Just prior to Christmas, I flicked on the television to discover a heart-warming programme on Channel 4, where a series of engineers described quite simply their job in managing the redesign of accident blackspots. With enormous enthusiasm, and assisted by relatives of victims of the accidents, they set about explaining, to camera, the process of assessing the costbenefit analysis they carried out in justifying the expense of designing down the risks.
Their work effectively looked at the site of accidents and evaluated the cost of reducing the risk by re-engineering the road layout. The justification for the new works was based on the history of accidents at the site. Accidents requiring hospital treatment were costed at £45,000 each and totalled over the previous five years. This was then set against the cost of the works.
The engineers involved were working, in retrospect, with minute budgets, but there is no doubting the effectiveness of their labours. While their efforts are incremental, the cumulative effect of such dedication is a significant reduction in road traffic deaths. Over the last 10 years, road user accident fatalities have fallen by 36%.
Normally, such unglamorous work is difficult to celebrate, but the programme managed quite simply to make it glorious, and one felt like taking it to Number 10, to say 'look, this is what we do'.
In many respects, their contribution is typical of the work of the majority of civil engineers, who effectively are 'maintaining and improving the built and natural environment' (our new definition of civil engineering), in much the same way that the medical profession maintains and improves the health of the nation. The implication is that our work today, to a large extent, involves caring for the world we inhabit rather than heroically wrestling with the forces of nature in the manner of our predecessors. In fact, what many of us are doing is managing the legacy that they bequeathed us: adjusting the curve on the railway, re-planning the junction or refurbishing the building, capturing escaping effluent. Hardly the stuff of legend, but of critical value to society.
Whereas medicine struggled to be effective until the likes of Bazalgette built London's sewers (and exported cholera to Erith) and Armstrong commissioned Newcastle's water supply, now, both professions work hand in glove. Effectively, they underpin the economy and define civilisation.
In India, it is both of these professions that people are looking to for hope in the aftermath of the earthquake. Their civilisation and the pace of its economy have been defined by the development of these skills.
Where parts of Africa drift backwards into chaos, it is the breakdown of the same infrastructure that signals the decline and frustrates the recovery.
However while medicine is high on the political agenda, with a huge budget for rebuilding hospitals and reducing waiting lists, engineering lags behind.
Our engineering colleagues on Channel 4 could only justify their work in retrospect, body counting at blackspots. Where would the profession be if the proper value of our contribution to society were to be evaluated.