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126th President of the Institution: Professor Rod Smith

May 26, 2011

Professor Rod Smith has just become the 126th President of the Institution. Here, we learn what inspires him and he sets out his views on what he hopes to achieve during his year in office.

Until he was 11 years old, Rod Smith was taught entirely by women.  He remembers vividly the influence that one teacher in particular, Miss Spencer, had on him as a young school boy, and how she fired his curiosity about engineering.  He said: “I recall very clearly Miss Spencer telling me about the new atomic power station at Calder Hall and how Her Majesty the Queen was coming to open it.  She used the analogy from the Bible of swords being turned into ploughshares.  It made an enormous impression on me; these things stick in your mind, and show the incalculable value of inspired teaching.”

The importance of a good education, and inspiring teachers who can enthuse both boys and girls about engineering and encourage their studies has remained with Professor Smith for the rest of his life and supporting educational initiatives will be at the heart of his presidential activity.  He said: “When I studied engineering at Oxford in the 1960s, out of the 100 undergraduates only three were women.  By contrast, when I returned recently to the engineering faculty at Oxford to give a lecture, eight of the twenty students I spoke to were women, and I felt very encouraged by this change.”

Professor Smith believes strongly that members of the Institution can play a vital role in going into junior schools in particular to work with teachers and pupils.  He also thinks that the Institution needs to promote engineering to children.  He said: “Like most boys growing up in the 1950s, I read the Eagle comic. Each week, I couldn’t wait to see the cut away drawings, which really got me hooked on engineering and finding out how things work.  Today, the comparable sources of information for children are the internet and television: both offer lots of detail about a wide range of engineering topics.”

“The Institution has a real part to play in educating the wider public on what mechanical engineering is.  The average person in the street doesn’t know how engineering is contributing to making life richer, healthier and more comfortable for them.  I have to ask why that is, and the answer is that it’s down to us as engineers to tell them.  We have to communicate how we as engineers shape and influence society.  We need to continue helping to shape government policy through our expert advice.  The Institution is well known and well regarded in the House, and during my year as President, I am very keen that this relationship becomes even stronger.  Perhaps more engineers need to get involved in political life, because currently very few MPs are engineers.  The power to bring about change lies in our hands.”

“We also need to continue our strong relationship with the media.  Recently, I read an article about manufacturing which made the case that there are great success stories in the UK, but they are hidden from view.  We have to engage with the media and give them strong stories about how mechanical engineering enriches all aspects of society.” 

Rod spoke of the work that he undertook for the Health and Safety Executive’s investigation into the disaster at Hillsborough Stadium and cited it as an example of how something as universal as football relates to engineering, and how people are not even aware of the connection.  He said: “I provided evidence to the investigation on the mechanics of crowd behaviour. As a Manchester United supporter, it was an interesting experience walking into a stadium as an observant working engineer rather than as a football supporter.  Hillsborough is a good example of applying first principles: to see something with independent and clear vision and apply the engineering principles to it.  The man in the street probably would have no sense at all that engineering could be relevant to the way that crowds behave, and yet my evidence played a part in the overall catalyst for change  which saw all English football clubs having to have all-seater stadia.”

A real focus for Rod will be engaging with the public on the biggest challenges faced by society.  He said: “Energy, population and resources are all interconnected and are part of some kind of bigger question for society which is how many people can the earth sustain so that we don’t use up all our resources.  This is absolutely the question we have to ask – we cannot simply sit back and do nothing.  We have to know where the energy is going to come from.  We have to ask whether we can actually cope with having 9 billion people on the planet.  In an ideal world, we should try to try to draw these three strands of energy, population and resources together, and not allow them to diverge.”

Communication will definitely be one of the themes of Rod’s year in office.  He said:  “I would like to build on the excellent work that my predecessor, John Wood, did to articulate the successes of UK manufacturing, and continue to inspire young people to think about the challenges society faces and how they, as the engineers of the future, might tackle them.  We have a duty to increase the level of debate on what we’re about, what we’re doing and how it affects society.”

Rod feels strongly that the traditional boundaries within the engineering profession – civil, electrical and mechanical – are increasingly blurred, and that perhaps a more joined up approach to engineering could be beneficial.  He said: “I can definitely see a time in the future when these divisions will cease to exist.  In the short term, I think that working with our sister institutions on joint events will reduce the idea that we are all different.  We have to try to strengthen our voice and influence our government and society by speaking about engineering where we can.”

The Institution’s excellent performance topping the tables for the number of engineers registered was a real source of pride for Rod.  He said: “We’re in a very healthy position and I’m pleased that we have reversed a long period of declining membership and have, in fact, increased the membership significantly.  It is important for the Institution to focus on actively working towards a long-term upswing of membership by reinforcing and articulating the value  to employers and potential members.  This may involve taking other professional engineering institutions under our wing and we have to be realistic and appreciate that acquisitions are a natural part of growth and complement organic growth.”

A key focus of Rod’s presidential year will be the regions.  He explained: “I have been the Chair of the Regional Strategy Board for the last few years.  Most of our events take place in the regions, out of sight of headquarters.  For many of our members, regional events represent the real value of membership.  As President, I am looking to visit as many regions as I can.  As a keen climber, I’m going to be issuing a challenge to meet members on the four highest peaks of the UK: Scafell Pike in England, Snowdon in Wales, Ben Nevis in Scotland and Slieve Donard in Northern Ireland!”

On taking office, Professor Smith was keen to thank his predecessor, John Wood, for his work as President of the Institution.  He said: “John is an incredibly patient chap.   He has a calm authority that I wish that I had!  John handled himself with great skill, calmness, dignity and aplomb.  He fronted the Engineered in Britain campaign that I will be continuing during my year in office.  In my opinion, John has been a President of the highest standard.  I have warm affection for him; as Chair of the Trustee Board, he’s had to oversee some difficult decisions and I think he has done a very, very good job.”


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1 comment from readers

Bryan Leyland

26 May 2011 at 21.21

I sincerely hope that in his investigations into energy availability, the new President will note that the world has more energy resources available to it now than it has ever had in the past. Research and technology already underway promises that the amount of energy available will increase. (Shale gas, nuclear (thorium), coal.) As availability of low cost energy correlates very strongly with economic well-being, this is very important.

Professor Smith could also note that the big problem facing the world is not the availability of energy but the attempts by many people to prevent us using it and, instead, trying to force us into using intermittent, unpredictable and hopelessly uneconomic "new" renewable energy.

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