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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Have we lost the plot? Analysis of national submissions to Combustion Symposia from 1949 to 2010

The following article, written by Dr David B Smith, appeared in the Spring 2012 Newsletter of the British Section of the Combustion Institute. Because of its general interest, we reproduce it here.


About 12 months ago, Paul Fennell wrote an interesting article for the Section Newsletter (June 2011). Somewhat provocatively entitled “Has the UK forgotten how to do combustion Science”, he compared the paper submission and acceptance rates for various countries for the 32nd and 33rd Symposia. Although not giving a direct answer to his leading question, he did reach some significant conclusions.

In Newsletter 96/3, I wrote an article along broadly similar, though more historical, lines. This presented a breakdown of papers presented at the Combustion Symposia, according to the authors’ countries. That article updated a previous one, at July 1987. Among train spotters, people with exaggerated interest in detail are called rivet counters. I hope that I don’t suffer from a similar syndrome but I have now extended my analysis up to the most recent (Beijing) symposium. The methodology is simple:
  • All symposia are included, from the Third (held in 1949) to the Thirty Third. The first two symposia are not included. They were held long before the Combustion Institute was formed, in 1928 and 1937, under the auspices of the American Chemical Society, and so do not form part of the main series. 
  • Authors of papers are categorised by country. Where authors come from more than one country, a split is made according to the number of institutions from each country. With the internationalisation of research, this is increasingly common and, to my mind, wholly welcome. 
  • Contributions from the following countries are compared: US, UK, France, Germany and Japan. This choice is entirely pragmatic. It made more sense 30-40 years ago, when these countries provided the major input. More recently, again linked with internationalisation, other Institute Sections have played an increasingly dominant role (e.g. in Europe: Italy, Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark; in Asia: Korea, India, China, Taiwan (ROC); Canada,… I certainly don’t intend any disrespect for the very significant input they make. My justification is that including all would render the picture very confusing, it would not easily permit historical comparison back to the earliest Symposia, and so obscure my main aim of how UK combustion research is faring? 
As a footnote to this introduction, I appreciate that there are more subtle and comprehensive ways in which one might assess the health of combustion research in the UK. That would be vastly more complex and I do not have the necessary resource.
Increasing Size of the Symposia
To provide some general context, I thought it worth looking at how the Symposia have grown in size. Figure 1 demonstrates that the Symposia have grown significantly over the years, from about 100 papers initially up to 400 or more now.

The pressure to include more papers has been accommodated in a number of ways. First, the number of parallel sessions has increased. I believe the early symposia were single session. This has now grown to 4, 6 and now typically 7 parallel sessions. At the 2002 Board meeting, the suggestion was made to go even further, possibly up to 10, though this was rejected. Another suggestion (again not accepted by the Board) was to reduce paper presentation time from the current 20 minutes to 5-10. Another ploy which was used at the 32nd Symposium (Montreal) was to have some accepted papers presented as posters rather than orally, though I don’t think this was universally appreciated. This paper growth has had another consequence: since the 26th Symposium (Naples, 1996), Symposium Proceedings have been published as two-volumes.

 As noted in the Introduction, one reason for the increased symposium size is the greater input from what I have loosely and disingenuously collated as ‘other’ countries, i.e. those which played small part in the early years. This is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows a growth from essentially zero in the earliest symposia to more than 20% of all papers now.

How has UK fared over the years?
The full analysis shows a complex pattern and I have tried to present it in several ways. The first slice (Figure 2) shows the percentage of papers over the years for those countries highlighted in the Introduction, i.e. UK, US, France, Germany and Japan. Being constrained to black on white makes it a very complicated graph, but I think several points do emerge from the confusion.

The earliest symposia were essentially US/UK affairs, with an approximately 2:1 split, and little input from elsewhere. Since then the US percent has dropped from about 60% to less than 40% most recently, while the UK contribution has dropped more sharply from 33% to 6%, at Beijing. Inputs from France, Germany and Japan have all grown steadily and, ignoring inevitable fluctuations, over the last 10 symposia these three countries plus UK each lie within a 5 - 15% band.

This percentage drop in UK input is partly due to the ‘dilution’ effect of increased internationalisation. In order to try to eliminate this, I show in Figure 3 the actual number of papers (rather than %) that we have presented, again using the US as a yardstick.

This shows markedly different patterns for the two countries. The number of US papers presented has grown roughly threefold (60 to 180-ish). In contrast, we have stayed in a 20 - 40 band, though with a slight overall decrease.  

Role of China
As an aside from the main theme of the article, I was interested in the contribution from China. Until fairly recently, the Chinese combustion community has had essentially no role in the Symposia but, as Figure 4 shows, this is now changing dramatically. In the last two symposia, their number of papers has equalled, even exceeded, those from UK, France or Germany. My guess is that such growth will continue and that we will see an increasing impact.  

Academic vs. Industrial Input from UK

Some British Section members will know that I spent my working life in combustion research within British Gas (as it was when I joined). I have, therefore, been particularly interested to what extent industrial labs have contributed to the symposia. And so, in my previous analysis of symposium presentations, I examined the balance between academic and industrial papers from the UK.

I continue this here, by looking at just four symposia spread over 40 years: the 7th (1958), 12th (1968), 22nd (1988) and 32nd (2008). The pattern shows a remarkable, though perhaps not surprising, shift. Figure 5 clearly shows a steady drop in the proportion of papers from industry, from almost 31% to barely 4% now.

It is also instructive to look at those industries which contributed to the 7th Symposium: the Government labs; Rocket Propulsion Establishment ,Westcott, near Aylesbury; Explosive Research & Development, Waltham Abbey; Fire Research Establishment, Boreham Wood; National Gas Turbines Establishment, Farnborough; Coal Research Establishment, Stoke Orchard : and from private industry; Rolls Royce; Joseph Lucas; CAV ; United Steel Companies, Rotherham; Armstrong Siddeley. Many members will not remember the last of these (though I’m sure our esteemed, retiring editor will); they were luxury car makers, when cars really were cars. Anyone interested in their model range can check this link.

 (Comment by John Griffiths: Dave tantalised me with this comment. The contribution from the “Combustion Department” of A.S. to the 7th Symposium was, “A Theoretical Analysis of Multi-stage Reaction Rate Controlled Systems.” It was based on the landmark Longwell and Weiss study in an adiabatic stirred flow reactor. On a more telling note, given that the Symposium was held in London and Oxford, 21 UK companies, and the Institute of Fuel, made financial contributions to support it. I think only three of those industrial names survive today, certainly in closely related form.)

There are at least two (not exclusive) reasons for the drop in industrial input. First, symposia are increasingly dominated by fundamental research. This concern was raised at the Heidelberg Symposium (2006) by Roman Weber (previously of the International Flame Research Station in Ijmuiden, Netherlands and now at the Technical University of Clausthal (Germany). His full argument is presented in the Section Newsletter, Vol 2007-1, March 2007, but briefly he expressed two specific concerns:

  1. “The gap between combustion technology and combustion fundamentals has never been as wide as now.” I am not sure I agree with him on that. I think recent developments in e.g. diagnostics and modelling mean that we should be in a better position to start to bridge the gap. 
  2. “We are almost exclusively academic people” – meaning symposia attendees. A check of the attendance lists of recent symposia indicates this is indeed so.

If this diagnosis is correct, it inevitably follows that industry will see our symposia as increasingly irrelevant to them.

The second reason for lower industrial input from the UK is more parochial. In earlier symposia, significant input came from publicly owned energy industries: gas, electricity and coal. Their privatisation and subsequent break-up in the 1980-90s led to a substantial drop in their research activity. Members aware of my political views will know I opposed this at the time. One unfortunate but easily foreseen consequence has been the decimation of relevant combustion research. But private industry associated with combustion, with the dazzling exception of Shell Thornton up to the present, also seems to have backed away from research. And the result? In the 22nd Symposium, there was input from Shell (3 papers), British Gas and the Coal Research Establishment; in the 32nd, from Shell, BP Exploration and Johnson Matthey.

I do not see how the Section can have any impact on the second reason for industrial research decline. But I do think we could consider whether the Symposium content has become unbalanced.

I think that I’ve presented a mixed but, I hope, not too gloomy a picture. In many ways, combustion symposia continue to be huge successes. But I seriously think the Institute needs to look at what it is aimed at, i.e. more or less exclusively academically based research, or a better balance between fundamental and applied activity. And on the UK scene, perhaps the British Section should seriously consider whether it could engage more with applied/industrial combustion interests here.

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