Engineers or Scientists, That Is the Question

22/11/2011 09:53 GMT | Updated 21/01/2012 10:12 GMT

The £1m Queen Elizabeth Engineering prize " is to be awarded for exceptional advances in Engineering". This prize "was officially launched at London's Science museum.", so said a BBC report.

There you have it; the above sentence carries within it why engineering has an image problem in the UK. Although the Science Museum has some wonderful exhibits that are only made possible by engineering knowledge and expertise, the title "London's Science Museum" ignores that. A good start would be to rename it as "London's Science and Engineering Museum".

As the originator of the industrial revolution, Britain is a shadow of its former self; it has squandered its lead in engineering and manufacturing. Do not get me wrong, there are still isolated oases of excellence in an otherwise impoverished landscape. Rolls Royce, for example, that partly sponsored my PhD research at Birmingham University in the late seventies, is still a world class manufacturer of jet propulsion engines.

Engineers are those who convert our knowledge of science and mathematics into products that enhance, simplify and enrich our lives. An engineering course at university is one of the hardest to do. An engineering undergraduate not only has to have a depth of understanding of physics and mathematics, but also has to have the flair and imagination to apply the knowledge to designing systems and products that are useful to society. Being able to predict performance and improve the efficiency of an engine, for example, requires combining a deep understanding of physics and mathematics with experimental techniques to make intelligent assumptions to solve very complex equations.

Engineers will not take no for an answer. If an equation cannot be solved exactly, engineers will find ways of obtaining approximate solutions. Experiments are then conducted on a prototype to enhance the predictions, thus developing the tools to predict the performance of a complex engineering system if the design is altered. The predictions are accurate enough to avoid having to build additional prototypes with substantial cost saving, and shortening the time needed to bring the optimally designed product to the market.

These are the rare qualities good engineers must have, but where are the salaries and the status to match? I know of a number of brilliant students who decided to go into "the city", banking and finance, after graduation because that is where the money and the status are.

It is not scientists who put a man on the moon, it is engineers. Poor engineers, even when they do something exciting that could fire the imagination of the young to aspire to become engineers, the opportunity is taken away from them by designating them scientists. It is engineers who have made it possible for theoretical physicists to test the behaviour of sub-atomic particles at Cern, near Geneva, and making possible the discovery that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum.

But how often, if ever, do we hear that? The views of particle physicists are being sought by the media but not those of the engineers who have designed and built the incredible equipment necessary for physicists to test their theories. Where and when do we hear or see the engineering equivalent of Professor Brian Cox, the particle physicist? Not only that, if we ever do hear him or her, you bet s/he will be called a scientist.