Friday, 26 February 2016

Engineering Media Matters

Speaking on my soapbox, under the disco ball, at IChemE's media event!

It took me four years of studying chemical engineering, then a few years of work, to realise the magnitude of our reliance on engineers. They beaver away quietly, meeting our daily living expectations and demands. Despite this, we moan and groan on the odd occasion that our train is late, if the internet connection slows down, or when the water from the washing machine in the apartment above decides to pour through the ceiling into the kitchen.

That last example is the latest annoyance in my own life. Rather than complaining, maybe I should stop to consider the mind blowing facts. I have a machine that enthusiastically does the laundry for me, then drains the water into a designated system (most of the time). There are people defying gravity by living above me, and more people above them, and they haven’t fallen through the ceiling. Speaking of the ceiling, it can and will be easily repaired with some skilfully engineered materials.

I could always picture what doctors, teachers and even politicians did, but I was oblivious to engineering, perhaps due to the lack of public engagement. It’s no coincidence that the BBC News website has ‘Health’, ‘Education’, and ‘Politics’ tabs. Engineering usually happens behind closed doors, it’s a mystery to most, so why not open up to the media and show the public what we do?

Earlier this week, the IChemE gathered some media professionals, science reporters, and engineers in the basement of a pub to talk about what makes ‘good’ science news and how we can get more engineering stories out there. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Science and engineering news should be interesting and informative, easy to relate to, and consider the human angle rather than just hard facts and figures.

This is what cramming lots of engineers into a pub basement looks like.

Establishing channels of communication between engineers and reporters is vital for getting engineering content in the media, as is learning to communicate in a succinct and engaging way. It’s also important to keep in mind that reporters are inundated with ideas for stories, so persistence is essential.

Some press offices provide great channels of communication. In general, stories about academic scientific research are much easier to come by than practical engineering. I think this is directly related to the different attitudes of university press offices and those of private companies. Universities are open and encourage academics to share their research, whereas company press offices seem to focus on maintaining an image, and damage control. I really felt this when I was doing my British Science Association media fellowship with BBC science news; it was almost impossible to find industry employees to comment on stories. Removing this restriction would give many engineers freedom to be heard.

The IChemE event opened up the dialogue between reporters and engineers, but we have a long way to go. My vision is to see more engineering stories in mainstream media, public awareness of what engineers do, and maybe even an 'Engineering' tab on the BBC News website!

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Excuses and Working for the BBC

There is a semi-decent excuse for neglecting this blog for such a long time; as I've been busy writing in other places including articles for, The Huffington Post, and most significantly for me, BBC online science news.  

The BBC thing started back in March when I discovered the media fellowships run by the British Science Association; a scheme to increase communication between the scientific community and the media. They take scientists (and a few engineers) and place them in media outlets for three to six weeks, then send them to the British Science Festival to report for their media host. 

This fitted exactly with my desire to learn more about the media and increase public awareness of engineering so after a few weeks of debating, negotiating, convincing and constantly nagging my manager, I applied for the scheme. 

To my utter delight, my carefully crafted application got me a place with the BBC’s science unit for three weeks. I split this up into a few days a week over the summer, so I could keep up with my real job at the same time. 

I arrived at the BBC Broadcasting House in London on a sunny July day and was ushered to a desk and told I would be working on Science in Action; a weekly BBC World Service programme. The BBC office was not too dissimilar from a busy Middle Eastern market; it was messy, bustling, and noisy. People were either talking, discussing, arguing with each other or had headphones on to edit audio in peace. 

My first task was to sift through up-coming scientific publications, find interesting stories, call up the researchers involved and decide if they were a good fit for radio. A story about medicinal marijuana caught my eye and before the day was out I had arranged for the researcher to talk about his work on the show. 

I quickly got used to the BBC marketplace and became an apprentice rather than a tourist. It was refreshing and enjoyable to be taken out of my comfort zone and thrown into the deep end without much warning.

Recording for Click; the BBC World Service radio weekly technology show

To push myself further, I decided to produce my own radio package, which is a collection of interviews on a specific topic with my narration to link the story together. This was my opportunity to cram in some engineering. I made a short piece about electricity demand response, which was broadcast on Click, the BBC World Service radio weekly technology programme. 

The second part of my placement was with BBC online science news. The team was extremely welcoming and I loved being able to call up scientists and engineers and say ‘I work for BBC News, can you tell me about your work?’  

The stories I covered varied widely; from dinosaur teeth to the age of the Earth’s magnetic field. This prepared me well for reporting from the British Science Festival at Bradford University; the final leg of the media placement. 

I could write much more about all of this, but for now I want to encourage other engineers and scientists to get involved with the media through this scheme or others to improve understanding of the work that makes our daily lives possible, and most importantly generate appreciation for the people behind it.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

My latest obsession: 3D printing

My latest engineering obsession is Additive Manufacturing, or 3D printing. I am initially looking at whether it's feasible to print spare equipment parts for offshore installations. Would it be possible, one day, to have a 3D printer offshore and not stock any spare parts? Would this reduce space and weight requirements for installations? Is it possible to 3D print a pipe off the back of a pipe lay vessel as it goes along, rather than manufacturing the pipe in a construction yard and spooling it onto a reel to put on the boat? What else can we do with this technology? I know we're not quite there right now, but I believe we are only limited by our imaginations here. It's important to explore these avenues and ask these questions.

I recently attended the Hinton lecture at the Royal Academy of Engineering; it was presented by Admiral Sir George Zambellas who is essentially the boss of the British Navy. He spoke about 'Engineering a 21st Century Navy for a 21st Century Nation'. I asked him at the end if the Navy has considered 3D printing and his response was something along the lines of 'I could do an entire other lecture just on 3D printing!' 

It's encouraging to hear what other industries are doing with this technology, and I learned more at a conference in London last week which brought together professionals in this industry to explore how to translate additive manufacturing from small scale into industrial applications. The range of applications was staggering; tennis racquet grommets, dental implants, filters, bendable electronics, fuel nozzles, shoes and concrete structures. One application I particularly liked was using lunar soil for a 3D printed moon base (! Using the soil already on the moon means less weight to carry up there; apparently it costs about £200,000 for every kilogram you want to send to the moon!

A few other interesting points to note: 3D printing will not replace traditional manufacturing; it is simply another tool for the designer’s kit. There is no point 3D printing everything for the sake of it, we should be using it to print things that are not possible to manufacture with existing methods. There is currently little standardisation in this industry, BSI (British Standards Institution) are on the case and will hopefully start to provide standards for machinery and materials as the technology develops. There are lots of unanswered questions when it comes to Intellectual Property, for example, can you print out a spare part for a machine you own if you are not the original equipment manufacturer? Finally, this is yet another engineering area facing a skills shortage.

In a less technical and more social context, 3D printing will play a large role in the evolution of consumerism. I think (and hope) we are moving away from the mass production culture, where you see a product someone else has and you want it, onto a phase of individualism where your product is unique, useful, efficient and defining of your personality.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

What is the right level of response to anthropogenic induced climate change?

I was recently in the audience for a debate hosted by the Foundation for Science and Technology entitled ‘What is the right level of response to anthropogenic induced climate change?’ The speakers had ten minutes each to make their points, after which the audience members were invited to comment and pose questions.

The four speakers were Sir Mark Walport, Government Chief Scientific Adviser; David Davies MP for Monmouth, Professor Jim Skea, Imperial College London and Committee on Climate Change; and The Rt Hon Peter Lilley, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden. The two scientists were arguing that we need significant and immediate action to tackle climate change to avoid catastrophic events and the politicians saw this as an extreme reaction from an economic point of view given their perceived uncertainty of the scientific evidence. Points of contention included how much of climate change can actually be attributed to human activity and how accurate the modelling used to predict the effects of climate change is. 

I feel the debate reflected the current global status of the issue. There is no dispute that the climate is changing. Some disagreements surface when it comes to how much of this change is ‘natural’ and how much has been caused by us, and the real uncertainty surfaces when key decision makers are asked ‘what should be we be doing about this?’

I have often questioned whether it’s fair for the developed world to deny the developing countries their right to advance and grow. I do believe that experiences and mistakes should be shared but stifling the growth of these countries by imposing carbon emissions targets would be a crime. As a result, I am undecided on this topic and I have yet to see a compelling argument to swing my opinion either way.

I actually prefer to flip the problem upside down. Forgetting all about climate change, I can look at my own life and ask do I need to eat fruits imported from exotic countries? Do I need to eat meat every day? Do I need new clothes every season? Do I need the central heating on at 20°C? Do all these things actually add to the value of my life and what effect does my consumption have on others? It is very quick and easy for me to come to the logical conclusion that much of this can be changed or eliminated. If everyone did this, would it reduce our emissions? I know this is easier said than done and I am perfectly aware that reducing consumerism will have an enormous economic impact, but it’s still worth thinking about.