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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Endemic of the Academics

IAFSS Symposium 2011 recap - personal reflections by a postgraduate student.

As a newcomer to the fire science scene (and a new member of IAFSS) I was disappointed and downhearted by the recent 2011 IAFSS symposium in Maryland. It is not to say that there weren’t some good aspects, the location and conference buildings (barring the marginal on-site student accommodation), the catering, and the welcome team were all excellent, but in general I wonder where I fit in to the field of fire safety engineering, and more importantly why I should want to.

The conference started on the Sunday with a student networking event and workshops session. Both of these I missed due to a delayed flight but if these workshops were similar to the one I attended on the following Friday morning they would have been useful and added value to the conference. This cannot be said for the reaction to the student session that I have enquired about. The student session was apparently organised as a networking opportunity for the students. There was no formal structure to the session and students were left to their own devises and allowed to mingle. This lead to the anticipated reaction of the students interacting only with the people they knew, and therefore there was little networking.

In my opinion, while the students clearly play a role in a successful networking event, a better scenario for a student session is not to network solely with other students but rather with the academics and industry professionals who are present at the conference so that enthusiasm for the sector and for scientific research could be instilled. This could have been achieved by having a student workshop where a few of the well-regarded academic/industry individuals could pose a few issues and then workshop it with the students. This would promote interaction and discussion on fire science but would also allow for people to participate as much or as little as they feel able. A session like this would add value to any conference.

The rest of Sunday was good: the welcome team were very welcoming and registration was accomplished with speed and ease. The symposium welcome reception that evening, being the first official event that I attended, was well attended and had a buzz of excitement and anticipation, as there should be at the start of any major conference, and which I easily got swept up in; this buzz, however, was emphatically swept away by the symposium’s opening keynote.

The opening keynote was, in my opinion, disjointed and virtually impossible to follow. To open a Fire Safety Science symposium by showing a six minute video of a tsunami decimating a town seems inappropriate, unless the keynote was on the dangers of tsunamis for fire safety, which it was in part and was also on risk based design. While I agree that it is good and right to honour those academics and researchers who have contributed to the field, I feel that this should not be done to the detriment of the Association or its symposia. Neither topic was covered properly, nor did either pose clear and important questions to lead to a lively and informative debate.

The opening plenary was not the only one to disappoint, but there were, in my opinion, two strong keynotes worthy of mention. The first of these was by Margaret Simonson McNamee, of SP, with her presentation on “Estimating the Impact of Fire on the Environment”. This presentation raised issues not only relevant to fire safety science but also to a major driver for many endeavours in today’s world, the environment. This issue was apparently lost on the symposium caterers, as an appalling amount of waste was produced during the symposium in terms of plastic plates, cutlery and mugs. Future symposia should demand better environmental controls from the conference venue and catering services.

The second interesting plenary was Charles Fleischmann’s keynote “Is Prescription the Future of Performance Based Design?” This lecture, although with an (intentionally?) oxymoronic title, stimulated debate, especially amongst the structural fire engineers, and generated a genuine scientific and philosophical talking point at meal times. This is one highly desirable outcome of a good plenary or keynote lecture.

Disappointing talks were not limited to keynotes. Many of the presentations did not specify the relevance of the work undertaken and had no obvious conclusions; simply summarising what had already been discussed. In several presentations the use of videos detracted from the information being presented (and in one case the presenter was silent for 2 and a half minutes because of a video). It seemed that some research was undertaken just for the sake of doing some research and the value of it was not clearly communicated to the audience.

I feel that there were also problems with the rigour of work presented, and in the research methods used, particularly in the area of evacuation modelling and analysis, which felt marginal in some cases (although I stress here that I am by no means an expert in this area). The poor-quality feel of work presented at the conference is clearly not solely the fault of the authors and presenters, but also of the scientific committee. The fact that about 50% of the papers submitted were accepted, according to the President’s presentation during the “business” meeting, seemed to be driven largely by the finances of the conference rather than the quality of the work. While this is speculation on my part, I feel that a peer reviewed conference should strive, first and foremost, to increase the quality of the work, however in this case the finances of the conference may have nullified this scientific quality control measure. I am all in favour of peer reviewed conferences; this promotes excellence. But the ambition of running three parallel sessions seems to have muddied the waters and diluted quality. I understand that sufficient funds are needed to cover certain costs, but as a charitable organisation the IAFSS must ask if the costs (and profits) of conferences should be rationalized so that financial drivers do not detract from the scientific quality of the symposia.

The above being said, the parallel sessions were run effectively and efficiently, along with the poster sessions, and so congratulations are due to the chairs of the sessions and the organising committee. There was, however, an issue with the final day of the symposium. The first four days all started at 9.00am with a keynote lecture. The last day, on the morning after the conference banquet, had only 9 talks scheduled. Unfortunately, these started at 8.30am, so it was no surprise that at 8.30am in the morning in the session in which I was presenting (which I am admittedly, slightly bitter about) there were two chairs (one of whom was drafted in last minute), the three presenters and only one other audience member. This scheduling was unfair to those who were asked to present or chair these final sessions. Future symposia should take this into account.

After I left the 2011 IAFSS Symposium, I was left wondering whether it had met the objectives of the association, as presented in the rules of the association given to every member:

“The object of the Association is to promote research into the science of preventing and mitigating the adverse effects of fires and the dissemination of the results of such research. In furtherance of this object the association will organise and support symposia and other educational activities in the field of fire safety science, publish the proceedings of such symposia (provided it shall not undertake any permanent trading activities), seek to co-operate with other organisations concerned with the application of fire safety science and do all such other lawful things as may further the objects of the Association”.

The IAFSS does focus on issues of fire safety science on the international scene, but it is the association aspect of this community that I feel is struggling somewhat. The definition of association, according to is:

1. an organization of people with a common purpose and having a formal structure.

2. the act of associating or state of being associated.

3. friendship; companionship

On the first two aspects of the word, the conference delivered to some extent, and on the third aspect the working friendships and associations were well represented, but are these professional friendships actually helping or hurting the association – is the association too close? It seemed to me that we accepted the presenters’ statements and ideas, rather than being convinced by them, we did not question enough what people were saying or why they were saying it, and we did not discuss or debate enough the further implications of the work presented. Are we scared of losing our status and no longer being pioneers in the field, let alone the wider world? Do we strive to be noticed and liked rather than producing excellence in our work which might ruffle a few feathers? Are our associations with one another too polite and self-edifying? Do we need to rethink what the association is about, or are we happy with the way things stand?

Food for thought....

By David Rush


Guillermo Rein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guillermo Rein said...

I enjoy your views Dave. Thanks for making them public.

I agree with the ending part of your post, about the association being too close at times. I heard once before that the IAFSS behaved as an "old boys club". However, if you had attended the Friday Workshop on Fire Modelling, you would had added evidence of the contrary. I presented the Dalmarnorck conclusions about uncertainty in fire modelling, a very controversial issue for the last five years, and the debate was very "lively", and far from "too close". But it was engaging.

Also, I want to emphasize the best of the Symposium: the workshops. For second time in a row, I found the best scientific debates were around the workshops (at least the two I particiapted in). They are seeing as extra-events, but I am sure they will end up being absorbed into the Symposium Programme as core of it.

NOTE II: In 2009, I wrote in this same blog a rather different summary of the 9th IAFSS Symposium:

NOTE III: And my favorites Keynotes were by Andre Marshall (for scientific strengh and inspiration), Carlos Fernandez-Pello (for rigurosity and exploring an often neglected but essential problem) and Domingos Viegas (to communicating all the exciting opportunites for fire research in the realm of forest fire safety).

Michael Gollner said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dave!

This IAFSS conference was the first in which I attended, and I thought it was, overall a very positive experience, however not quite in the ways I had expected.

I was really looking forward to the presentations of scientific work at the conference. Coming from a university where I am one of few studying anything related to fire, I felt this would be the best opportunity to see the latest and greatest scientific developments in the field. I have to agree with you that I was surprised at the apparent lack of rigor of SOME work presented. There were several presentations that I was thoroughly impressed and inspired by, however I personally feel that I have seen a better selection of works in the fire sciences at other conferences. An added disappointment was the lack of discussions accompanying the presentations. I recall the discussions at Interflam being very active and heated - the best you can have! Discussions seem to make conference presentations so much more worthwhile; however there were only a few presentations in which discussion really started at all. Some of this I know was due to time constraints; however I hope that in some way the organizers and especially the committee reviewing papers for the next conference will find a way to address this issue. I think that incorporating more expert researchers in the reviewing process may help some of this by encouraging a greater proportion of fundamental research which leads the field, rather than focusing solely on applied problems. (There should be equal proportions of both to drive the future of the field, in my opinion).

Despite the fact I was disappointed with some conference presentations and discussions, I was very pleased by the side discussions, workshops and plenary lectures. While some select groups may have been more of an "old boys club," I really felt that many people were very happy and willing to interact, and in fact some comments were among the best scientific advice I have received at any gathering. There were a few people who were not very open to interacting with people they did not know, but I felt that those individuals were few and far between. Most people that I talked with were very happy to engage and discuss their research and my own, and I met so many people from different fields it was an enlightening experience. Even the "unofficial" student gatherings at night were quite fun, and I met a few students I am still keeping in touch with.

Sadly, due to Delta Airlines' inability to get a flight in on time I was also unable to attend the student networking session, however I think the event is a great idea and should be continued. I have always thought of these student sessions as a short, low-pressure occasion to meet other students rather than senior researchers. The benefit of having such an event is to quickly meet a group of people you can talk to throughout all the breaks and meals during the conference. During my first-ever conference I did not know anyone, and spent the majority of my time with one or two students I met at the beginning of the conference. I think knowing a whole group, from a wide range of institutions, would have allowed me to interact with not only students, but also the student’s groups who often sit and talk with them during the conference. It’s a great way to get new students talking with a new group of people.

I have to agree with Guillermo on the workshops – they were great! I had never seen anything quite like them before, and I was happy to listen and contribute.

Michael Gollner said...

Something interesting from Carlos Fernandez-Pello’s keynote was his comment about the bridge between combustion research and fire “science” research. My own experiences have been exactly the same as those of Carlos. When I attend a Combustion Institute meeting I am often regarded as a “fire” researcher, out of place at the combustion meeting. (Experienced at my very first conference, by rude comments from an unnamed, quite well-regarded professor). While attending a fire science or fire protection engineering conference, I am regarded as a “combustion” researcher, out of place at such a fire meeting. My impression was that at the International Association for Fire Safety SCIENCE, this would cease to occur! Fire science is itself intrinsically coupled to combustion, and those of us who apply combustion theory to fire-related problems should be at the heart of the community! I still find this odd, however it did not detract from my experience at the conference.

Andre Marshall also gave an outstanding keynote, but I was really glad to see the wildfire research community become more involved with Domingos Viegas’ presentation. I hope this will become a staple at the IAFSS meetings, and that researchers in both fields will become more involved. Both communities have a lot to learn from one another.

Albert said...

I agree that our community is far from being perfect and they are even historical reasons for that (one of them being the lack of funding during the last 15 years). However, I prefer to look at positive aspects like Michael. One of them is the increasing multidisciplinarity, which is necessary to tackle "Fire" problems. Seeing more in more people from other communities like "Structures" or "wildfires" (hurray!!) is really encouraging to me. We also have more in more young and talented scientists that are publishing in "combustion" journals and that is very good to me too because it was lacking since the massive contribution of the "old" generation that we all admire. So, globally, I have good hope in our field and in our association. Roma was not built in one day and our field is still recent and immature.