The UK needs to get the balance right between manufacturer-led and academic research of geosynthetics , says John Greenwood.
A free trip to the seventh International Geosynthetics conference in Nice this month, sponsored by the International Geosynthetics Society, was the prize in a widely advertised papers competition. One would think it would be a good incentive for a young engineer or researcher to submit a short paper - but nobody applied!
Eventually students taking the geosynthetics in construction MSc module at Nottingham Trent University were persuaded to enter a revised competition. As reported in the July issue of GE, the prize was awarded to Catriona Miller for her excellent presentation and written paper on the use of geotextiles in coastal protection at East Weymss, Scotland.
Perhaps the lack of interest reflects the worrying decrease in the level of geosynthetics related knowledge, research and development in the UK. Much of the research and development work has been led and sponsored by manufacturers, with the consequence that there is possibly too little 'blue sky' research funding available.
Designers and engineers for small and medium projects have relied too much on the material suppliers for technical help, design and backup. This means the design solution is sometimes the wrong way round: 'we have a product, what will it do?', rather than 'we have a problem, what product will solve it?' Designers frequently choose to use a product because they have used it before, without really knowing why or what it does or even if it is appropriate. This lack of understanding leaves the manufacturers to second guess the industry's needs in what, for many of them, is only a peripheral product within their range.
Given the dramatic increase in the use of geosynthetics on construction projects, I suspect that research into their performance and development of new products has now fallen below acceptable levels. And as manufacturers have become more international in their company structures, they have been able to call on international resources to support their research initiatives, further reducing UK research activity.
So where does this leave the UK? The European dimension is important, with excellent initiatives taken to harmonise the specification and testing of geosynthetics.
But I question whether there is sufficient UK research activity to clarify and support the technical issues to take to the European and International Committees for 'harmonisation'.
Interaction with European and international colleagues is valuable. My own experience with an EU-funded Fifth Framework project (Ecoslopes - Use of vegetation to stabilise slopes) has demonstrated the immense 'added value' of working with European partners in terms of development and application of research.
But I suspect the fundamental, basic research is best done in local, focused groups based in academic institutions. An injection of national funding is needed to redress the research balance and make better use of the technical capabilities in our universities.
At Nottingham Trent University we are well established as a test centre for 'geoproducts'. We have large scale test and modelling facilities for compression, shear and permeability testing, supported by enthusiastic academic staff and innovative technical staff. While this supports specific manufacturer-led developments, we still need to address the basic understanding of the behaviour of geoproducts in the ground.
We are frequently asked to investigate materials only when a lack of understanding of the insitu performance has caused something to go wrong.
Innovative basic research could be encouraged by the ready availability of seed-corn funding from research councils. A sum of £2000 could be awarded to companies and academic institutions based on the innovative ideas of an individual. An initial £500 might be provided on submission of a short proposal. This would encourage the individual to spend time developing the ideas with their company/institution support, coupled with collaboration with the end user and specifier of the material.
The remaining £1500 would be payable to the company/institution on submission of a short report on the outcome of the initiative with recommendations for further work and funding requirements. Promising ideas could go forward for further funding.
The UK Section of the IGS is also exploring ways to encourage funding and record research activity. The first of a series of national conferences is planned for June 2003 on the subject 'Geosynthetics - protecting the environment'.
The ideal way forward is a balance of commercial and end-user led innovation and development alongside government support of more basic academic research.
Achieving thisis always going to be difficult but all the stakeholders in the geotechnical community need to combine to support the safe, efficient application and understanding of geosynthetic products.
John Greenwood is chairman of the UK Section of the International Geosynthetics Society and runs the masters course in geotechnical engineering at Nottingham Trent University.