Opinion: Paddy Conaghan

Opinion panning for gold Research that could improve building performance is being lost to construction for want of a method to disseminate it. Paddy Conaghan says professional institutions can help close this knowledge gap Paddy Conaghan FCIBSE is a consultant with Hoare Lea The 2014 REF rated 90% of the research carried out by the University of Baths department of architecture and civil engineering as either world-leading or internationally excellent The UKs builtenvironment research is a huge seam of gold for which weve already paid but which we are not mining! Why? The past 12 months have been an eye-opener for me. I spent much of it reading research papers, as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) built environment panel. As one of the panels few non-academics, it was a pretty daunting prospect. In total, we looked at 3,900 research outputs five years worth each of which had to be double-read and scored against strict criteria laid down by the Higher Education Funding Council. My share was more than 300 papers, and a further 100 or so other academic submissions. I started off sceptical and prejudiced, reasoning that research must be largely irrelevant and esoteric because so little of it ever reaches those of us in practice. The reality was totally different, and the experience was transformational. The range of subjects was immense, even among the papers chosen for me, which amounted to less than 10% of the total. Many were cross-discipline collaborations and not just between construction professions; they stretched into fields such as medicine, epidemiology, sociology, material science and well, you name it! About 60 of the outputs I read would offer novel and important knowledge in practice for example, key insights on many causes of the performance gap, which are not well evidenced or understood outside of academia. Worryingly, about half of these papers covered urgently-needed knowledge. There was a group that dealt with the effects on city dwellers of inappropriate building forms, urban heat islands, and climate change and that predicted increasing levels of heat stress and related deaths. Then there was another group of papers that dealt with mitigation measures. As a reader of CIBSE Journal, youll doubtless be aware of some of these issues from the magazines far-sighted coverage in 2014. However, not much key academic work was featured. It seems clients and the construction professions may be rolling out urban flats that are destined to become death traps, because we know no better. The recently published results of the REF built environment panel rated nearly 30% of the outputs as world-leading. A further 40% were of international excellence in terms of their originality, significance and rigour. This stream of research comes at a cost of about 220m in the five-year REF period, and is largely funded by UK taxpayers. So the countrys built-environment research is a huge seam of gold for which weve already paid but which we are not mining! Why? Because there is a difficult-to-bridge gap between the academic and practice communities. Academic papers are not easy reading, and which practice has time to sift through 800 of them every year even if they knew where to look? It seems to me that this gap is the natural domain of our professional institutions and Im not alone. In 2014, Paul Morrell chaired the Edge Commission on Future Professionalism. A recurrent theme in the inquirys consultations was whether the institutions discharged the role of learned societies; weak links to research communities were particularly noted. Im not looking to make our institutions whipping boys for a wider dysfunctionality in which we all share some blame. However, if much of the $40m of annual research output is not reaching its prime audience an industry noted for its poor research record the loss of this world-leading knowledge is doubly frustrating. There is a clear incentive for research universities to be involved in dissemination because this would be an impact, which is valued when it comes to research funding. However, the construction institutions need to help bridge the gap because they alone can reach 450,000 professionals. As a practitioner, I know that reproducing raw research papers would be about as welcome as a double Dutch version of Kakfas Trial. However, if the institutions sifted the 800 papers produced each year to identify 50-100 of the most important, then grouped them into, say, 20 themes and reported the key findings as a two-pager published quarterly as a digest this would provide five key insights, four times a year. I could deal with that! These digests could also offer institutions a new annual subscription stream from firms, rather than from individuals. Its a win-win situation; it satisfies an urgent need for research dissemination, while simultaneously creating a new income opportunity. The 2015 CIBSE Technical Symposium, which encourages industry practitioners, researchers and building users to share experiences and develop networks, will be held at University College London on 16 & 17 April. For more details, visit www.cibse.org/technical-symposium-2015/about