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From megastructures to nanotech: the race is on to find engineering ‘Nobel’

The Royal Academy of Engineering has launched a £1 million prize at the behest of the government to recognise excellence in engineering.

The Nobel-style Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering will be awarded every other year to an individual or team of up to three people from any country in the world. The prize money is for the winner, or winners, to spend as they wish.

According to a spokeswoman for the academy, the prize’s main aim is to “recognise and celebrate the best engineering in the world”. The prize “will also give us the opportunity to recognise the role engineering plays in our lives,” she told Research Fortnight. The prize covers all fields of engineering and is intended for “those achievements that have created a significant benefit to humanity and that have international relevance…from a massive bridge to something in nanotechnology,” she says.

Launching the prize this month, David Cameron said he hopes to encourage more people to follow careers in engineering so that the UK can shift its economic focus away from financial services. “We want to rebalance the economy so that Britain makes things again—highly-skilled, high-value manufacturing and engineering should be a central part of our long-term future,” he said during the launch ceremony.

The prize was originally announced in the government’s Plan for Growth, published in March. The idea, it said, would be to “help create the excitement that would help give British manufacturing a brighter future”. But Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society, argues that the prize could fall short of this goal. “If it is truly global it will go far more often to Americans than to Brits, and that risks sending the wrong message. And few of these awards get much publicity anyway,” he says.

Rees says that a so-called ‘inducement prize’, an award for meeting a challenge set in a strategically important area of innovation, would be a better way of getting people interested in engineering. “These ‘challenge prizes’ recognise up-and-coming talent. Whenever new Nobel-type prizes are established, the first few awardees tend to be a backlog of geriatrics who would have won it a long time ago if it had already existed,” he says.

However, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, believes that taking an international view is the right approach. “I think it’s actually a good thing this is a global prize, as it underlines that when it comes to discovery and innovation, the UK has a global outlook and global ambitions,” he says.

The prize will be paid for from an endowment fund contributed to by a number of companies that include BAE Systems, BP and GlaxoSmithKline. The fund will be managed by an independent charitable trust chaired by John Browne, the former president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and former chief executive of BP.

The first call for nominations will be released in February next year and the first winner will be announced in December.