6 ISSUES FOR JUST £6 Subscribe to Business & Professional Life today CLICK HERE

Big CEO Interview: Sir Adrian Smith - Diamond Light Source

PUBLISHED: 16:12 20 February 2015 | UPDATED: 16:12 20 February 2015

Sir Adrian Smith

Sir Adrian Smith


The new chairman of Diamond Light Source, one of the world’s most advanced scientific facilities, gets vocal about the value of research to the UK economy.

Sir Adrian SmithSir Adrian Smith

Meet Professor Sir Adrian Smith. Chairman of Diamond Light Source, Vice Chancellor of the University of London, and from 2008-2012 Director General for Science and Research within the Government Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

This Cambridge-educated mathematician, who went on to specialise in statistics and risk, would seem the perfect person to bang the drum for science and research investment, both at the heart of Government and globally, because he knows probably better than most how research investment can add value to the UK economy.

“There’s an old canard that says the UK is great at research but not good at translating it into actual innovative products,” he says. “Not true. We are first or second in the world in terms of research and research efficiency. If not us, it’s the USA but in terms of value for money research investment, we are right at the top. We are also in the top five in OECD studies on innovation for translating research into innovation, which contributes direct value into the UK economy.”

Diamond Light Source is the UK’s national synchrotron science facility, located at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire. It is one of the most advanced scientific facilities in the world, and its pioneering capabilities help keep the UK at the forefront of scientific research.

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that accelerates electrons up to very high speeds producing very bright beams of light. Each year, thousands of research scientists across a wide range of disciplines including structural biology, energy, engineering, nanoscience and environmental sciences use the facility, which opened in 2007. Diamond now has 24 beamlines with plans to open another nine over the next few years.

“We want to exploit the facility to the full,” says Sir Adrian. “Our beamlines are regularly over subscribed but we want to attract the best science here and to reach out to those parts of the scientific community who might not know what they can achieve using the synchrotron.”

For three decades after graduating from university, Sir Adrian worked across the UK, including at Nottingham and Oxford universities and at Imperial College, setting up and structuring maths departments. He also undertook work as a consultant in medicine and forensic science, largely in the pharmaceutical industry.

In 1998 he became Principal of Queen Mary University where, over ten years, he significantly boosted its research role. “It was also fantastically exciting to be part of the regeneration of East London,” he adds.

Then he was spotted by central Government and was invited to become a senior civil servant in science and research. If he thought the role of a civil servant would be an easy gig, he was wrong. “I started in September 2008, the day the world economy went into a nosedive.”

The next four years were a roller coaster, working at the centre of Government during probably the greatest upheaval of higher education funding the UK has ever seen. Sir Adrian was tasked with implementing the changes needed to move from the old university grant-funding system to the current student loans. “There was a lot of misunderstanding,” he says. “It’s an incredibly generous loan scheme, and the country’s mass higher education funding scheme was unsustainable. “Keeping the old system would have meant 20-30% fewer students being able to go to university so in terms of aspiration and the national need for higher-level skills, that wouldn’t have been a clever idea. Maybe this is the best solution, given the state of the nation’s finances.”

What the scheme has certainly done is keep the level of money flowing into the universities, and that’s important because they are the national powerhouses of research, which drives the knowledge economy and creates inward investment into the UK.

Has investment in research increased over the last five years? Sir Adrian says no.

“At the time of the coalition’s spending review, the recurrent budgets were held at flat cash, so you could say the real money declined 2-3% per year. So that’s probably down 12-15% on what was being provided at the end of the previous government. Capital funding was also cut at the beginning of the coalition, however that has, over the period of the coalition, come back roughly to what it was at the beginning of this Government.”

However, France and Germany are investing more, with Germany investing around 5% more per year, that’s 25% up, whereas the UK is around 15% down. This is a real issue, says Sir Adrian. “Industry will go to where the frontier work is being done. If Diamond was to stop investing in research, science would go elsewhere as industrial investment is hugely mobile. Attracting the right people is also essential, research is a hugely mobile international business.”

Most of Sir Adrian’s years in government were spent in ensuring the political class got the message. “I organised senior industry people to be invited onto round tables to explain the situation to ministers. Government listens harder if companies tell ministers that they will stop investing in research if the Government does, it’s a much more powerful argument than if academics or government advisers say the same thing.”

When we meet, Sir Adrian has just come back from shaking over 3,000 hands at degree ceremonies across the Far East. He must know how the Queen feels. “I went in my role as Vice Chancellor of the University of London,” he explains. “We have 55,000 students all over the world doing degrees by distance learning, with large numbers in Hong Kong and Singapore.”

He also approves of Chinese students studying in the UK at our universities. “In terms of soft diplomacy and international networking, future contracts and interactions there are solid reasons why you should maximise that.”

Here we get to the thorny topic of immigration. “It’s very important that we argue for the disentanglement of international student numbers from the immigration debate,” he says. “We have been hugely successful in selling our world-class university system abroad, and current government policy is shooting us in the foot. We should regard as a good thing, do everything possible to encourage and nothing to discourage, the international student market, including allowing certain students in particular disciplines to stay on for a couple of years after graduation, particularly if they have PhDs, to maximize all the positives for the UK, and we should separate this from any other immigration debate.

“There is no point being a low wage, tourist economy, all that’s left is to be smart,” he says. “So the interaction between the universities and business, and attracting other nationalities to study here and build an affinity with the country and its people, is a fundamental.”


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Cotswold Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Cotswold Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Cotswold Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Cotswold Life

Yesterday, 15:25

Chipping Campden – once the meeting place for a council of Saxon kings – now offers the warmest of welcomes to all its visitors, from the humble shopper to the seasonal shin-kicker

Read more
Yesterday, 15:12

Property prices across Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds have risen steadily over the last few years, reflecting the trend across the country. But which area has shown the most dramatic hike in prices recently, and how does your postcode and house type compare with others in the area? You may be surprised to see the results...

Read more
Yesterday, 15:11

From mini Norway spruces to luxury Nordman firs, here are eight of the best places to get a luscious, green tree in the Cotswolds this festive season

Read more
Yesterday, 15:10

The weekend is fast approaching and for those still deciding how to spend their Friday through to Sunday, we pick 5 of the best ways to spend your weekend in the Cotswolds

Read more
Yesterday, 15:10

Choral carol services and grand instrumental performances, with the backdrop of some of the Cotswolds most picturesque locations, are perfect ways to embrace the festivities. We pick some of the best carol services and concerts to enjoy in the region

Read more
Yesterday, 14:39

Taking the classroom outdoors is fun, inspires fresh ideas, broadens horizons – and encourages a new generation to enjoy and care for the Cotswolds

Read more
Friday, November 16, 2018

“‘Flexitarians’ can do one though, being alleged vegetarians who still can’t resist the sizzling siren song of the bacon sandwich when no-one is looking.” Editor Mike Lowe is attempting to seek reconciliation with those he has annoyed… well, sort of.

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

“This letting to Oxford nanoSystems is a fantastic example of how we are able to provide first class facilities for growing technology companies at Abingdon Business Park.”

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

One of the UK’s leading training and education specialists has launched a skills hub in Nuneaton

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

“The logistics hub is another example of where we have worked in partnership to support skills needs in the area and link our student body with future job opportunities.”

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

“It was fantastic to see how this project is making a real difference to the lives of young people at risk of social exclusion.”

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

It has become the 90th store to accept the gift card in Cheltenham

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

As well as three days of action-packed racing and tradition, there’s plenty to do away from the course at this year’s November Meeting. Neil Phillips, The Wine Tipster, shares his 14 suggestions on how to make the most of your time at Cheltenham Racecourse

Read more
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

From festive light switch-ons and Santa’s Grottos, to Victorian Christmas Fayres and late-night shopping, we’ve covered what’s on in and around the Cotswolds this season

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory A+ Education

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search