Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng
‘There is no doubt in my mind that our future prosperity and comfort depends on the talents and ingenuity of engineers’, wrote the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Senior Fellow, HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh KG KT OM GBE, in May 2006. Later this year, His Royal Highness will step down from public duties (although not from the role of Senior Fellow), four decades after the launch of the Fellowship of Engineering, which later became the Royal Academy of Engineering, at Buckingham Palace on 11 June 1976.
In the early 1970s, Prince Philip was instrumental in the success of negotiations over the establishment of a new body that could become a home for engineering, a new national academy working alongside the Royal Society. He told that story in an article for Ingenia, published in 2009 (‘Promoting engineering’, Ingenia 41). In his own words, he described his interest in engineering at many levels, from his experiences as a young naval officer to his continuing role as the Academy’s Senior Fellow. Three aspects stand out for me that will resonate with many in the profession.
Firstly, making things better! In the article, he explains how his interest in all things technical was sparked while he was a midshipman in the Royal Navy in 1939, sketching engineering components and relating how they worked to how they looked. Since then, his deep curiosity and keen interest in engineering has never wavered.
In 1959, he launched the Prince Philip Designers Prize, which he chaired and which was overseen by the Design Council for 52 years. Over that time, the annual prize became a celebration not only of the great but the unknown designers behind everyday objects, creative experts in disciplines ranging from technology, engineering and architecture to graphics, illustration and fabric design.
Skills start young and Prince Philip’s interest in the education and training of engineers has been a constant source of inspiration for many in the profession. In 2005, Chris Wise FREng and Ed McCann wrote an article for Ingenia (‘Building to learn’, Ingenia 24) that featured a ‘constructionarium’ in Norfolk, where students could learn through building large mock-ups of real projects. Within months, he visited the site to see what it was all about.
Beyond professional qualification comes public recognition. Prince Philip is credited with the creation of the Academy in the 1970s, driven by his own vision and personal interventions. Indeed, in an era when engineering was seen as secondary to science, ‘Prince Philip saved engineering in the UK’, as Lord Browne FREng FRS said in his interview with him on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in January 2016. What followed, through the work of the Fellowship of Engineering and subsequently the Academy, was to change the public face of the profession completely. Today, in a testament to that early vision, the Academy is working with the professional engineering institutions (PEIs) and leading the debate on the role and contribution of engineers and engineering in society, innovation and the economy.
Above all, it is Prince Philip’s enduring interest in people working as engineers that stands out in his writing. Since 1989, the Prince Philip Medal has been ‘awarded periodically to an engineer of any nationality who has made an exceptional contribution to engineering as a whole through practice, management or education’. But he has also been a champion of broadening access to engineering to those without a formal academic education. His encouragement to promote routes for apprentices, technicians or others without university degrees to become engineers was echoed in the recent report by Professor John Uff CBE QC FREng, UK Engineering 2016, which called for more coordination and flexibility across the PEIs as an important mechanism to attract more young people into engineering.
The challenge of attracting talent into the profession is not new, but has never been more urgent. From cities and infrastructure to the digital economy, healthcare and emerging technologies, there is widespread recognition that not enough young people are becoming engineers. Just as Prince Philip proposed in the 1970s, this is surely the moment for all in the profession to rally round a common voice and a single message. Let’s start by saying thank you.
Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng