Case study: Professor José Torero

BRE/RAE Chair in Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh


What are your research areas?

I try to bring fire safety into buildings. I am often engaged in very public failures. One of the biggest things I have been involved with was the collapse of the World Trade Centre.

What kind of public engagement are you involved in?

I have been involved in a number of public engagement activities. A major one was being involved in the BBC Horizon programme looking at how to prevent what happened at the World Trade Centre. I work with TV, radio, government groups and fire services. I mainly have contact, or do public engagement, with fire safety specialists. Many people have opinions about fire but it not always a technical view.

What were your first steps into public engagement?

I had just finished my PhD and felt that nobody was interested in my topic area and discovered that it was because people already thought that they knew about it. To make my work relevant I needed to inform people what the facts were. I managed to give short talks to the Society of Fire Protection Engineers despite never being invited, but it was an audience I needed to address. I took it down to a level where my technical work actually had relevance to them. I then went to work within fire safety at NASA, and wrote a number of newspaper articles.

How has your public engagement affected your research?

It is a balancing act. Being involved in public engagement comes naturally with the subject, for example if there is an accident. In that case you don’t always necessarily want to engage with them. Working on the Horizon show, it can be a subject dominated by emotions and can be difficult to get people to portray the technical view, and it took a lot of time and effort to get this. What came out of the show was that it was realised that there is little knowledge in this area. The building collapsed because it was badly designed, which has resulted in more research topics and PhD’s.

What support did you receive for your public engagement?

I had no training, but was brought in by necessity. I would have liked some media training in how to deal with journalists. I would have also liked help in how to differentiate between technical terms and how to translate them into layman’s terms, and also how to deal with government committee politics.

How have you funded your public engagement?

I have always funded any public engagement internally through payments from consultancy fees etc. It is difficult to get grants solely for engagement with the public and I feel it will continue this way. We know we do need to engage more with the public, but I think we already do. The news is full of academics sharing knowledge. It is not only about educating academics, but need to also focus on giving academics a platform to engage and the means to educate the public.

How has public engagement helped or hindered your career progression?

It has enabled it. When I finished my PhD I felt nobody was interested in the topic. I have been able to convince people that issues have not been solved; this is down to public engagement.

How much time do you spend on public engagement?

I normally get about 30-40 calls a year to talk about something negative. I don’t answer these any more after having bad experiences being misquoted. I try instead to be proactive with good stories on how to do things right; to highlight the achievements of engineers and push research.
You need to balance what the media, journalists, want with highlighting what the achievements were. The problem with a lot of disasters is you get the call without having enough detailed information. There are certain situations where you need to say what has gone wrong.