Chemical Engineers Aim to Help Parliament

Fellowship program should enhance analysis of science and technology issues.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Chemical engineering should play a definite role in the new U.K. coalition government's science and technology strategy following the launch of the Ashok Kumar Commemorative Fellowship.

The fellowship, to be awarded annually from 2011, will enable a postgraduate researcher in chemical engineering to spend three months at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), a body charged with providing balanced and independent analyses of science- and technology-based issues.

The North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC), Sunderland, and the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Rugby, are sponsoring the fellowship. Leaders of the process industries created NEPIC to provide a mechanism for intimate collaboration between companies; IChemE is a professional body representing over 30,000 chemical engineers worldwide. Their joint fellowship commemorates the life of Ashok Kumar, who died suddenly in March at the age of 53.

In 1997 Kumar became the first and only chemical engineer elected to the 650-seat House of Commons. He served as a Labour-Party Member of Parliament (MP) for the Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland constituency in northeast England, which is a major center of the chemical industry in the country.

A researcher will spend three months at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

Kumar received a B.Sc. in chemical engineering from Aston University, Birmingham, in 1978. He followed this with a M.Sc. in process analysis and control theory, and then a Ph.D. in fluid mechanics, both from Aston. His doctoral thesis addressed "velocity distributions in a plate heat exchanger." Kumar became a research fellow at Imperial College London, before moving to British Steel in northeast England. He spent 14 years there working as a research scientist at the company's Teesside Technology Centre — close to where he eventually was elected MP. This long experience in industrial R&D led to his strong conviction that it should be at the heart of the country's economy.

Speaking to IChemE's magazine The Chemical Engineer in 2005, Kumar highlighted the importance of his technical background: "I am very proud to be a chemical engineer, when people ask me what I do I always say I'm a chemical engineer first... Chemical engineers learn how to think analytically, to be objective and rational in whatever situation you are facing, and to be ruthless with assumptions. It has stood me in very good stead."

The successful Ashok Kumar Commemorative Fellowship candidate will be expected to produce a short briefing paper, contribute to a longer report, or assist in the inquiry of a select committee [one devoted to a particular topic] that relates to chemical engineering or the process industries. The actual topic of the fellowship ultimately will be determined by POST — taking into account the interests of the fellow and the relevance and timeliness of the particular subject to Parliament.

In addition, the successful candidate will have the opportunity to interact with other POST fellows and their work on policies grounded in different areas of science and technology. In previous years, such topics have included lighting technology, environmental noise, and smart materials and systems.

The fellowship is open to researchers with postgraduate qualifications as well as postgraduate students in engineering or other disciplines related to the chemical and process industries. The sponsors are encouraging applications particularly from candidates who work in the process industries and who are from or live in Kumar's part of northeast England.

As part of the fellowship, the successful applicant — if still a student — will receive a three-month extension of postgraduate funding or the equivalent. IChemE and NEPIC will make arrangements to reimburse the additional costs to the university to ensure its stipend will continue to be paid while the person is based at POST. During that time, POST will supply computing, email and other facilities necessary for the project.

"IChemE is delighted to support the fellowship. It will help to improve political understanding of the value of engineering and vice versa. This is a fitting tribute and I know that Ashok would have approved," notes IChemE director of policy Andrew Furlong.


Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

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