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Saturday, 10 December 2011

Has the UK Forgotten how to do Combustion Science?

by Dr Paul Fennell, Imperial College London
(article published in the Newsletter of the British Section of the Combustion Institute, Volume 2011-1 June 2011)

You have prepared your manuscript for a Combustion Symposium, discussed it with your co-authors, and performed the most taxing test of your mental faculties for the year. Of course, here I am talking about getting the word count done, not writing the paper. You then send it off, and the waiting begins... For the first couple of months, the paper nags at you: did I do this correctly, was it clear enough? Then, you forget about it. Months pass.

Then, one day, an e-mail arrives. Heart pounding, you open it.

pa = “WHAT THE DEVIL? Who chose these morons?”
pb = “Fantastic! What excellent reviewers, and what a good Symposium session chair”.

Those of you who attended the 33rd Symposium may have noted that pa was quite high (on a historical basis) for the UK, whereas pb was quite low. Of course, there are always grumbles about the standard of refereeing, though this year there has been a larger than usual number reaching your humble correspondent’s ears. For interest, the success rates for submitted papers are reproduced below, grouped in a number of different ways, and including some data from the 32nd Symposium.

Success Rates

Table 1. Success rates for the Symposium in general (32nd Symposium data from Jan 09 British Section Newsletter)

Table 2. Success rates by country for the last two Symposia
The massive increase in submissions for the 33rd Symposium, relative to the 32nd Symposium, reduced the potential for acceptance, but France and the USA maintained position as the front runners, with Australia also having strong representation, whereas the UK’s acceptance rate was somewhat below average (34.2 % in 2010) and much lower than at the previous Symposium (87.2 % in 2008).

Table 3. Overall success 33rd Symposium, by Colloquia

Conspicuous in the success rate, when presented in the context of the colloquia, is the high proportion of accepted papers for detonations, kinetics research and soot related studies. Investigators of heterogeneous combustion and stationary combustion systems seem to have a particularly hard time. Although there is no compelling reason for success rates to be the same for each colloquium, the number of submissions to each one is certainly a reflection of the trends in combustion research activity.

Four main possibilities come to mind as to why the British section has such a low overall success rate, even if it continues to have a similar total number of papers accepted to e.g. France and Germany.

1. Britain no longer does world-leading research in combustion science
2. Britain does research in the wrong areas
3. There is bias in the system
4. France, the USA and Australia are better prepared for the Symposia

Does Britain no Longer do World-Leading Research in Combustion? If not, why not?
If we leave out the hideous possibility that we are not as clever as we think, we need to consider whether we have adequate facilities in the UK for world-leading combustion research. Perhaps the community, accustomed to fighting each other for acceptance for a Combustion Symposium, fights itself too vehemently when it comes to reviewing grant proposals? The evidence from funding councils is that engineering disciplines review each other more harshly than others – but that they do not take into account the relative harshness of reviews within a particular discipline when awarding grants. Perhaps as a community we should take heed of certain other areas of research... those where everyone, uniformly, is world leading. The community knows that combustion underpins modern society: where would power generation or transportation be without our work? Which is more important? Combustion or nanotechnology? Which trumpets its achievements better and secures guaranteed funding in the UK? Why?

The imminent demise of BCURA as a funding agency shows just how far the star of combustion has fallen. In years gone by, the UK had the CRE and other similar establishments for electricity generation, gas and nuclear energy. Now, we have next to no centralised research facilities, and industry complains that the shortage of skilled engineers in the UK forces them to recruit from outside the EU. The combustion community needs to work collectively to promote our achievements and to explain how we can contribute to the very real challenges facing us in the next decades. Combustion scientists need to show that we are part of the clean energy solution, not the problem.

Does Britain do research in the wrong area?
A brief survey of the papers accepted for the Symposium this year from Britain (i.e. those that receiving a travel grant from the British section) indicates that Britain has particular strength in modelling (particularly LES) and flames. Of course, there is immense survivor bias in these results, since they are accepted papers, not submitted ones. (It might be helpful for the British section to request that members send details not just of accepted papers to the British section office, but also of submitted papers). It is worrying that whilst the UK still retains great strength in the field of heterogeneous combustion (amongst other fields), papers are not being accepted for publication in this colloquium. It would be interesting to see if this was caused by non-submission or by non-acceptance. Certainly, discussion with a number of eminent scientists in this area leads to the suspicion that the quality of the peer review process in certain areas is seen as a significant barrier. Furthermore, some have indicated that they do not submit papers to a Symposium because it is seen as increasingly non-relevant to industry.

Finally, the large numbers of papers which are written on the basis of shock-tube measurements would indicate that there is a relevance of this research field. It was an area which had tremendous strength in the UK, in earlier decades, but the kinetics aspect has declined to negligible activity. Fortunately, outstanding research in detonation related studies is still active. Numerical simulations of the results from a number of different types of shock tubes, along with jet-stirred reactors, etc, are world-leading. Surely, we need to obtain the facilities to conduct these experiments ourselves, rather than relying upon our colleagues around the world?

Table 3 shows that the acceptance rates in certain areas were very high at the most recent Symposium. The Institute as a whole seems at the moment to have a great deal of positive reinforcement in these fields – an extremely eminent member of the Institute recently made the statement that “we should only be doing research in important fields”. He then outlined which fields were important... the areas into which the Combustion Institute is more and more moving. Some might consider that the success rates indicate a bias in favour of kinetics research, though others would argue that the standards of this research, historically high, have simply been maintained. It is also possible that the standards of reviewing are superior in this field. (Over very many Symposia, my recollection is one of a proportionately greater success with submissions to Kinetics than to other colloquia. Perhaps crossing the boundaries from my combustion kinetics background was never going to be easy – yet the Combustion Symposia have seemed to me to be a natural forum for this to happen. Perhaps better scientists than me have a different story to tell. Ed.)

Given that the UK retains or is building significant research capability in industrial areas (such as Doosan-Babcock’s oxyfuel demonstration plant in Renfrew) and also that the Combustion Institute as a whole is worried at the highest levels about the rapid decline in the submission of papers from industry into the Symposia, perhaps the British Section should work hard to encourage the submission of papers from our industrial colleagues. It might also make sense to encourage British industrialists to take a stronger role in the British section and in time the highest echelons of the Institute. This might help to bolster our position in, for example, stationary combustion.

Finally, it is interesting to note the opacity of the methods chosen to add new members to the worldwide committee of the Combustion Institute. The Catholic Church seems to have stolen a march on the combustion community by signalling the new pope using coloured smoke. Many other features of the selection process appear to be similar.

Preparation for the Symposia
Reports indicate that the US Sections in particular are far better prepared for the International Symposia. Interesting Symposium-worthy material is, often, first presented at American Section meetings and comments sought well ahead of time on the potential for improvement. Furthermore, it was clear from the comments of the co-chairs in the introduction to the Symposium that what they were looking for was a clear message from the paper. It is possible that in the UK we are not so accustomed to writing the short, punchy, papers which are now required for a Symposium; perhaps we need to begin preparation of our papers with this in mind, rather than initially writing long papers and agonising

The underperformance of the British section (at least on a historical basis, and based on success rate rather than total number of accepted papers) is noteworthy. Some possible reasons for this have been explored. It is clear that the Combustion Institute has been moving in one particular direction for a number of years. Whether the British Section can do anything about this is unclear (even if we should want to - which is a topic that should be debated). Securing funding for combustion research is vital, particularly in the current environment. The countries who are outperforming the UK invest more money in combustion research, so that working together to promote combustion research in the UK and secure this outcome may be a key factor.

by Paul Fennell

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