Let's honor real gold-medal performances

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By Mark Rosenzweig

Next month, the Olympic Games begin in Athens. Undoubtedly, we'll see some outstanding sports achievements, including the setting of impressive new records. Beyond this, the games will draw our attention because of their pageantry and our interest , and pride , in how athletes from the United States perform.

Most Olympic award ceremonies are unerringly uniform, yet it still is stirring to see winners receive their gold medals and to witness each victorious country's flag being raised as its national anthem plays. Americans should have ample opportunities to view the Stars and Stripes ascendant in Athens. Imagine the pride people from small nations must feel when their athletes triumph in these events! After all, awards not only honor individuals but also provide some reflected glory for those back at home.

The Olympics celebrate both individual and group achievements. A winning sprinter and a distance relay team receive equal recognition. And the games do not treat less popular sports, such as archery, any differently than avidly watched ones such as basketball. Our profession could learn from that.

Sure, we now have plenty of awards. For instance, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) bestows nearly 50. The United Engineering Trustees, which includes representatives of five engineering societies, including AIChE, presents the John Fritz Medal. The American Section of the Society of the Chemical Industry confers the Perkin Medal, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation awards the Othmer Medal.

These honors recognize the accomplishments of individuals. However, in engineering, like many other professions, significant achievements often are the result of group efforts and no particular person deserves sole credit. Awards exist for the resulting developments, but we don't have many, if any, mechanisms to recognize the people behind outstanding collaborative work.

Some companies honor group contributions, conferring prizes that recognize the individuals involved. For instance, a couple of years ago Monsanto presented the coveted Queeny Award to five people who were instrumental in the development and successful implementation of new catalyst technology. But such recognition usually doesn't carry the prestige that external awards do.

Not only that, but most awards recognize group efforts that target new technology, either its development or commercialization. Yet, many engineers are doing significant work in less glamorous areas. With new grassroots facilities now a rarity in the United States, much important effort focuses on keeping aging plants operating smoothly and competitively.

So, shouldn't there be an award that recognizes teams that come up with clever and innovative engineering that transforms existing plants? Those honored, as well as our profession as a whole, would benefit.

Mark Rosenzweig is editor in chief of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net.

 

 

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