes Alex Kingsbury.
The Nobel Prize — it has long been held in the highest respect for recognising individuals who have made world-changing contributions.
Alfred Nobel, a man who made his fortune from 355 patents and is best known for inventing dynamite, established the Nobel Foundation to administer five prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.
Underpinning the prizes was Nobel’s clear instruction that they should go to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. This instruction has been the guiding principle for the awards to the present day.
When considering achievements that have benefited humankind, it’s hard to ignore the extraordinary engineering feats that have defined the past century. To mention just a few:
- Mass electrification, giving us light, heating, refrigeration and computing power.
- The automobile, transporting people and goods around the world and enabling so many of our modern-day conveniences and opportunities.
- Water supply and wastewater management systems, which have virtually eliminated waterborne diseases such as typhoid and cholera in the developed world.
- Agricultural mechanisation, making farming highly productive and efficient and providing millions of people with an abundant supply of healthy, low-cost food.
- The aeroplane, enabling us to stay globally connected and facilitating personal, cultural and commercial engagements.
- Modern communications technology, from the humble radio, to telephony, television and current-day fibre optic internet.
Nobel himself was an engineer. However, at the time, engineering as a profession was not considered a field of study. One studied a science, and then learnt how to put the scientific learning into practice on the job.
As science and technology have progressed, the distinct difference between the study of scientific theory and the complexities of applying the theory in an industrial setting are fully appreciated. We now have courses of study at undergraduate, master’s and PhD levels in engineering.
As the world changes, so must we change in order to contribute to it and deliver benefits for humankind.
A Nobel equivalent?
The Nobel Prize has not been without change, controversy or debate. In 1968 the Swedish National Bank proposed to fund a Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences. The Nobel Foundation does not recognise this as an official prize, as it was not written into Nobel’s will. However laureates are awarded alongside the others at official ceremonies, and it is administered by the Nobel Foundation.
After the acceptance of the Prize for Economics, the Nobel Foundation declared that no other awards would be permitted to use the word ‘Nobel’. Nevertheless, the awards have gained such prestige that prizes for other fields have emerged as Nobel-equivalents.
There is the Pritzker Architecture Prize (‘the Nobel prize for Architecture’), the Turing Award (‘the Nobel Prize for Computer Science’), and the Huxley Memorial Medal and Lecture (‘the Nobel Prize for Anthropology’), to name a few.
Naturally, engineering has its own Nobel-equivalent award: the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, also known as the QEPrize. Given the extraordinary feats of engineering over the last century, it’s surprising that this prize was only instituted in 2013.
Less surprising is that it was the British Royal Family that initiated the QEPrize. The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, has long been a passionate advocate for engineering (having once compared engineers as second only to God) and said that engineering “has made a greater positive difference to human life than almost any other human endeavour”.
Improving the human condition
The QEPrize is truly global. Awardees for the biennial prize have come from the US, the UK and Japan. Judges hail from China, Switzerland, India, Japan and Germany, to name a few.
Make no mistake, this is not a prize motivated by parochial intent. It’s funded by global engineering companies, and it’s absolutely intended to create what Nobel did not: a prize for groundbreaking engineering innovations that conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.
Outside of the prize-giving, the QEPrize also has a strong mission to raise the profile of engineering as a profession and promote it as an attractive career choice for future generations. In addition to this, the QEPrize Foundation does extensive, global surveying of public attitudes and perceptions of engineering and publishes these findings in a biennial report entitled Create the Future.
Having a Nobel-equivalent that recognises the contributions of engineers is a step in the right direction, but is it enough? Engineers across the world should be extremely proud of the achievements of their profession. I believe the Duke of Edinburgh was correct — there are so few professions that have so profoundly and positively improved the human condition as engineering.
The world needs to recognise, celebrate and reward the fabulous achievements of our brilliant engineers. Had Nobel lived to see this current day, he might have done the same.