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Engineers have called for greater recognition of the role that their subject plays in turning scientific knowledge into sustainable technologies and will push for a clearer reference to engineering at the Rio+20 summit.

The 'zero draft' of the starting document for negotiations ahead of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012 mentions engineering just once, agreeing "to support developing countries' scientists and engineers and scientific and engineering institutions to foster their efforts to develop green local technologies and use traditional knowledge".

But, while the scientific community has been welcoming plenty of mentions of science and technology, engineers are worried their role has been downplayed — to the detriment of sustainable development.

According to a statement released by the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) last week (23 January), the zero draft lacks clarity on the different role played by engineering compared with science.

This article is part of our coverage of preparations for Rio+20 — the UN Conference on Sustainable Development — which takes place on 20-22 June 2012. For other articles, go to Science at Rio+20

"It comes from an oversight at the Rio Conference [a major conference on the environment and sustainable development, held in Brazil] in 1992 where science and technology were grouped together, with engineering included as part of technology. We feel this is misleading," said Jorge Spitalnik, a WFEO representative.

Spitalnik told SciDev.Net: "Technology is a result of applying knowledge developed by science — engineering applies that knowledge into means to make products that are useful for human beings". He described engineering as "development of know-how".

"We want to take this opportunity to make it clear that engineering should be mentioned as something that comes before technology.

"Students do not see engineering appealing to them as a means to achieve sustainable development — they think it is technology [that is the key]."

Last year's UNESCO report on engineering said the lack of engineers is already hampering development, a problem that is especially acute in developing countries.

Another role of engineers is to examine what is feasible in a given time span, and to tell society, governments and policymakers what can be done, said Spitalnik.

Colin Brown, Director of Engineering at the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: "It is a worrying oversight that the value of engineering is not included in the draft Rio+20 outcome document. There needs to be far more recognition, both among the public and in government, of the absolutely vital role engineering plays in making sustainable development possible.

"We rely on engineers to create and refine the technologies we need to solve the greatest global challenges of the 21st century, from climate change to overpopulation. Unless this need is recognised and addressed, the solutions will remain out of reach," he told SciDev.Net.

Andrew Lamb, chief executive of Engineers Without Borders UK — an international development organisation that aims to remove barriers to development through engineering — said the voice of engineers should be heard at the highest levels of global governance, especially in terms of the practical steps needed to produce and manage sustainable technologies.

But it is questionable whether the engineering profession can organise itself to provide a common voice, he added.

Link to full zero draft document  [89kB]

This article is part of our coverage on Science at Rio+20.