Tag Archives: PhD

Slicing the cake equally or engineering justice

Decorative photograph of sliced chocolate cakeIn support of the research being performed by one of the PhD students that I am supervising, I have been reading about ‘energy justice’.  Energy justice involves the equitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of the production and consumption of energy, including the fair treatment of individuals and communities when making decisions about energy.  At the moment our research is focussed on the sharing of the burdens associated with energy production and ways in which digital technology might improve decision-making processes.  Justice incorporates the distribution of rights, liberties, power, opportunities, and money – sometimes known as ‘primary goods’.  The theory of justice proposed by the American philosopher, John Rawls in the 1970’s is a recurring theme: that these primary goods should be distributed in a manner a hypothetical person would choose, if, at the time, they were ignorant of their own status in society.  In my family, this is the principle we use to divide cakes and other goodies equally between us, i.e., the person slicing the cake is the last person to take a slice.  While many in society overlook the inequalities and injustices that sustain their privileged positions, I believe that engineers have a professional responsibility to work towards the equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of engineering on the individuals and communities, i.e., ‘engineering justice’ [see ‘Where science meets society‘ on September 2nd, 2015].  This likely involves creating a more diverse engineering profession which is better equipped to generate engineering solutions that address the needs of the whole of our global society [see ‘Re-engineering engineering‘ on August 30th, 2017].  However, it also requires us to rethink our decision-making processes to achieve  ‘engineering justice’.  There is a clear and close link to ‘procedure justice’ and ‘fair process’ [see ‘Advice to abbots and other leaders‘ November 13th, 2019] which involves listening to people, making a decision, then explaining the decision to everyone concerned.  In our research, we are interested in how digital environments, including digital twins and industrial metaverses, might enable wider and more informed involvement in decision-making about major engineering infrastructure projects, with energy as our starting point.


Derbyshire J, Justice, fairness and why Rawls still matters today, FT Weekend, April 20th, 2023.

MacGregor N, How to transcend the culture wars, FT Weekend, April 29/30th, 2023.

Rawls J, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 1971

Sovacool BK & Dworkin MH, Global Energy Justice: Problems, Principles and Practices, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Image: https://www.alsothecrumbsplease.com/air-fryer-chocolate-cake/

Reasons I became an engineer: #2

Decorative photograph showning the entrance to the Engineering Faculty at the University of SheffieldThis is the second in a series of posts reflecting on my route to becoming an engineer.  In the first one I described how I chose a degree in mechanical engineering so that I would have appreciation of the technical difficulties that engineers might cite when requesting operational changes for a ship that I hoped one day to command [see ‘Reasons I became an engineer: #1’ on April 19th, 2023].  I think I selected mechanical engineering because it provided a broader engineering education than other engineering degrees and I did not know enough to choose any other branch of engineering.  I went to the University of Sheffield and during vacations returned to the Royal Navy serving onboard HMS Active and flew out to join her wherever she was in the world, except when I went to the Royal Navy Engineering College at Manadon outside Plymouth to undertake engineering applications training.  I cast a brass nameplate, which I still have in my office, and made a toolbox that I also still have at home.  After graduation, I returned full-time to the Royal Navy as a sub-lieutenant and started my career as a naval officer in the executive or seaman branch.  However, I did not settle and missed engineering so I asked for and was refused a transfer to the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors who work on the design and development of warships.  As a result, I resigned my commission in the Royal Navy and got a job as a research assistant in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield where I registered for a PhD in engineering.  I had taken a positive step towards becoming an engineer but perhaps on the premise of what I did not want to do rather than what I did want to do.

Reliable predictions of non-Newtonian flows of sludge

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I have been working for many years on validation processes for computational models of structures employed in a wide range of sectors, including aerospace engineering [see ‘The blind leading the blind’ on May 27th, 2020] and nuclear energy [see ‘Million to one’ on November 21st, 2018].  Validation is determining the extent to which predictions from a model are representative of behaviour in the real-world [see ‘Model validation’ on September 18th, 2012].  More recently, I have been working on model credibility, which is the willingness of people, besides the modeller, to use the predictions from models in decision-making [see, for example, ‘Credible predictions for regulatory decision-making’ on December 9th, 2020].  I have started to consider the complex world of predictive modelling of fluid flow and I am hoping to start a collaboration with a new colleague on the flow of sludges.  Sludges are more common than you might think but we are interested in modelling the flow of waste, both wastewater (sewage) and nuclear wastes.  We have a PhD studentship available sponsored jointly by the GREEN CDT and the National Nuclear Laboratory.  The project is interdisciplinary in two dimensions because it will combine experiments and simulations as well as uniting ideas from solid mechanics and fluid mechanics.  The integration of concepts and technologies across these boundaries brings a level of adventure to the project which will be countered by building on well-established research in solid mechanics on quantitative comparisons of measurements and predictions and by employing current numerical and experimental work on wastewater sludges.  If you are interested or know someone who might want to join our research then you can find out more here.

Image: Sewage sludge disposal in Germany: Andrea Roskosch / UBA

Reasons for publishing scientific papers

A few months ago I wrote about how we are drowning in information as a result of the two million papers published in journals every year [see ‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. As someone who has published about 10 papers each year for the last couple of decades, including three this year already, I feel I should provide some explanation for continuing to contribute to the deluge of papers. I think there are four main reasons for publishing scientific papers. First, to report a discovery – a new contribution to knowledge or understanding.  This is the primary requirement for publication in a scientific journal but the significance of the contribution is frequently diminished both by the publisher’s and author’s need to publish which leads to many papers in which it is hard to identify the original contribution. The second reason is to fulfil the expectations or requirements of a funding agency (including your employer); I think this was probably the prime driver for my first paper which reported the results of a survey of muskoxen in Greenland conducted during an expedition in 1982. The third reason is to support a promotion case, either your own or one of your co-authors; of course, this is not incompatible with the reporting original contributions to knowledge but it can be a driver towards small contributions, especially when promotion committees consider only the quantity and not the quality of published papers. The fourth reason is to support the careers of members of the research team; in some universities it is impossible to graduate with a PhD degree in science and engineering without publishing a couple of papers, although most supervisors encourage PhD students to publish their work in at least one paper before submitting their PhD thesis, even when it is not compulsory. Post-doctoral researchers have a less urgent need to publish unless they are planning an academic career in which case they will need a more impressive publication record than their competitors. Profit is the prime reason for most publishers to publish papers.  Publishers make more money when they sell more journals with more papers in them which drives the launch of new journals and the filling of journals with more papers; this process is poorly moderated by the need to ensure the papers are worth reading.  It might be an urban myth, but some studies have suggested that half of published papers are read only by their editor and authors.  Thirty years ago, my PhD supervisor, who was also my mentor during my early career as an academic, already suspected this lack of readers and used to greet the news of the publication of each of my papers as ‘more stuffing for your chair’.


Patterson, E.A., 1984, ‘Sightings of Muskoxen in Northern Scoresby Land, Greenland’, Arctic, 37(1): 61-63

Rose Eveleth, Academics write papers arguing over how many people read (and cite) their papers, Smithsonian Magazine, March 25th, 2014.

Image: Hannes Grobe, AWI, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.