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Debate: Research

Last month NCE revealed that the Hatfield rail crash may have been avoided by swifter adoption of the results of research into rail grinding.

This week we ask: Are the results of civil engineering research reaching the industry quickly enough?

Yes

Industry may perceive that the availability of results is slow because of lack of understanding that the research process itself takes a long time. But once completed, there should be no reason for delay in publishing results unless of course there is commercial advantage at stake and the research sponsor needs to protect the intellectual property rights. In this country however most civil engineering research is government sponsored and speedy publication is encouraged.

The opportunities for disseminating research results are now greater than ever; many research establishments publish their reports, there are numerous conferences and seminars at which results are presented and brief articles appear in the ICE Research Focus and CIRIA News and the like. The most recent change has been the accessibility of information from the internet.

I suspect that many practising engineers find there is too much information around and that this makes it hard to filter it and assess its value. Industry may not have the resources to draw out the specific knowledge required and this is why independent research organisations have a special role to play - to use their knowledge base, to innovate, and help industry implement research results.

Close involvement by industry during the conduct of research is the best guarantee that the output is relevant to industry and that there is speedy implementation. A successful example in my own area was the joint sponsorship by the Highways Agency, County Surveyors Society and Colas of research on cold insitu recycling which led to speedy publication of a design guide and specification and quick implementation by industry to the benefit of road owners.

To conclude therefore, yes, there are now many routes for the speedy dissemination of research results. But we need industry to be more closely involved in sponsoring and steering the work, to ensure that the results are relevant, provide cost effective solutions, and help wealth creation in the UK.

No

I think many people would agree that the construction industry is reasonably conservative in its adoption of new ideas and has traditionally appeared to be somewhat resistant to change.

All too often I hear the comment 'Why change it if it works?'

coming from the construction industry.

As an industry, we should always be looking for better ways of doing things. This is particularly important if we are to attract greater numbers of young people into this industry, as it needs to show itself to be much more dynamic and demonstrate it is forward thinking. It is therefore important to keep abreast of the latest research results and act on them.

Unfortunately, it seems too many companies in the industry are happy to sit back and wait for new ideas to fall into their laps. The industry needs to be more proactive in its attitude to research rather than being reactive.

The Americans, for example, appear to be quicker at realising new ideas and developing them 'on the job'. These ideas often originate from the UK and are only adopted here once proven in America. You often hear people say that if you want to find out what the UK will be adopting in 10 years' time, look at what America is doing today!

Blame may partly lie with academia publishing results that are not easily assimilated into the industry. However, the quality of an academic's publication record is measured largely by where the papers are published.

Unfortunately, the most highly rated journals academically are often not the ones many practising engineers would read regularly.

I hope that there will be a change of attitude in the industry so that it becomes more proactive to the results of research, and also enable a closer link with academia to adopt research findings more quickly.

The facts

According to the Egan Report, 'the construction industry invests little in research and development and in capital. In-house R&D has fallen by 80% since 1981 and capital investment is a third of what it was 20 years ago. This lack of investment is damaging the industry's ability to keep abreast of innovation in processes and technology.'

In a recent review carried out for the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions it was concluded that £30M spent on 12 research projects would generate £600M of benefits over 30 years.

£22M is currently being spent on civil engineering and construction research projects through the government's Engineering and Physical Research Council.

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