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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

SiF Review and post-script apology

I understand that my recent Blog posting has caused some upset amongst the SiF community. If my comments have caused offence then I am sorry.

However, constructive criticism and open debate are at the centre of  all learned organizations (the SiF Movement is no exception), and we must be able to hear criticism with ears as wide as we hear praise. My comments were intended only to help the SiF movement to maintain a reputation for scientific and engineering excellence. I welcome open debate on the issues I raised, and if my comments are incorrect or uninformed then I will happily withdraw them.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Experiences at the Young Researchers Training School for fire engineers (COST TU0904)

It is with great pleasure that we (John Gales, University of Edinburgh and RuiRui Sun, University of Sheffield) report to you on our experiences at the Young Researchers Training School for integrated fire engineering (COST TU0904) which occurred in April 2012 in Malta. This training school had been intended to broaden the research background of the participants and provide them a chance to network outside their normal studies through the exchange of information and opinion. The training school was a valuable five day experience for the careers of the students in fire engineering selected from across Europe. This conference involved two parts: lecture and brainstorming sessions.

Some of the participants at the Young Researchers Conference training school for fire engineering research in Malta, April 2012. Photo is courtesy of Prof Ian Burgess.
The lecture session was led by various practitioners and academics in fire engineering focusing on topics of fire behaviour, integrity design, life and structural safety. Presentations by Prof Jean Marc Franssen and Prof Paulo Vila Real summarized the development of research and design methods of structural fire engineering; structural robustness in fire was summarized by Prof Ian Burgess; Dr Florian Block presented the application of performance-based design in practice from the view of an engineer; Dr Guillermo Rein gave an introduction of fire dynamics to structural engineers emphasizing the importance of research on travelling fires; Dr Luke Bisby reviewed the past, current and future status of structural testing in fire; Dr Yong Wang presented the properties of protection material with special reference to intumescing coatings research; and Jim Marsden shared the fire service’s view on fire engineering. See group photo above. All lecture presentation slides can be viewed here;
For us students in attendance these presentations gave a unique opportunity to hear from various academics and those in the industry about their research and consulting experiences. The topics covered a wide range of themes but in particular closely related to our PhDs; such as modelling progressive collapses in structural fires (Ruirui) and experimentation of structural systems in fire (John). Some of the ideas presented had controversy and were thought provoking but all had some use for our projects; one example is the ‘simple’ or ‘not simple’ modelling perspectives, which were elaborated on by Prof. Jean-marc Franseen with respect to further research and endeavours we plan. What we found particularly helpful was that lectures provided a window into professional thought; such as when new research results are presented, what it takes for them to accept or reject. The practitioners and academics provided expertise on what our duties as young researchers are. These presentations widened, inspired and comprehensively pushed our knowledge establishing a more thorough and solid research background for integrated fire engineering.
The brainstorming session followed with nearly 30 student presentations of research projects being conducted throughout Europe (mostly PhD projects but also some MSc(s) were included etc.) covering diverse topics from passive fire resistance, fire development, risk assessment etc. The presentations all allowed for some flexible but yet intense and interesting discussion, where ideas, knowledge and opinion were exchanged by the young researchers, practitioners and academics. The experience for us students was not only to directly give us ideas on where to go next or how to sort out the problem we are confronted with, but also, more valuably, make us think about our problems rationally and to develop a professional thought process on research and problem solving. The abstracts and slides for these presentations can be viewed here;


Rarely do conferences give an opportunity to speak of projects in the level of rigorous detail that we were allowed here, and to the level of depth of helpful discussion generated afterwards. This is one of the merits that this training school  (rather than a normal conference experience) stood out. At times though, it was a challenge to understand others work and suggest solutions or different ideas, but that is mostly due to different presentation styles and branches of study we may not fully be familiar with (typical of multidisciplinary events). Standing as presenters, it was a wonderful and valuable experience to exchange work to our peers and experts, gathering advice and feedback. We both come from known fire-research groups which regularly challenge and communicate with one another in much the same spirit of this training school however, presenting within your own group sometimes it is easy to miss key things that you can or could consider. This training school was all the much more valuable to participate in, as fresh eyes could look at our problems. Students from so many backgrounds (with incredibly diverse expertise) were present ready to share ideas and push each other further. Moreover, it is very exciting to find common-ground with other researchers on their work and seek research collaboration with them. Two imminent examples of this continuing collaboration are the visiting of two students, one from Thessaly and the other from Naples, each to Sheffield and Edinburgh respectively for several weeks to research on structural and fire.
The conference was not only about work though; the attendants participated in a number of visits in Malta after the conference (see photos below). The sites to see, food to taste and overall Maltase atmosphere make us wish more fire research events could be held like this training school. The people (Maltase, organisers, students) were amazing and incredibly helpful.
Some of the many spectacular views of Malta (photos by RuiRui Sun)
We were incredibly thankful to be selected as student representatives of the United Kingdom to attend the training school, we thank those who organised the conference, in particular Ruben Paul Borg of the department of Civil and Structural Engineering, University of Malta (host of the training school), the attendees, and all for the feedback they had provided us. We hope that this training school, or something along the lines of it, will continuously be held to engage and motivate more young researchers in integrated fire engineering
                         John Gales (University of Edinburgh)
          RuiRui Sun (University of Sheffield)

Monday, June 11, 2012

SiF 2012 Conference: A Review and Post-Script

SiF 2012 Conference: A Review and Post-Script

This Firegroup Blog post presents the thoughts of a PhD student in Structural Fire Engineering after attending the recent SiF2012 Conference in Zurich, Switzerland. 

The “Structures in Fire” (SiF) movement first held a  workshop in 2000. From the outset there was a clear objective for these workshops:

“The main mission of SiF conferences is to provide an opportunity for researchers and engineers to share their research, technology and expertise with their peers at an international forum.”

“The focus of the conference is on the behaviour of structures under fire exposure, including the ‘art, science and practice of structural fire engineering’…” Conference handout.

In 2008, a more formalised set up was established with a steering committee for the rebranded “SiF Movement”.  The restructuring was due to the ever growing number of attendees and submissions to present at the workshops; for example at the 6th International conference held at Michigan State University in 2010 more than 200 abstracts were received with 123 papers being selected for publication and presentation as posters or as formal oral presentations. The 7th International Conference on “Structures in Fire” (SiF 2012), held at the beginning of June in the beautiful city of Zurich, in Switzerland, received an even greater number of submissions with only 83 papers being presented in poster or in oral form.  The seminar facilities and general areas at ETH Zurich were fantastic and the set-up for the formal oral presentations and poster presentations was excellent.  Also, the new poster session format breathed life into what is usually a slow and quiet hour or so where most people check e-mails rather than discuss the work in the papers, and the organizers should be commended on this format (two parallel session of five minute presentations back to back with then a general discussion period at the posters over coffee). The lack of functioning wifi access may actually have helped here also!

The high number of submissions compared to the relatively low number of accepted papers should have led to the cream of the crop being selected for either the formal 20 minute presentation or for presentation in one of two parallel poster sessions, but as evident by the open delegate forum which was held during Day 2 of the conference, the review process and thus selection of the papers was rather severely criticised.  

This was not the first time this had occurred. At the SiF 2010 conference (the first that I attended) the review process was discussed in a similar delegates’ open forum. This resulted in the introduction of using two page extended abstracts, rather than single paragraph abstracts, to judge the quality of the work to be presented at the SiF 2012 conference.  The abstracts were also reviewed anonymously by three experts and the accepted abstracts were then asked to produce full papers.  

So why are there still complaints regarding the review process and the quality of presented work?

First, the reviewers in some instances had >10 two-page abstracts to review in less than two weeks, which is not conducive to selecting with high quality control. Second, it easier to convey experimental programs over analytical ones and might be one of the reasons that a large percentage of the presentations given at this year’s conference were predominantly experimental in theme.  In two-page abstracts, experimental methods, results and outcomes can be summarised relatively easily, whereas analytical models and more abstract work need more space to fully explain.  
Other issues with the presented papers, with these views shared by many conference participants, were:

1.       Too many papers lacked novel or significant context:
Many of the presented papers struggled to inform the listener of why they should care about the work being presented; there was little context to the work provided in most cases. Even the most engaging presentations and presenters frustrate delegates by still not clearly saying at any point why the work was done and why we should care about it.

2.       The lost art of presenting:
Too many of the presentations were difficult to follow and were easy to disengage from with which detracted from the discussions, as instead of collective expertise being used to further research and how to apply it in the real world, questions were being asked simply for clarification rather than for extension.  For the presentations that were presented well constructive discussions generally followed.  There were three trends that could be seen when comparing the good and bad discussions.
                                             i.            Language barrier – Many of those who did not have a good grasp of English, the chosen language of the conference, struggled to communicate their work effectively. This problem is admittedly very hard to solve.
                                           ii.            Hard to see the forest through the trees – many of the presenters had graphs or images, on which they would be making a comment, but rarely did they explain what the graph or image was showing or representing.  For those who aren’t experts in the area (which should be a large portion of the audience if the research being presented is at the cutting edge of the science), there would be no way of understanding what they were looking at.
                                          iii.            Mathematical blindness – as was evident with the images, there were too many equations with not enough explanation, and in some case there were too many equations to even keep track of.  The effect of this was to turn the slide in to a blur of black and white with little apparent meaning.

3.       The works presented in the papers, on the most part, were not put through academic rigour:
With the papers being presented on the basis of only a 2-page abstract, the actual work presented in the 10-page papers was not critiqued at all, nor rigorously assessed, but only checked for editorial issues.  This led to the quality of the papers being presented being lower than it really should have been be for the SiF conference series. 

The conference was also missing a key ingredient; industrial contributions.  Most of the delegates and presenters were academics, me included. Without delegates from consultancy and industry, those who apply the information in the real world, we fool ourselves that we are doing a good job because we lose perspective and context to our work and presentations. Our work becomes self-satisfying rather than industry leading, and we end up producing redundant, sometimes pointless knowledge.

So where could we go to improve the SiF Movement which seems to many of us to be stalling?

First, we need to increase the quality of the papers presented, which could be done by full paper submissions being reviewed and papers selected on this rather than on 2-page abstracts. This would also need a change in the amount of time for each paper to be reviewed; no-one would be able to rigorously review 10+ papers in two-weeks, and the number of reviewers looking at submissions.  One idea that I overheard was to say that if you are wanting to submit a paper to the conference then you would be automatically expected to review at least three other papers with the stipulation that if the papers that you are reviewing are not returned in a timely fashion and do not pass a board of reviewers quality control for a rigorous review, then your own paper would be rejected.

Second, the presentations need to be improved, and so maybe these should be reviewed as well, not for content but for length and for style, and a set of guidelines produced to help those presenting to communicate effectively. Guidelines could include, amongst other things, stipulations that if you are presenting graphs and equations that you explain clearly what the audience is looking at, and why they are looking at it.  If the quality of the work is good enough and the presentation of it clear, then issues of language are significantly lessened.

Finally, we need to remain relevant to the construction industry.  One way of doing this is to invite our industrial partners to join us and invite them to speak on the subjects that they feel are of major concern to them.  They could be designers, consultants, materials suppliers, architects, practitioners, and we could discuss what matters to them and to the broader building design industry, rather than existing in an isolated academic bubble with few industrialists present.

All in all, although still young as a conference series, what should be the leading conference for matters pertaining to structures in fire still needs time to grow, develop, and mature so that we can be fully effective and relevant to today’s needs.

David Rush