In this post, Professor Tim Drysdale, Chair of Technology Enhanced Science Education in the School of Engineering, reflects on the current issues facing the Engineering discipline and profession today…
The perennial radio favourite, Desert Island Discs , illustrates the biggest issue facing engineering today. Engineering permeates our lives, is hard to replace, and is often invisible to its users . We are not being seen by the very people we need to recruit in order to continue to build our future (inter-)national success. The show’s premise is that you are going to a desert island and can select some CDs to take with you. Let’s put a twist on it. Let’s say we washed ashore after a shipwreck, along with the ship’s generator and a supply of fuel for it, but no CD player. Admittedly, entertainment wouldn’t be our first priority , but, as a thought experiment to explore just how much technology we take for granted, let’s investigate what engineering we would have to do to be able to play our CDs.
We’d need a laser to read the disc, and a computer chip to give voice to the silent laser pulses. We could make a start on both problems if we heat up some of the sand on the beach to melt it into silicon  – except then we need to shape a bowl out of a material that can withstand the heat. A coconut won’t cut it . Oh dear – we are deep in a recursive problem. Everything we need to do, needs another set of tools and processes behind it, and each of those tools and processes needs another, and so on. Our lives today are built on a huge pyramid of creatively engineered tools and processes that have been painstakingly developed over hundreds of years and continue to be evolved and extended today. It’s that world-improving creative process at the heart of engineering that makes it so compelling for its practitioners.
Mostly, things have gone pretty well with that process. Sure, there’s been the odd miss-step here and there, but often that’s due to the intersection with the human condition rather than the engineering profession itself . Sometimes the engineering profession gets the blame anyway. Then engineers worry about how their profession is thought of. The “good news/bad news” is, it’s not. Thought of, that is, at all .
Some of this neglect is down to popular cultural representations. Lawyers, doctors, and real-estate agents have exciting TV shows such as Suits, House, and the Santa Clara Diet. Engineers have Scotty in Star Trek, Q in James Bond and Handy Manny. True, we do have our serious engineering programmes (Abandoned Engineering, Scrapheap Challenge, Robot Wars) but you have to seek them out, and you don’t see a glossy story of human interaction set in an engineering company (the Suits of engineering, if you will); you just see the low-end representations, and plenty of dirty overalls and hardhats. You’re not seeing the glossy high-tech end of it like you see in science and maths programming.
But that is not the whole story. In everyday life, people meet doctors, lawyers and estate agents. In the UK, mostly the “engineers” that people meet in everyday life are fixing mundane things that have broken, like white goods. There is no routine contact with the creative engineers we focus on producing from Universities. We cannot restrict the usage of the word engineer – the chance to do that has long gone (if such a chance ever existed ). Is it even anyone else’s fault that “our” engineering has faded from view? Perhaps this ought to be a matter for our professional councils to address, but recently it appears that efforts from within to encourage this have met resistance .
Who, then, will rebuild our reputation, and what will that rebuilt reputation look like? I want it to show things as they are really are. The messy, contentious flux at the intersection of humans, politics, money and ethics in design. There is nothing simple, rational, or linear about engineering. There is more argument, persuasion and contrary evidence than the most compelling court case. More lives can be at stake in a single engineering decision than in any single surgical operation, and the industrial money flows dwarf many real estate transactions. With artificial intelligence taking over the hard sums, engineering is becoming more interdisciplinary and messily humanistic every day. Knowing this ought to excite and attract new generations – but communicating it may not be easy.
The most compelling stories of contemporary engineering successes often only come out many decades after the original event, behind closed doors, to trusted friends and colleagues. But what if our students and public knew about what went on behind closed doors – what if they became aware of the reality of the natural world and how we handle it? It’s a world which cannot always (indeed hardly ever) be put into black or white: where “some” or “most” can’t be treated as “all”; where judgement calls and trade-offs have to made; where risks cannot be avoided, but must be managed; and where soundbites are not enough information to make a decision. How would we communicate all this, and could we do it in a way that retained and improved trust and respect? Or would we simply end up falling prey to sensationalism and worsening our reputation? Either way, if we told our stories more widely, then more of the public would know about us, and more of the public would have an opinion of us – and they might even want to know what we’d want to listen to on that desert island or, better yet, join us to make the world a better place.
Thanks to Dr Dave Laurenson for suggesting improvements to the section on our representation of engineering on television.
 E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops, Oxford and Cambridge Review, Nov 1909 (available at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Machine_Stops)
 Sand melts at about three times the temperature at which coconut shell burns https://www.explainthatstuff.com/glass.html, http://www.fftc.agnet.org/library.php?func=view&style=type&id=20110716234619
 IET Board of Trustees, 13 May, “7.4. The board agreed that, whilst the paper about the Public Image of the Engineering Professions and Professionals presented some interesting opinions, the proposals were not aligned with the current strategy and should therefore not be taken forward.”