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The following editorial reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of Progressive Engineer.

The Nobel Profession Gets No Recognition

By Robert Johnson, P.E.

We're now in the midst of the entertainment awards season. The People's Choice, Golden Globes, and Grammies have been awarded, and media outlets have featured numerous stories on these. The media frenzy surrounding the Academy Awards has begun -- all this hoopla surrounding a little statuette for a performance in a motion picture. Even what the actors wear makes for news.

Recently, the National Academy of Engineers announced the winner of the Draper Prize, one of the world's most prestigious engineering awards. Charles Stark Draper, for whom the award was named, was the father of the modern inertial guidance system, without which our airliners, submarines, missiles, and space shuttle couldn't function. Many refer to the Draper Prize as the absent Nobel Prize of Engineering. Alfred Nobel was a self-taught mechanical/chemical engineer, but there is no Nobel Prize for engineering. The press always features winners of the various Nobel Prizes, sometimes even on the front page. But was the announcement of the Draper Prize covered on the front pages of newspapers? Was it even mentioned in the back pages of local papers? My Internet searches failed to find a reference to this major technology story.

I doubt one person reading this hasn't been affected by the contributions of this year's Draper Prize winner. Robert Langer, professor of chemical engineering at MIT, received the 2002 Draper Prize for his invention of medical technologies that help prolong lives and ease suffering. Langer's pioneering applications in applying engineering principles to medical problems resulted in discoveries that form the cornerstone of the controlled drug-delivery system. His discoveries in the medical industry form a 20 billion dollar enterprise in the United States alone! Langer won a half million dollars and the recognition of this nation's nearly 2 million engineers. Unfortunately, the press appears to have totally ignored this major technology award. Why?

In an effort to help people understand just how important engineers are, engineers are reaching out across the nation to get this message to the press. I'm thrilled that this message is reaching engineering journals and technical periodicals. But, I'm sorry the media thinks these messages aren't important enough to cover on their own and get out to the public in general circulation publications.

Lest some editor thinks these are the rantings of some disgruntled engineer, I offer the following: Let's have one year in which we close movie theaters and present no Academy Awards. Would our lives really change much? Let's not present awards to other entertainment celebrities, either.

At the same time, let's abandon the use of the technology pioneered by the winner of the Draper Prize. No more time-release medical drugs to cure our ailments and ease our pain and suffering. In the name of past Draper Prize winners, let's abandon the use of their pioneering engineering achievements as well. No more integrated circuits (1989 Draper Prize to Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce) to power and control most of our electronic devices. Let's stop all jet transport, as the 1991 Draper Prize winners (Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle) invented the jet engine. For those that complain about gas prices, the 1997 winner, Vladimir Haensel, won the Draper Prize for the platforming process that produces low-cost high-octane gasoline. How about turning off the Internet? Its developers,Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, and Lawrence Roberts, won last year's award. Have I made my case? Let's begin to recognize the real leaders and heroes in our society. When will we begin to recognize them for their accomplishments?

Engineering is arguably the source of more direct and personal improvements in the quality of our lives than any other profession, yet the public and news media overlook engineering awards and achievements or give oblique credit to scientists, doctors, and even politicians. We celebrate entertainers and athletes who contribute little, if anything, to the improvement of the human condition, yet regularly ignore engineers who have built our modern society.

The future of America rests NOT with those athletic superstars or entertainment celebrities garnering headlines and being idolized by today's youth, but with those scientists, technologists, and engineers charting the new information age and pioneering new medical technologies to prolong and improve our lives. As the motto for the recently completed National Engineers Week Celebration states: WITHOUT ENGINEERS, THE WORLD STOPS!

Robert Johnson, P.E. is a structural engineer with Bowman, Barrett and Associates in Chicago. A member of several technical societies and professional organizations, he relentlessly promotes the engineering profession.

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©2004 Progressive Engineer