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Debate Research

Suppliers, manufacturers and trade associations often support their marketing effort by sponsoring research programmes. Critics claim this research is often limited, under-funded and unreliable.

This week we ask: Can we trust the research sponsored by special interest groups?

Yes

The answer is yes - provided the research has followed well trodden and respected pathways on the way to its conclusions.

First, it should be carried out at an independent national specialist organisation or centre of excellence. Technical independence and impartiality are vital as various research projects may be funded by opposing interests and the organisation's reputation must be maintained.

Secondly, the research methodology should stand up to public scrutiny and should contain sufficient results to counter charges of unrepeatability or scarcity of data.

Thirdly, the detailed results, if they are used to support conclusions drawn, should be in the public domain, typically as a published report from the research organisation or in papers presented to an appropriate learned society. Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions, Partners in Innovation projects demand publication as a condition of funding assistance and the intent to reach a stated goal, for example the more economic application of a product, is a requirement rather than a cause for suspicion about motives.

The days of research being carried out by government funded research establishments with only modest funding from manufacturers have gone. All parties involved in bearing the cost, including government partners, have an 'interest', but this is no reason to cast doubt on the validity of properly structured research.

Work sponsored by the clay pipe industry during the past 40 years has provided results to set material parameters, derive standards, prove design methods and develop construction techniques. These benefits have accrued from research by an organisation with an 'interest', but under the scrutiny of government committees and standards bodies and where the results were accessible. The recent Partners in Innovation project at Ceram Research to develop the use of recycled demolition waste for clay pipe bedding culminated in a published report, available on the Government's web site, coupled with clear technical recommendations from the industry.

In short, it may be claimed such research is in fact focused, economic, proven in debate - and it gets used.

No

It goes without saying that product development is financially motivated through the desire to maintain competitive advantage.

The pressure to sell is understandably great and it is all too easy for potential clients to doubt the robustness of a manufacturer's or supplier's research results.

The UK engineering and construction industry is highly innovative but both private and public sector clients are becoming more and more risk averse due to increased litigious activity and the burden of short termism imposed by financial institutions.

Neither glossy brochures nor convincing sales people will persuade a client to use a product these days unless that product has been independently certified or tried and tested under the same application scenario. And this is the crux of the problem regarding the acceptability of manufacturer's own research - no two construction projects are the same. Claims of adequate product performance following studies and research at one location cannot guarantee a similar performance at another.

The UK Highways Authority Product Approval Scheme (HAPAS), managed by the British Board of Agrement (BBA), has evolved over a number of years to provide independent certification, and hence assurances to clients, that a particular product is fit for its intended use as claimed by the manufacturer.

In simple terms, if we can trust manufacturers' research then why has there been the drive from clients in the UK to establish HAPAS?

Outside of HAPAS/BBA there are a number of organisations which provide independent and impartial advice regarding product performance - BRE, CIRIA and TRL to name but a few.

It is apparent that there is an enormous amount of duplicated effort in developing new products, which is borne out by the plethora of thin road surfacing systems available on the market - over 20 in all. Each one has been approved for use following an extensive and expensive certification process taking two years in some instances. Surely the challenge for the industry is to collaborate and work in partnership, not only with its immediate competitors but other stakeholders such as universities and research and trade organisations. In this way the maximum benefits can be obtained from R&D so that UK plc can hold its own on the European and world stage.

The facts

According to the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions, about 60 % of construction research is funded by manufacturers, consultants or contractors.

CERAM Research 2001: 'In the heavy clay sector (bricks, pipes, tiles, flues), less than 20 % of collaborative research with manufacturers is publicly funded.'

In 1997 a TRL study estimated that total annual civil engineering R&D spend was between £10.6M and £18M.

This compares to a total capital expenditure on civil engineering of around £7bn.

The Egan Report estimated that in-house expenditure on construction research had fallen 80% since 1981.

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