Good Vibrations – EPSRC's outgoing Executive Chair Philip Nelson reflects on his time in office

Posted by Professor Phil Nelson on 27 September 2018

A dedicated team

Shortly after taking up my role of Chief Executive of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) I was asked, as an ‘outsider’, what was my perception of the organisation? The answer I gave then has only been strengthened by my experiences over the last five and half years.

Prior to joining EPSRC, I knew the organisation reasonably well. I was Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Southampton and a member of the old EPSRC “user panel”, where I was the academic voice among industrialists so I had already been exposed to policy discussions.  I could see that the organisation was very well run and staffed by dedicated people who had built up a wealth of knowledge about the research portfolio and community. I was also aware of the demand management issues the organisation faced and had been closely involved with colleagues at the university to ensure our academic staff were engaged and involved in giving sensible responses to those challenges.

When I took over, I found that EPSRC is indeed a very sound organisation with well-organised processes and systems. But it is also hugely responsive; I have found that people will go that extra mile, change the way they do things, and rally around when things get difficult. Like all good teams it has a fine blend of wise experience and youthful enthusiasm and has real strength in depth. It can call on the deep knowledge of staff who have spent their careers in the research funding arena as well as the bright new talent of early career members who add fresh ideas and experiences.

The evolution of UK Research and Innovation

Looking back, it is hugely gratifying to reflect on the experiences the role has given me, not least taking up the Chair of Research Councils UK’s CEO group in October 2015. This role provided a unique opportunity to respond to the review by Sir Paul Nurse, and through working with the other research council CEOs, we managed to influence the agenda and ensure that the formation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) went smoothly while retaining many of the excellent features of EPSRC and the other councils.  I think we have taken the academic community with us and it is hugely encouraging to see the increases in funding for UK Research and Innovation, for multidisciplinary research and for connecting research and innovation.

From EPSRC’s perspective I think it is particularly important to make the interface with Innovate UK work since so much of our portfolio leads naturally into the innovation space. I am really pleased to see the way that is evolving. Our collaborations in schemes like the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund are enabling us to work closely together and ensure that research makes an impact at a national level.

Experiencing amazing research

My overriding memory of my time at EPSRC will be having the privilege of seeing at first hand some of the amazing research taking place at our universities, and of meeting so many hugely talented people. I have witnessed what is probably the coldest place in the universe at a physics lab at Lancaster University; and I have been somewhere as hot as the Sun at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in leafy Oxfordshire; I have also experienced the power of the oceans recreated at the University of Edinburgh’s FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility, which features a 2.4 million-litre water tank capable of synthesising wave conditions at sea.

I have been hugely impressed by new advances in robotic surgery at Imperial College London; by research into next-generation 5G communications at the University of Bristol, and by exciting technologies being developed at our quantum hubs, such as super-sensitive gravimeters which could help predict earthquakes.

Freedom to discover

EPSRC invests in such a broad range of fields from nanotechnology to heavy duty construction, quantum technologies to robotics, and of course we continue to place great emphasis on funding the investigative research that is so essential for us to make new discoveries and move science and technology forward. Our Outcomes framework has been a useful tool in communicating what EPSRC does, providing a good way of describing our long-term objectives and explaining them to government and other stakeholders.

The four outcomes describe most of our portfolio pretty well, but what they do not capture so easily is the underpinning research that will not so obviously help the nation in the short term to become healthier, connected, resilient or productive. Look back over history and many of the advances made have come as a result of giving dedicated people the freedom, time and space to exercise their curiosity and explore new ideas. It is really important to EPSRC that we continue to back really talented people to follow their intuition. There is no doubt in my mind that if you invest in excellent science and engineering you will get better outcomes. EPSRC’s commitment to fundamental research is something I and our Council have always strongly supported.

That said, I think that the culture in the academic community has changed enormously during my career. When I first started in the 1980s, at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR) there was already a philosophy in the Institute of blending a deep understanding of the subject with the solution of practical problems, and it is arguable that this culture and approach was ahead of its time.

However, I have seen that view spread much more widely now. When visiting universities I have seen that there is a genuine recognition of the need to engage with both business and the public to explain how public money is being spent, and to ensure that discovery science is pulled through into innovation. EPSRC’s latest Prosperity Partnerships are a really good example of how much industry values the fundamental research expertise in our universities and is prepared to add real financial support to government backed investment. These are great examples of how a broader world view is being adopted by both the academic and business communities.

A bright future

I feel immensely privileged to have been EPSRC’s Chief Executive. As my time here draws to a close and a new Executive Chair, Lynn Gladden, takes the reins, I can look forward and say confidently that EPSRC has a bright future within UK Research and Innovation. It is still in very good shape and has managed to adapt to the new environment while retaining its core strengths. In many ways, it can help set much of the agenda and many of the aspirations for the future of UK Research and Innovation, where so much emphasis is being given to scaling up research and innovation across the UK. As ever, there is change and this can be stressful and challenging but in some ways that is what science and engineering is all about, and we must be prepared to experiment and challenge orthodoxy. That requires energy and enthusiasm as well as dedication and I am sure that the staff of EPSRC have all these qualities and some more.

What next?

Quite a few people have asked what I plan to do next and, to be honest, I have to say I have not had a lot of time to think about it, but I do want to return to research, so I am going back to my former research group in the ISVR at the University of Southampton, where I have maintained my links during my tenure at EPSRC, although I found it difficult to contribute much during that period, especially after having taken on the RCUK role.

But I think I can safely say that for EPSRC and myself, as the Beach Boys sang, ‘I’m picking up good vibrations.’

Best wishes to all.

Phil

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Phil Nelson
Job title: Chief Executive Officer
Department: Executive Leadership Team
Organisation: Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council