What makes a cargo scientist?

It has been a while since I wrote something for this blog and website. In this post I will talk about my work in general terms.

You may have seen the phrase “cargo scientist” being used to describe people who work in my line of business, but where does that phrase come from and what does it mean? “Cargo scientist” is a phrase coined in recent years, possibly because there hasn’t really been a better way of describing the various aspects of the role.

In the olden days, much of the work carried out by my predecessors was in relation to grain and animal feeds – crops. There was a tendency for those who provided expert evidence in this field to be described by the legal profession who instructed them as “agronomists”. The dictionary definition of an agronomist is “an expert in the science of soil management and crop production”. That then is a fairly clear expression of something I don’t ever do! All of my work involving grains and animal feedstuffs relates to the post-harvest handling and storage of those agricultural materials. Most of it involves carriage at sea, which has some similarities but many differences to land-based storage facilities such as silos. That’s just the agricultural products.

I also provide advice on other types of commodity; coal and wood pellets, ores and minerals, fertilisers, chilled and frozen produce, edible oils and fats, chemicals, and so on; most things that can be put on a ship and carried whether in bulk or packaged into bags or drums. Then there are the more abstract topics which result in problems and disputes – cargo liquefaction, ventilation as its own topic, fumigation, sampling and analysis.

To be a good cargo scientist you need a number of things.

Firstly, you need a strong grounding in the natural sciences. Mostly the knowedge and concepts required are “A” level or early years University level in complexity, but any one case may involve knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology, applied to the various aspects in a case. Thus, as an example, deterioration of soya beans may involve microbiological growth. That requires an understanding of the lifecycle and conditions for growth of yeasts and moulds. Once parts of the stow heat, there may be a temperature gradient or condensation, considerations about which require an understanding of physics. Published data on temperature and moisture for soya beans may need to be converted from one set of units or basis to another (some maths required!). Evaluating the loss to the oil in the beans requires an understanding of the chemistry of oil hydrolysis. And so on.

I’m fortunate that my undergraduate degree course involved studying (initially) three sciences rather than specialising in one subject from the first year. This gives me a broad grounding in the fundamentals of science. I have since starting this work studied for further qualifications, and am still doing so.

Secondly, you need a wide knowledge of the types of cargo carried at sea and an understanding of what the relevant issues or problems with each are likely to be. This knowledge and experience tends to increase with time spent in the industry.

Thirdly, you need to have an analytical mind and the ability to approach unknown problems with a flexible but systematic approach. Even though I have been in this business for most of my working life, and have over 25 years’ experience in cargoes, there are still some commodities or specific tests/parameters that I experience for the first time. Being a cargo scientist means that I know how to approach unknowns and establish a way of tackling the problem and gaining the necessary background knowledge from published data or other sources.

All of these aspects of the work have one thing in common – the use of a scientific approach to explain, diagnose or predict the behaviour of cargoes on ships or in storage. Occasionally advanced or complex science/mathematics is required, but in most instances that isn’t the case. That is one reason why most cargo scientists have Ph.D degrees. It isn’t because the topic studied for the doctorate is necessarily of value to the cargo science job – it rarely is. Studying for a Ph.D involves learning how to carry out research into unfamiliar topics, and how to access and reference scientific literature – essential skills for working as a cargo scientist.

An extract from my PhD “Acoustic Wave Propagation in Ice Covered Oceans”. Nothing I have worked on in shipping involves equations like these. Thankfully!

So what do I actually do? Over the years I have worked in this industry, I have dealt with many types of cargo problem in the field as set out above. I’ve climbed ladders, shovelled mouldy grain, taken a very large number of photographs of cargoes, measured temperature on hundreds if not thousands of occasions (why temperature? – that will be the subject of a later post), watched grain flow or not flow during discharge, seen fertiliser on ships and under test in laboratories, sampled cargoes on many occasions, dealt with fires first-hand, seen liquefied bulk cargoes, tested bulk cargoes for transportable moisture limit, witnessed analysis of many different kinds, and have had numerous heated discussions with cargo receivers and surveyors!

The other part of the role of a cargo scientist is reviewing documentary evidence about a case, considering the technical aspects of it, writing expert reports, reviewing opponent expert reports and providing commentary on them, holding expert meetings, and ultimately, providing an expert witness service in Court or Arbitration proceedings (on paper or live in hearings). I have worked on a very large quantity of all aspects of these kinds of cases.

Times have changed since I first starting work in this field. We had one mobile phone for the company, and that didn’t work in most overseas countries. Many times I flew somewhere to discover on arrival that the problem wasn’t quite what the client thought it was. Now, in contrast, there are many excellent surveyors in ports worldwide (hello to any of them reading this!); they all have mobile phones with good cameras. Rather than having to wait weeks or months for a report, clients receive regular updates with photographs or even video footage. From the UK I am able to direct matters remotely, holding video calls when I need to see things myself. The sequence of lockdowns and travel restrictions during the height of the COVID pandemic showed the world that it was possible to investigate and resolve many matters without being able to fly experts around the world. For many cases now, the huge costs of someone travelling out to a vessel are simply not required.

I knew when setting up Sheard Scientific as a new entity that there was plenty of room in the market for a new organisation offering cargo scientist expertise. That has been the case for as long as I have worked in this field – many years ago the field was dominated by Dr RF Milton & Partners, later Jarrett Kirman & Willems, but there were a substantial number of individuals specialising in one type of cargo or another to service the clients’ requirements for independent organisations to instruct. There are fewer such independent indviduals operating today – the expertise has become concentrated in a very small number of firms worldwide, some of which are owned by larger entities.

There is, in my view, no substitute for genuinely independent scientifically-based expertise coupled with vast experience in the field and in providing expert evidence. That is what we offer.

What makes a cargo scientist?
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