Contract Research - Researching Real Industrial Issues

     
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By Neil Harris

Some researchers prefer to tangle with academic issues, others find applying their skills to solve real practical problems for government, industry and business more attractive. While some companies have their own research and development departments many rely on specialist organisations that undertake contract research to assist their investigations. Organisations with research and development departments often don't have the expertise or staffing required to complete short term projects. Instead of recruiting additional staff for a new project they often outsource their research to a contract research organisation.

A group of thirty five such organisations, members of the Association of Independent Research and Technology Organisations (www.AIRTO.org.uk), offer services of this kind. Each tends to focus on a particular industry and often has a membership of companies that support its research. In addition to scientific and technological research these organisations also provide training and a range of information services, such as legal requirements or market research. Together they employ around 20,000 scientists, engineers and mathematicians and have a turnover in excess of £1.5 billion.

Research activities of AIRTO members cover a very broad range. Several specialise in researching food and drinks. Campden & Chorley Wood Food Research Association (CCFRA) employs 330 staff and studies everything from the agricultural source of food through to its manufacture, distribution and sale. Leatherhead Food International, with 200 staff and 1000 industrial members globally, offers confidential and collaborative research in areas such as process design, safety and the avoidance of food contamination. Currently it is investigating the role of proteins and peptides in gut health. There are jobs for research microbiologists and analytical chemists, microscopists, home economists and experts in food management systems based on hazard analysis critical control points.

Types of research

Angus Knight came to Leatherhead Food International with postdoctoral research experience in microbiology. 'My expertise is in winning government funding for large projects and managing the teams that are engaged on them', say Angus. ‘One recent investigation was to seek ways of reducing fat in foods and another was research into viruses commonly found in foods. Patience is essential because completing each project can take up to four years'.

Readers who enjoy a wee dram will benefit from the activities of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. Its 20 researchers, on the campus of Herriot Watt University, investigate everything from the raw materials distillers use through to the maturation and bottling of this delightful product. They also provide analytical services to the industry. Brewing Research International, another AIRTO member, concentrates on the brewing industry and is in the process of merging with CCFRA.

For teetotallers, or to be precise drinkers of cocoa, there is Cocoa Research UK, which has funded research at Aberystwyth and Reading Universities, including investigations aimed at reducing the effects of ‘Witches Broom Disease', a major problem for their growers.

Practical research

MIRA, with 400 staff at Nuneaton, investigates vehicle design and development for car and vehicle manufacturers. It boasts the world's leading automotive test facility and provides services to companies in the automotive industry at 11 centres around the globe. Those with careers at MIRA include electronic engineers, vehicle design and development engineers and test technicians. They provide product engineering, testing, research and information services for their members.

HR Wallingford is involved in researching water distribution, sewerage, river management and coastal engineering, subjects that are gaining increasing prominence due to the dramatic changes in weather conditions we have all been experiencing. With a staff of 260 and a turnover of £20 million it specialises in contract and consultancy work for governments and the water industry.

Solving the Earth's problems

Caroline McGahey, a researcher at HR Wallingford, completed a degree in civil engineering and an MSc in hydraulics at Cape Town University before joining them to study flooding here in the UK. ‘My first project', says Caroline, ‘was to investigate rivers and the quantity of water they can carry. Writing innovative software to model river beds, I developed techniques that help DEFRA to know when flooding will occur'. Caroline worked with staff at the University of Birmingham and the Open University to complete this research and gain a PhD in the process. This research was also sponsored the Scottish Executive and the Northern Ireland Rivers Agency. Its results have been used as part of a system to map potential flooding in all three countries. ‘A key attraction to being involved in this kind of research', says Caroline, ‘is that you see what you have done being put into practice and being extremely useful'.

For those with a keen interest in materials there is Smithers RAPRA in Shropshire, which is focused on assisting the rubber and plastics industry and TWI at Cambridge. Both enjoy extensive laboratory facilities. Smithers RAPRA investigates the processing of rubber and plastics and the design of these materials for specific uses. It completes over 2000 confidential projects every year for its industry members. Among recent work is the development of a technique for reducing the energy required in polymer processing using carbon dioxide as a plasticizing agent.

TWI Ltd in Cambridge is a research and technology organisation for welding and joining, working with metals, ceramics, plastics and composites. It offers non-destructive testing, failure investigations, a range of welding and joining techniques and much more. Researchers include materials scientists, chemists, metallurgists and engineers. Helen Goddin joined TWI after they had sponsored her PhD in Materials Science at the University of Cambridge. ‘My PhD was in micro joining technology', says Helen, ‘and I frequently used TWI's facilities. After my PhD I applied to TWI and was appointed a project leader in the Microtechnology section where I am involved with a broad range of projects and joining technologies. The job involves laboratory-based research, desk-based work for writing proposals and reports, and visiting clients. I enjoy the variety of work, exposure to new technology, and the interaction with businesses. I am working towards Chartered Engineering status and aim to achieve this within the next three years'.

We would all like homes and offices that consume less energy, reducing our carbon footprint as well as costs. Six hundred engineers and scientists at BRE, previously the Building Research Establishment, at Watford are heavily involved in this endeavour. Their work includes modelling the energy efficiency of buildings and their thermal performance in addition to many other researches for the construction industry.

We have only scratched the surface here. Readers with a keen interest in solving industrial problems but a preference to work with many clients rather than on the problems of just one firm can investigate lots of other opportunities on the AIRTO web site, and find research opportunities on jobs.ac.uk.

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