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ICE news - Civil engineers have been at the forefront of construction research, but funding remains a problem.

AT THE recent ICE managers' Away Day in snowbound Kent my group looked at the Institution's involvement with research.

From the preliminary discussions we had it was apparent the majority of the group had little acquaintance with what has been a signicant area of ICE work, beyond a vague awareness that members are requested to contribute to the Institution's Research & Development Enabling Fund each year.

In fact one theme of the history of the civil engineering profession has been its interest in research and innovation.

A characteristic of the early leaders of the profession was the way in which they carried out empirical research to innovate.

The notebooks of John Grundy, arguably the first British civil engineer to be trained for the profession, are full of his measurements of the flow of rivers.

John Smeaton is well known for the research he carried out into properties of hydraulic cements when designing the Eddystone Lighthouse. His experimental investigations of the power of wind and water earned him the Royal Society's Copley Medal.

One reason Telford is caricatured as being sceptical of engineering theory is his insistence on materials testing. He investigated the properties of cements, and collated much data on the properties of cast and wrought iron to supplement the tests he himself commissioned in association with works such as the Menai suspension bridge.

Benjamin Baker is another engineer who is quoted as an example of alleged hostility to the value of engineering theory.

He was also responsible for numerous tests into the property of steel, concrete reinforced with expanded steel, and into wind pressure.

Both Baker and Telford were true innovators, designing the longest span bridges in the world at a time when there were no research stations in the sense we would recognise them today.

Results of many tests and scientific investigations by civil engineers were published in the Minutes of Proceedings in the 19th century.

By the late 19th century the limitations of this industry-based model of civil engineering research were being exposed.

There were evidently issues that extended beyond the commercial interests of individuals to explore, and public interest demanded disinterested evaluation of manufacturers' claims.

Although independent testing houses, most notably Kirkcaldy's, existed from around 1870, and the expansion of university teaching brought with it a rapid expansion in laboratory facilities, there were calls for ICE to play a more active role.

In the late 19th century the Institution developed its research role on a number of fronts. The James Forrest Lecture was initiated following Forrest's retirement in 1892, on the interdependence of abstract science and engineering.

This has provided a forum for leading scientists and engineers to deliver state-of-the-art lectures. Other lectures and awards have followed, such as the Kelvin Gold Medal for distinction in the application of science to engineering, and the Unwin Memorial Lecture (1947) on Engineering Research. The 2006 lecture was on intelligent transport.

The establishment of the National Physical Laboratory in 1900 saw two ICE members on its board, and one of the first issues to be addressed was the effect of wind on structures. The First World War was a wake-up call to the British government, drawing attention to the country's failure to innovate compared to many of its rivals. The result was the establishment of the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR).

It had strong ICE involvement in a number of the Research Boards, notably in Building Research, where cement was a focus of interest in the 1920s.

DSIR also provided funding for the long term research into 'sea action', which ICE commencedin the First World War and continued into the 1960s.

This looked, globally, at the long term deterioration of timber, concrete, and iron/steel in marine locations. This was one of a number of subjects addressed by the Institution's Research Committee between the wars and the work of the committee led to the establishment of the Hydraulics Research Station in 1947.

Through the 1950s, research into soil mechanics, prestressed concrete and latterly arch dams preoccupied the committee. By 1960 it was apparent research projects were beyond the ICE's own resources and with the Association of Consulting Engineers and the then contractors' body FCEC, the Civil Engineering Research Council was set-up and by 1967 had become CIRIA.

Moving forward, there can be little doubt of the scale of the challenge to innovate. In 2005, industry expenditure on construction research was £33M, less than 1% of that in the chemical sector, and hardly likely to attract government interest.

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