New Prize Aims To Become 'Nobel' Of Engineering

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering is a new award created with hopes to breathe new life into the field. One million British pounds will be awarded every two years for an engineering achievement deemed to have great benefit to humanity. Nominations for the prize opened last week. Robert Siegel talks to Lord Browne of Madingley, the former president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the force behind the award.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

Today, a new award, it's called the Queen Elizabeth Prize. It aims to become the Nobel of engineering. Nominations opened last week to anyone from engineering and science institutions, to research organization and companies around the world. The prize is managed by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Britain, and it will award one million pounds, that's nearly $1.6 million, to a person or group responsible for, to quote the academy, "outstanding advances in engineering that have changed the world and benefited humanity."

Well, Lord Browne of Mattingly is the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He's also known as John Brown. He used to be the CEO of BP and he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

LORD JOHN BROWNE: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, why create this award and why created now?

BROWNE: Well, very much I think a missing element in the panoply of prizes; something which is completely global to celebrate today's achievements in engineering that make a difference to humanity. I think it's always been a missing element in what's there to motivate people to do great things.

SIEGEL: And give us some sense of the breadth of engineering when you define this category.

BROWNE: Today, engineering is very broad. It goes for medical sciences through to IT systems - the software and the hardware - through to building a great space telescope, building an automobile, building a robot. And all these things are different parts of engineering.

SIEGEL: A question I would have about a big prize for the engineering is: Wouldn't any engineering breakthrough that meets the academy's standard of being an outstanding advance that has changed the world and benefited humanity, wouldn't that already be something for which the inventor or the developer has been richly rewarded.

BROWNE: Maybe not richly rewarded, but even if they had been, they might not have been celebrated, lauded and profiled as great advocates of engineering. And that is the point here; that engineering which looks to commerce and the markets, as well as to the fruits of discovery, needs I think to raise its profile in most countries in the world.

SIEGEL: Every other year, I gather, a winner will receive the one million pounds. Who is underwriting that? Where will the money come from for the endowment?

BROWNE: The money comes from corporations. There is no U.K. government money in this at all. It is completely private. And we'll be fund-raising over the next decade or so to make sure that we do make this endowment live in perpetuity.

SIEGEL: Lord Browne, in your past life as CEO of BP, you were responsible for rebranding of that company as moving beyond petroleum towards green energy. Do you have a particular interest - would you want to see the new prize going to engineers whose work might reduce dependence on oil?

BROWNE: That's just as valid as those who might have made a breakthrough in recovering a little bit more oil from existing reservoirs. I have no particular prejudice one way or the other. What I'd like to make sure, though, is it's something that really does improve the lot of humanity in one way or another.

SIEGEL: It's called the Queen Elizabeth Prize. What was the thinking there?

BROWNE: Well, this is the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the throne, and it was one of the things that we thought was appropriate to get her name attached to a prize. She has done this, I think, very rarely, indeed. She's very excited. The good news is I think everyone knows who Queen Elizabeth is.

SIEGEL: She requires no rebranding.

BROWNE: I would say so. I think we are very delighted to have her as our brand.

SIEGEL: Well, Lord Browne, thank you very much for talking with us.

BROWNE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Lord Browne of Mattingly, John Brown, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He was talking with us about the new Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Nominations are coming in now and the Academy will give out its first award in April of next year.

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