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Civils in the spotlight: the campaign continues


Good news, great result - 24% of the public believes that the achievements of civil engineering icon Isambard Kingdom Brunel outshone all others. Either that or a handful of Brunel University students and NCE readers face a hefty telephone bill next month.

I like to think the former. But whatever, finishing second to Winston Churchill in the BBC's Greatest Britons poll with nearly 400,000 votes is some achievement - just 50,000 less than the winner, twice as many as Diana and five times as many as most of the rest of the top ten.

It is certainly a result that two months ago would have confounded the bookies. And if nothing else has put bridges, tunnels, railways and engineers back on the map of society.

Yet before we get too carried away in the euphoria of Sunday night, let us not forget that we are talking about the outcome of 'yet another list programme', the contents of which were determined by a self selecting audience of voters. If Brunel has put engineering back on the map it remains a very small corner of the map.

Nevertheless, the publicity for our profession is immense and is something we must capitalise on with radical steps to ensure that momentum is not lost.

First there is Jeremy Clarkson. The 'Vote Brunel' campaign was helped in no small measure by a number of typically enthusiastic performances throughout by the bullish TV presenter. So let us get him on board permanently with an honorary ICE fellowship - or at least make him a companion - so he can help bring the TV cameras and national media into range more often.

Then there is the permanent reminder of Brunel's achievements. Churchill of course won the BBC's cash for a new memorial but that is surely not the end of it. After all, we already have a mass of structures acting as permanent reminders of the great engineer. What we need is a concerted effort to make sure the public is aware of them (perhaps we could start by shifting the inspection cradle hiding the plaque on the Royal Albert Bridge - suggestions please).

But why stop there? I want to see a concerted effort by civil engineers to make the public more aware of the engineering around them. What other masterpieces or masters remain unnoticed or unrecognised? English Heritage's list of potential new entries to its Blue Plaque scheme is woefully unrepresented by our profession.

Of course we should not ignore the need to celebrate modern achievements. Andrew McNaughton, this year's Civil Engineering Manager of the Year, will be either flattered or mortified at being described as 'a new Brunel'. He would, I am sure, highlight the team effort on his project and insist that the comparison goes too far. But we must not be afraid of celebrating individual success. Teams are essential but heroes sell.

And as Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage and Brunel fan, pointed out in his IStructE Maitland lecture last week, it is not about nostalgia. If we do not celebrate the successes of past and present and encourage the best young people to become engineers, he said, 'we will not have the skills to build our future'.

So who or what do you want to celebrate? How will you help shore up society's future?

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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