Why We Give Awards

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept 2016

I recently attended a couple of IEEE Awards ceremonies and it got me to thinking about awards in our profession.  Obviously a lot of effort and money is spent in sustaining an awards program.  Why do we do it, what is the purpose, and how is this purpose best achieved?

I’ve heard it said that awards are meant as an incentive to engineers towards more original and imaginative work, but it strikes me as unlikely that anyone in his or her daily work would be influenced by the possibility of winning an award.  However, in a more general and diffuse way the acknowledgment and rewarding of achievements contributes importantly to our sense of professionalism and to the creation of an archive of engineering history.

As I watched awards being passed out, I was prepared to be bored, but was pleasantly surprised to feel proud of the achievements being extolled from the dais.  Though the awards went to individuals, I thought: we did this, we engineers.  These are things we accomplished together.  Every great discovery or invention comes from an entangled network of contributions to which we all contribute.

So if raising the level of professionalism is the objective, how is this best achieved through awards?  Having been part of the awards process in past years, I remember wanting the awards to be prestigious and to be well publicized.  Moreover, it is one of the opportunities for engagement with the public, and raising the public respect for engineers was something we wanted to do.  Public relations people would craft publicity releases that would be sent out to major newspapers and publications -- and then, inevitably, ignored.  Unless it’s a Nobel Prize or an Academy Award, the public doesn’t apparently care. From time to time I see full page ads in national newspapers describing awards given out by organizations that I have never heard of, given to unknown people, and for things that I have no clue about.  This is expensive and I wonder: why do they sponsor such ads?  Very few people, other than their own members, have any interest in this, and the organizations have more direct and cheaper ways to reach their own members.  On the other hand, if the IEEE awards had a page in, say, the New York Times, I’d probably be calling friends to brag about it.

But times have changed in recent years, and because of the tech revolution and what I’ll call the “Google effect” engineers don’t lack for public respect.  For our own esteem, however, we would like to have iconic, famous engineers.  Within our own community, fame is often established through publications.  I still remember the names of the authors of the textbooks I used in college.  Early in my career I even felt apprehensive on the occasions of meeting such august personages.  But awards also help establish and confirm reputations.

Since we want our awards to be prestigious, how can this best be gained or enhanced?  It depends on the history of the award, who the winners have been, the amount of prize money, and the award’s place in the established hierarchy of such awards.  Prestige, however, once established, is hard to change.  Giving the award to a celebrated person helps gain prestige for the award, but sometimes it is the organization being honored by the recipient, rather than the other way around.  The risk is that the designated recipient wouldn’t even want to attend the ceremony, preferring instead that the certificate be mailed.  What a humiliation that would be for the organization!

Whenever I see that logo “Intel Inside,” I think what an ingenious advertising theme it is.  They take their brilliant, but anonymous, chip, lost inside the big box of other chips, and give it a face on the outside – just as our awards do for our “engineers inside.”