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  • Engineering: a vital link between science and society


The skills of the engineer are essential to the success of efforts to use science to promote social and economic well-being. Enhanced efforts are badly needed to promote such skills in the developing world and ensure that they are properly rewarded.

Last week, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was announced as the recipient of the first-ever Millennium Technology Prize. The award, which has a cash value of one million euros, signalled a deserved recognition of the way in which Berners-Lee's work has resulted in a massive transformation of many aspects of social and economic development. As the chairman of the awards committee put it — and as this website seeks to illustrate — the Web "has significantly enhanced many people's ability to obtain information central to their lives".

At the same time, the creation of the biennial award itself symbolises a new recognition of the important role that technological innovation plays in the development process. The award was granted by the Finnish Technology Award Foundation, an independent organisation set up two years ago with funding from both the public and the private sector in Finland. The goal of the creators of the prize has been to provide international recognition for outstanding technological innovation "that directly promotes people's quality of life, is based on humane values, and encourages sustainable economic development".

As such, the birth of the foundation is itself one of a growing number of initiatives that seek to remind us that engineers provide a key link in exploiting the social value of science by putting that science into practice. Too often in the past (and even today) this link has been, if not ignored, then at least undervalued. While scientists frequently become social heroes, epitomised for example in the iconic status given to those who win Nobel prizes or have laws of nature named after them, the equally important role of the engineer is often left unrecognised. And this is despite the fact that it is only through the work of engineers that the potential value of scientific breakthroughs can be fully achieved.

Fortunately there are signs that this attitude is changing — or at least that serious efforts are being made to try to change it. The Millennium Technology Prize is one example. Another is the growing activity of a separate initiative, the Lemelson Foundation, a body set up by the family of the successful US inventor Jerome Lemelson. A report to be issued this week by a programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology backed by the foundation, based on the deliberations of a 56-member panel over the past year, concludes that developing countries need more inventors and innovators who are committed to tackling poverty through the application of new technologies.

Like the Finnish initiative, the foundation seeks to stimulate a broader awareness of the importance of technical innovation (and thus the work of all those involved in the innovation process, not just those who have the initial innovative idea) by awarding prizes to those that it feels symbolises its importance.

Broader goals

Others are taking a more programmatic approach. The World Federation of Engineering Organisations (WFEO), for example, has developed what it describes as a 'concept paper' outlining a proposed programme entitled 'Engineering for a Better World'. This would be designed to promote capacity building in engineering and technology for poverty eradication and sustainable social and economic development.

The proposal is being developed with the support of the division of basic and engineering sciences of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), which would play a major role in implementing such a programme. It is also being enthusiastically embraced by parts of the US engineering community, which is seeking to make UNESCO's activities in this field one of the areas that the United States actively supports following its decision to rejoin the UN agency.

Some of the directions in which this initiative could move forward were outlined at a meeting of experts held last month in Washington DC, organised jointly by UNESCO and WFEO together with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Association of Engineering Societies. More than forty speakers and participants from 15 countries and 20 national, international and non-governmental organisations took part, under the title 'International Focus: Engineering and Technology for Poverty Eradication'.

The meeting's immediate goal was to discuss, develop and initiate a programme of action "promoting the role, contribution and awareness of the importance of engineering and technology for poverty eradication". The participants endorsed a recommendation that there should be "a renewed international effort and initiative to promote and apply technology and engineering for poverty eradication". Achieving this, they argued, required "an international programme of action to promote the role, contribution, awareness and application of engineering and technology for poverty eradication". The overall challenge, they concluded, was "to put poor people more closely in touch with technology to address their basic needs".

Points for reflection

Such initiatives are to be applauded, and deserve active support from governments in both developed and developing countries. SciDev.Net has frequently complained that the potential contribution of scientific research to the needs of developing countries — and thus to reducing poverty in these countries — is seldom given the place that it deserves in either development strategies or international aid programmes.

The same can be said about engineering and technology. Where initiatives and organisations — such as the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) — exist, these often lack either the resources or the political backing needed to address successfully the enormous challenges that they face in the field.

Conversely, where new organisations have come into being to address such issues, such as Engineers without Frontiers (modelled loosely on the better-known organisation in the medical field), they have been able to tap into a wealth of goodwill that exists within the professional community.

Four factors however need to be kept in mind when developing plans and programmes for integrating engineering and technology into development strategies. The first is that innovation cannot take place in a social vacuum, but requires a supportive environment in which it can prosper. This means an environment that contains sufficient incentives — both social and economic — to encourage individuals and organisations to experiment with new technical solutions to problems.

At the same time, it must also be remembered that major engineering initiatives, if insensitively handled, can end up creating as many problems as they solve. One of the reasons that technical assistance has dropped down the development agenda in recent years is that past mistakes — often the result of the wrong technology applied in the wrong way — have generated a backlash that casts science-based technologies as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Such a frame of mind can only be changed if the engineering projects and initiatives of the future take social and environmental concerns as one of their starting points, not as side-issues to be tackled at a later date.

The third reason for caution is that bold-sounding 'plans of action' can, if not backed by concrete initiatives, end up gathering dust on the shelves of international agencies. This has frequently happened in the past when ambition has replaced pragmatism in sketching out programmes for future action. Much better to support a few focused activities that promise real progress than a grandiose commitment that stands little chance of being achieved.

Finally, it is essential that all those engaged in such projects and initiatives recognise that local capacity building must be at the core of their work-plans. One of the mistakes of the past has been a tendency to impose technical or engineering solutions from the outside. In the long-term, however, engineering and technology will only be fully integrated into a country's development strategy once that country has its own cadre of engineers and technicians, capable of either developing and adapting the technologies required to meet their own needs.

This in turn requires both an adequate investment in engineering education, and proper recognition and rewards for those who choose to enter into engineering professions — particularly if such individuals are to be dissuaded from taking up more lucrative appointments overseas.

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