Robert James Mair

Presentation address by Professor Denise Bower


Like all good engineers, past and present, Robert Mair – Professor Lord Mair – is an innovator and a revolutionary.  Inspirational in applying academic expertise to real life practice and problems, he has been driven by an ambition to transform lives by transforming infrastructure;  indeed, this was the theme of his address when he was inaugurated as the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers last year.

Robert was born in Manchester and moved to Cambridge as a young child when his father became a Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University.  Robert read his first degree in Engineering at Cambridge and secured his PhD there in 1979.  Subsequently, he worked almost continuously in industry for nearly 30 years before returning to Cambridge in 1998 as its Professor of Geotechnical Engineering.  In October 2017 he became Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering and Director of Research.  He was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1992, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007;  and he has been an independent crossbencher in the House of Lords since 2015.

Robert began his campaign to transform infrastructure with a focus deep in the ground.  He was responsible for the introduction of compensation grouting in the UK as a novel technique for controlling settlement of structures during tunnel construction – on the Waterloo Escalator Tunnel Project.  The technique was widely used on the Jubilee Line Extension Project for the protection of many historic buildings, including the Big Ben Clock Tower at the Palace of Westminster – even though Robert did spot the business opportunities that might flow from a leaning tower in the middle of London!

He has provided advice on numerous projects world-wide involving soft ground tunnelling, retaining structures, deep excavations and foundations.  Recent international projects have included railway tunnels in the cities of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bologna, Florence, Rome, Singapore and Warsaw, and motorway tunnels in Turkey.

More recently, Robert has raised his sights above ground, challenging his profession to create ‘smart infrastructure’ – to use new sensor technology in such a way that buildings, bridges and tunnels are able to respond intelligently to changes in their environment, telling us how they are performing and when they need renovation or maintenance, in much the same way as a car now tells us when its oil pressure gets too low.  All of this reflects Robert’s determination to deploy innovative ideas from universities and from the profession for wider societal benefit. 

Vice-Chancellor, I am personally honoured to present to you for the degree of Doctor of Science (Engineering), honoris causa, Robert James Mair.