Professor David Butler

Published on: 29 January 2016

Professor David Butler is a leading authority in water engineering and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He is a Professor of water engineering, in the College of Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences, in addition to being the co-director of the Centre for Water Systems.

We spoke to Professor Butler about his career and what it means to be elected to the Royal Academy in a ceremony, which was held at Drapers’ Hall, and was attended by Prince Phillip and Princess Anne.

Congratulations on being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering can you tell us a bit more about the academy?

The Royal Academy of Engineering is the senior engineering body, in the UK. The academy has about 1,500 members and, as a professional engineer, you join by invitation only. It can be a lengthy procedure, as the current fellows look at all your work and you are elected only by unanimous vote. At the end of this process, you’re either accepted to join the academy or you’re not. About 50 people a year are invited to join the academy; I was fortunate to be one of the successful candidates.

The academy is for all the different strands of engineering, it sits above all the institutions which focus on specific branches of engineering; this is in tune with the way we approach the subject at the University of Exeter, where we have a general engineering department.

Do you think having mix of engineering disciplines benefits your work?

Initially, I didn’t think it would be a benefit; my previous position was in a very traditional engineering department, I found moving into a cross-disciplinary structure a bit disconcerting. But now, I am fully signed up to this way of working. So much of what we’re doing, and the way in which we work, we have in common – I’m very much in favour of a combined engineering department.

Professor Butler received his Fellowship from Prince Philip.

How did it feel, when you found out you had been elected to the academy?

I felt quite honoured because there are relatively few people in the academy; it’s a recognition of your work as an engineer.

Being elected to the academy is an acknowledgement, not only of the work you’ve done personally, but the work of the people around you. I am keen to spread the glory. Inevitably, your research is built on the work of your colleagues, researchers, and students.

Can you tell me about your current research?

I am, currently, fortunate enough to have an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) research fellowship; it’s a five year fellowship and I’ve just gone over the half way point. The title of this research project is Safe and SuRe and it’s a new paradigm in water management.

You might wonder what ‘safe and sure’ means in water management; my argument is that, if you look at water engineering education and practice we have been taught to design our systems to be safe and reliable – and there’s nothing wrong with that; however, looking to the future, we have a lot of threats lining up – like climate change, population growth, and our ageing society – which make us ask: ‘Can our water systems cope with all that?’ and the answer is that they are already creaking.

So, my idea is that we not only need to be safe but we need to be SuRe – Sustainable and Resilient. And, the way in which I look at it is to ask: How can we design our systems so that they’re not only failsafe but safe to fail?

We are looking at what happens when the system fails, how do you make sure that the failure’s not too bad, and what can we do to make sure you can quickly get back to a full service afterwards?

We’ve been using computer models to look at all of the ‘what ifs’ of potential water system failures: What if your water distribution system failed? What if one pipe broke? What if two broke? What if 100 broke? Then we can come up with ways to manage these situations to minimise the consequences of failure.

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