"Engineers and scientists should be celebrated more than X Factor stars..."
4th February 2015
Engineers must be more celebrated than the stars of The X Factor if they are to continue creating products and companies that will change the world, according to the judges of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
Announcing the £1m prize's winner, the judging panel, which included Professor Brian Cox and former BP boss Lord Browne, called for a sea change in the way engineering presents itself and is perceived.
"The impact of science and engineering is central to our culture," said Prof Cox. "It is the most important thing we do in civilisation and what engineers do genuinely affects people's lives.
"We need a cultural shift to celebrate intellectual adventuring: engineers and scientists should be celebrated more than X Factor stars are."
Spelling out the impact that engineering and science have had, Prof Cox said that without them humans would "still be naked and living in forests".
Lord Browne, chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Prize, said engineers are getting "lost in the middle" between science and commerce.
"Engineering is the application of scientific principles to practical problems," he said. "It has to produce something that people either want or will want in the future.
"People think they know what engineering is but the evidence is they don't, and in the UK the evidence is that we are very, very bad at telling them.
"Engineering gets lost in the middle between the science in the lab and commerce using the results of engineers' work to make great fortunes, such as Apple."
Open to engineers from any field and nation, the 2015 prize was awarded to Robert Langer for developing ways of delivering drugs inside the body.
Dr Langer, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came up with a tiny polymer product that could contain and protect drugs made up of large molecules, which can easily be damaged inside the human body. This polymer is implanted in the body, where it releases the drugs it holds at a controlled rate, sometimes over a period lasting years.
Dr Langer used his chemical engineering knowledge to create precise pathways in the polymers which the drugs travel through to get into the body.
The length of these pathways can be adjusted to control the rate at which the drugs are released, with long, winding ones able to slow down the drugs so they can take years to enter the body.
The results of Dr Langer's innovation has been used to treat tens of millions of patients suffering from illnesses including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and schizophrenia.
The method's controlled nature means it is also used to administer drugs where there can be safety issues - such as a patient taking too much or too little insulin - or in situations where they might forget, such as long-term birth control.
Dr Langer said he was inspired to get into engineering after being encouraged to play with a chemistry set by his parents as a youngster.
"I wanted to do something that would have a big impact and I wasn't that inspired by the oil industry, so I was drawn to medicine," he said, adding that his breakthrough came after he initially started investigating how to stop blood vessels growing to stop cancer.
The prize waslast awarded in 2013 to five joint winners, including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, for their work founding the internet. The event aims to raise the profile of engineering and inspire people to work in the sector.
Prof Cox said: "The Queen Elizabeth Prize is for an engineer who has already done something that has demonstrably changed lives for the better, not something that has the potential to. Perhaps this year's winner has had a more positive impact on humanity that the last joint winners."
Dr Langer said he had no idea how to spend the £1m prize fund but added: "My wife will figure it out."
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