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Letters: Imperial teaches others a ­lesson in gender diversity


Imperial College’s new president: Professor Alice Gast

Professor Alice Gast

Last week’s cover story (“Are universities learning the gender lesson?) reported that only 16% of first year civil engineering degree students are female. At Imperial the news is much better.

Women entering our undergraduate civil engineering degree course have increased from an average of 25% from 2009 to 2012 to 31% last year and 36% for the coming academic year. This has happened without discrimination - we continue to select on the basis of ability, not gender, requiring at least A*A*A at A level. This shows that of those who are particularly well-qualified to pursue civil engineering, women are better represented than average figures suggest. Similarly a third of our MSc students are female. 

Regarding our staff, nine of our 51 full-time academic staff are women, two of them professors. We strive to attract and support female staff through a range of initiatives including a female academics development centre, offering all maternity returners a year of research without teaching or other duties and providing a subsidised on-site nursery.

Can female engineers reach the very top at Imperial? Absolutely. Next month Alice Gast, a chemical engineer and currently president of Lehigh University in the United States, takes over the reins as our new President.

  • Nick Buenfeld, head of department and professor of concrete structures, department of civil and environmental engineering, Imperial College London


Business: Cash matrix of mega mergers

Mark Hansford’s comments on mega mergers are interesting (NCE 21-28 August). There have been other references to similar topics in NCE recently.

Hansford notes that big firms are now so big that even Atkins (7,500+ staff) and Arup (5,200+ staff) are seen as medium sized - what a shame!

It makes the multi-discipline firm that I helped to create clearly the miniscule of the miniscule - only 134 souls!

However, what I learned from 45 years of working for myself is that quality smaller firms offer many more opportunities for enterprise, initiative and personal satisfaction to more people than the very large firms - and at good economic cost to their clients.

Has NCE ever investigated how many of the small and even the medium firms are actually spin-offs of the “disillusioned and the frustrated” from the big firms? I think one will find that it is the vast majority. 

I identified early on in my professional life that there were “big jobs, medium jobs and small jobs” in the ratio of about 1:50:500; these could in turn be classified into “important jobs (A), very important jobs(A*) and absolutely essential jobs (A**)” and the third division was “straightforward jobs (B), difficult jobs (B+) and very difficult jobs (B++)”.

Within this triple matrix, the jobs that the mega firms need - and want - are the big A B projects perhaps going as far down as the medium A* B++; they cannot afford, nor do they really want, to spread their best brains onto the medium/small A** B++ projects. In simple terms, that’s where the rest of us come in!

And of course history clearly tells what eventually happens to all great “empires” - the important thing is to have taken your cash and not be there when the inevitable crash occurs.

Certainly, we did very nicely - thank you! And thank you to all our clients! What commonsense they had to use us and those
like us!

  • Brian Clancy (F), ACE chairman 2000-01,


Infrastructure: More puff for offshore wind

I agree with Mark Hanford’s editorial of 7 August, in that industry is not developing the radical new engineering solutions required for improving infrastructure provision. Offshore wind turbines are a good example. Why are the currently proposed wind turbines so small?

The offshore industry should be developing new higher specific power 20MW-plus turbines on long life towers that last 100 years. Instead, it is delivering under-powered old technology.

The 7MW turbines being promoted as leading to reduced costs have significantly lower specific power (i.e. power/rotor area) than the turbines at London Array designed years ago. And costs continue to rise, with the current strike price having risen yet again to £145/MWh, when they should be falling. The target price promised years ago was £100/MWh.

The industry appears to be self-serving and cynical. However, it is only responding to the economic reality of the environment it works in.

Most of the responsibility for the present situation lies with government departments who have very little independent engineering advice in these matters and are guided by bankers who try to manage engineering by managing money.

Here at BIGWind Turbines we have developed much bigger versions of the standard current three bladed Danish model turbine and long life towers offering a 50% reduction in the electricity price. But we are ignored because there is an enormous vested interest in delivering the old technology because it is currently very profitable.

  • Peter Chambers (M), BIGWind Turbines,


Profession: Clarity in letters to the new editor

I too would like to congratulate you on your appointment as editor and I too hope that it will be accompanied by a change in editorial policy - particularly regarding the “Letters to the editor” section.

All too often these days lobby and protest groups, expertly co-ordinated by social media, use media such as NCE to further their cause rather than contribute to reasoned debate.

I would like to see a policy which first of all requires contributors to declare their location and not, as so frequently happens these days, provide only an email address. And if not members of the ICE then it is surely only reasonable that they should declare their interest.

Most do but often the more emotive ones such as M Knight (Letters 21-28 August) do not.

The extent of the orchestrated opposition to High Speed 2 (HS2) has probably never been seen before. It is backed by many influential Nimbys and their substantial wealth plus the road and air lobbies - the latter two expecting that if they can kill the proposed railway then the money will be spent on them instead. Often, these “opposition letters” are purely subjective and fail completely to recognise and understand the reason and need for 21st century rail infrastructure in the UK.

It is a miracle that our 19th century railway infrastructure still stands up to the ever increasing traffic density and speeds. Bridges, tunnels and embankments do not last forever and the older they get the more maintenance expenditure they require and the more susceptible to sudden “failure” they become.

The railway of the future needs to run 24/7 and be reliable 24/7. Approaching £10bn has already been spent on the West Coast Main Line but still it has neither the speed nor the availability of a new line. It is regularly closed somewhere along its length for engineering work and infrastructure reliability leaves a lot to be desired.

If we are serious about tackling congestion and climate change then there is really no alternative to the building of HS2 and other new lines. The rest of the world seems to appreciate this - but sadly not yet a significant section of the media and a vociferous element of British society.

  • Roger Bastin (M),
  • Editor’s note: It’s a good point, Roger.


Flooding: Washed away by paradigm shift

When Thomas Kuhn introduced the notion of a paradigm shift in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he was suggesting that there comes a time when previous concepts and ideas no longer provide the answers to the questions being asked. It is not about doing the same things in a better way but seeing the issue through new eyes. An example of this was the development of quantum mechanics to replace the Newtonian model.

By stating that we (just) need more investment, the Opinion piece about flooding risk (NCE 7 August) is the antithesis of a paradigm shift. Katherine Pygott may well be right that the short-to-medium term answer is to fund/implement previous reviews of flood risk management.

But please can we not think of it as a paradigm shift?

  • Derek Beaumont (M), housing contracts & partnering manager, housing & community group, Milton Keynes Council


Energy: Carrots, sticks and capacity

Peter Rolton opines that the inevitable consequence of reducing energy consumption in industry could be loss of production (NCE 21-28 August).

However, as with all carrot and stick arguments, there might be another way to tackle the apparent lack of generating capacity to meet demand in peak periods. So far, the government’s focus has been concentrated on renewables, which does little or nothing for the capacity problem. The solution is seen as constructing more power stations and, in particular, nuclear, which has doubters and a long lead time.

At the same time, government has been happy to plough large sums, directly and indirectly, into a variety of schemes to make us go green whilst missing the opportunity staring us in the face. Many households - including mine - and most of industry are already equipped with dual meters that provide a differential tariff for daytime and nighttime usage; I currently pay about 15p/kWh for the day and just 5p/kWh in the night.

If the “economy seven” tariff were subsidised by just 2p per unit, then there would be a massive shift away from daytime, and hence peak time, usage in the home and industry. This requires no capital investment and only a slight adjustment to the tariffs. Think on!

  • Peter Styles,


Profession: Aloof attitudes are offputting

Regarding KR Rollinson’s letter (NCE 21 August), I find terms such as “appropriate respect from lay people”suggest aloofness, which does not reflect well on the ICE and may dissuade younger engineers such as myself from joining.

  • Euan Rennie,


Flooding: Policy to protect properties

Regarding Frank Kelly’s post on flood barriers (NCE 21-28 August), if we are going to pursue this continuation of building on flood plains, then property level protection measures are a must if they are more sustainable than ploughing increasing amounts of money into building and maintaining flood defences forever more. The question is, how should we implement this policy?

Should it be mandatory; set by building regulations; or should we provide incentives to uptake? The UK writes off VAT for water efficiency products that make it on to the Water Technology List; should there be a Flood Technology List? My opinion is that mandatory action is cheaper to implement and more effective, but since this government is a keen backer of economic instruments, perhaps writing off VAT for flood technologies would be a start.

  • Nicole Shamier, Ricardo-AEA, 55 Bryanston Street, London, W1H 7AA


Transport: Estuary logistics are not a barrier

I do not think Henri Pageot’s counter-arguments (NCE 21-28 August) to a London estuary airport, based on logistical problems of moving operations and adjacent service industries to the new site, holds sway. After all, a number of major cities throughout the world including Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong have successfully managed it.

Let’s learn from them.

  • John Franklin (F),


  • NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed. Contact: The Editor, NCE, Telephone House, 69-77 Paul Street, London, EC2A 4NQ; email:

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