25 March 2015 16:39

A Lancaster University academic has been singled out in an international science journal for his far-reaching impact work on ship hatch designs.

The weekly journal, Nature, has selected just 12 impact case studies for publication following the recent Research Excellence Framework (REF), a rigorous assessment of research work undertaken by British universities.

The 12 have been picked, to showcase the importance of research for society, from 6,975 impact case studies submitted by 154 universities, whose research was assessed.

Statistician Professor Jonathan Tawn’s work focused on the sinking of the MV Derbyshire more than 30 years ago and was critical in determining the conclusions of the High Court’s investigation into the tragedy.

The oil tanker, the largest British ship to have been lost at sea, sank when she ran into a typhoon off the south coast of Japan. All 42 crew members and two of their wives lost their lives.

Professor Tawn’s research identified that design standards for the strength of hatch covers of certain ocean-going carriers needed to be increased by 35%.

The new level was set as a worldwide mandatory standard in 2004. During the REF census period, the change has impacted on the design of 1720 new carriers and strengthening for the 5830 carriers currently in service.

There have been no sinkings of ocean-going bulk carriers since the new design standards were introduced. Based on past evidence, more than 100 such sinkings would have been expected in the same period.

The improved safety record provided substantial benefits for the shipping industry, insurers and governments.

Professor Tawn was appointed the sole expert by the court to deal with statistical issues. Working with a team of Lancaster University statisticians, he provided the entire statistical methodology and analysis for the study to develop new design standards.

Professor Tawn explained: “It is really pleasing to have contributed to such important work and also great that the REF review has identified this work as world-leading. Lancaster has a long-tradition of excelling in statistical innovation in response to a wide range of substantive applications and so we are really pleased to see this is reflected in the REF outcome. Impact is at the core of our training of students as well, which is key to the recent award of £6.3M funding for the STOR-i Centre for Doctoral Training.”

The REF is a method of assessing the research of British higher education institutions. It took place in 2014 to assess research carried out during the period 2008–2013 inclusive. Lancaster’s Mathematics and Statistics Department came third in the REF in terms of impact and fifth overall. The department submitted three impact case studies.