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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.”

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