‘Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence, native to famous wits or hospitable, in her sweet recess, city or suburban, studious walks and shades; See there the olive grove of Academe, Plato’s retirement, where the Attic bird trills her thick-warbled notes the summer long’ John Milton Paradise Regained

The papers in this issue are unashamedly engineering in character. I found them of interest by virtue of a proposal some years back on the feasibility of using pipeline slurry reactors for conducting a variety of pressure leaching processes while transferring underground material from the depths of a mine to the surface. It is not impossible that it could be resuscitated should uranium extraction from the ultra deep levels of some of the West Rand mines becomes viable. I am fairly sure not too many of our readers will be delving into them in detail. Nevertheless they are important and represent examples of the slow steady advances that are typical of so many engineering developments. At any time, if properly done and recorded, may provide the vital data leading to new technology.

Nobody is likely to win a Nobel Prize for such work and there have indeed been few (if any) such awards for engineering achievements. I think I am right in thinking there is no such category allocated to “Engineering” in the Nobel Prize list. It was with some delight that I became aware of the draft bill to create an Academy of Engineering proposed by the Department of Science and Technology. It was surprising and I was dismayed to read a news item that the draft had been withdrawn for reasons not specified. I think we need an Academy of Engineering. To explain why, when usually I denounce extra talk shops, I must explain what I visualize an Academy means in this context and, more importantly, what function it should perform.

Although the word is derived from the same source as academic and academe (the name of the teaching place of Plato, a modern version of which could be very attractive to us engineers) it definitely does not and should not have any connotation of being part of a university and thus concerned with acquisition of academic knowledge of limited practical value. Rather, in my understanding, it denotes a forum of peers and experts to provide debate and guidance to a fellowship of members. An important feature is that it encourages interaction with the public to ensure an appreciation of the high quality of their professional endeavours. Academies are usually associated with esoteric subjects such as culture, music, drama, ballet or art. It aims to develop a stature to nudge its congregation back into line with its heritage and disciplines.

But it is to me a refreshing concept that a common-or-garden pragmatic activity like engineering can benefit from the formation of an Academy. Indeed it needs it badly. Engineering is ubiquitous and taken for granted as an essential ingredient of modern living. The professional engineer is regarded with some disdain by more highly paid professions such as medics, lawyers, architects and accountants and, of course, executives. Even the pure scientists regard us as being tainted with applied work. But we soldier on, content in the knowledge that without us the civilized world would soon collapse. However, it would be a boost psychologically if there were to be an Academy of Engineers.

More seriously, we are experiencing a shortage of engineers with painful consequences and the engineering professions need much nurturing. And since it is the basic foundation on which to build expansion and economic advancement, it must be the focal point of financial investment from government and industry. Even in this era of computers, automation and robotics, it needs an army of engineering technicians to keep it operating, probably more so than before because the robots need as much attention as the machines they control. It is a foolhardy engineer who installs a computerized robotics system without the back-up of sophisticated computer engineering technicians to maintain and restore them when they bomb out.

Indeed it is often forgotten that the marvels of information and communication technology, encompassing the myriad computerized busiss systems, the cellphone, the Internet and TV, are specialized branches of light current electronic engineering, needing the same demanding basics as all the other branches of the engineering profession. No country can avoid keeping up with the spectacular innovations and must have a continuing programme of development and research of its own if only to ensure it has the technical experts to at least understand the new concepts. The arenas of engineering activity are so vast that it is now becoming increasingly difficult to keep the wheels turning and the wires humming way beyond the capability of a few leaders of industry and government. It is an arena full of chancers, cranks, pseudoscientists and fraudsters peddling the latest advances and tendering for engineering contracts and offering services as consultants.

No country can cover the vast field of engineering in complete depth and there must be some basis for assigning priorities, thus ensuring that the vital technologically based industries of a country survive and expand to create the activity needed for advancement. There presumably must be a balance between pursuing those fields which formed successful historic cultures and at the same time looking forward to what new areas and advances are going to take us into the future. Engineering is often described as a discipline of applied science. It is often tempting to establish priorities on the bandwagon of new exciting advances in the pure sciences, many of which receive high publicity in the media to excite the politicians and the money bags of corporate management. In many cases the slow plodding foot-work of typical engineering development is abandoned in favour of spectacular hunches based on sensational press reports.

So putting the psychological impact on one side, an academy of engineering professionals could maintain a more balanced approach to priority assignment. There are several other functions that could be invaluable. Another important function is to promote recognition of centres of excellence in engineering organizations. This need not be only in terms of academic merit in the form of publications. The evaluation should be also in the direction of development work clearly leading to new or expanding industries and often not publishable. Additionally, the academy can identify areas where support is needed to allow for expanded development work where special facilities such as supplied by one of the statutory bodies can be invoked. Importantly, the academy can provide the cultivation and assignation of a home of a research and development portfolio which is considered to be of national importance, particularly where affecting the major industries.

This must, of course, be closely associated with the department of Industries and Mineral and Energy. Examples would be commitments in relation to global warming, provision of water and treatment of effluents and major engineering works needed to prevent overloads and basic service inadequacies. The academy would not sponsor from its own funds and would essentially make authoritative recommendations backed by the engineering profession as a community of expertise critically influential in the industrial progress of the country. One would hope it would not develop into yet another talking shop. Although presumptuous, I would suggest that interaction with its constituency be by Internet forums. It should have the funds to commission expert agencies to undertake such evaluations and processing as directed by an appropriate panel. But to go further down this road would be delving too deeply into an organizational structure which does not yet formally exist. I can only hope the concept can be resuscitated. It could have intriguing possibilities.  R.E. Robinson June 2007