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The best engineers are 'inquisitive, interrogative and creative'

07 July 2011

So said Lord Browne, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, addressing an invited audience of early- to mid-career engineers last week. Engineers have the power to shape the world, he said, but must deploy a broad knowledge and understanding of the social and political context of their work. The 'Education of the Engineer', was the second of two lectures, organised to mark the end of his term as president and to celebrate the Academy's 35th Anniversary.

Lord Browne of Madingley (left)
Lord Browne of Madingley (left)

Addressing his audience, Lord Browne said: "I believe an engineer is four things: an expert with a broad base of knowledge; a strategic thinker with an eye for detail; and innovator and a communicator. The education of an engineer should be designed to instil and develop these skills.

"Specialisation for an engineer should not come at the cost of a broad understanding. In the real world, engineering challenges do not come neatly labelled 'civil', 'mechanical' or 'electrical'. In fact, the most innovative solutions often emerge when ideas from these separate disciplines collide."

Lord Browne went on to say that engineering is far more than just knowledge and that theory must be turned into practice for commercial and social value.

He also said that young engineers must be allowed to make mistakes as they learn. "Learning by doing breeds another skill in engineers - the ability to innovate. Successful engineers are not only competent - they are inquisitive, interrogative and creative."

On engineering policy, Lord Browne spoke of his desire to place engineering right back at the heart of society: "Engineers must be aware of the political and human implications of their advice and proposals - technical perfection is insufficient."

He added: "If what you're doing doesn't provide a service to humankind, don't do it."

He fielded a range of questions from the audience, with topics including the small number of engineers in UK politics, collaboration between industry and academia and university tuition fees.

On the question of women in engineering, Lord Browne spoke of his firm belief that industry is missing a huge pool of talent by failing to attract women to engineering and outlined what the Academy is doing to redress the balance in its Fellowship.

Answering a question on why engineering graduates should remain work in engineering, he said: "Delivering action is enormously satisfying. Proposing options is great, but getting something done is much better."

The evening was chaired by Paul Westbury FREng, CEO of Buro Happold. Thanking Lord Browne for his leadership as Academy president, he said: "It is a good time to note the considerable progress we have made over the last five years, as an Academy and a profession. That progress is reflected in much better engagement of engineers in government policy making, a broader and better engagement with the public, especially young people and a markedly better profile in the media."

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