The Institute of Physics: for physics, for physicists, for you

Paul Hardaker, CEO of the Institute of Physics © IOP

Paul Hardaker, CEO of the Institute of Physics

Many of you will be familiar with IOP Publishing and its journals and magazines through the JPhys series and our sister titles. However, you may never have considered our relationship with the Institute of Physics (IOP), especially if you’re not from the UK or Ireland.

But with a quarter of their 55,000-strong membership from outside the British Isles, perhaps there’s more to know than you realised?

We asked CEO Paul Hardaker about his journey towards leading the Institute in recent years, its important charitable work and what you can do to get involved:

First, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background? What inspired you to become CEO of the Institute of Physics?

My first degree is in Mathematics and my PhD in Mathematical Physics, working on scattering theory and in particular polarimetry. After my studies I took up an academic appointment at Essex University with a research interest in removing the impacts of weather from radio propagation and radar signals. I enjoyed working with organisations like British Telecom Research Labs, the Rutherford-Appleton Labs and the European Space Agency. I ended up becoming more involved in using remote sensing as a way to observe the weather and moved to the Met Office where I headed up their Remote Sensing Branch. I spent 15 years at the Met Office in a variety of roles and, via a few short secondments to Government and the city, ended up as Director of the Met Office’s Development programme. My last role at the Met Office was as their Chief Advisor to Government covering areas such as climate change and weather impacts on civil contingencies.

Paul Hardaker QuoteThroughout my working life I have always been actively involved in learned societies and feel that they play such a valuable role in our UK science community. So when the opportunity came to take over as Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological Society I jumped at the chance. After 7 years there I felt it was time to move on and took up my role here at IOP. Time flies and I have been at IOP almost 4 years now. As well as being such a great place to work I can honestly say it’s a real privilege.

I have never had a career plan. I guess I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to do such a range of interesting jobs. And looking back I can recognise now, better than I did at the time perhaps, that it is this mix of experience, in academia, in industry, in research and in senior management roles in the charity, the public and the private sectors that gave me the kind of skill set needed to be the CEO of the IOP.

What is the Institute of Physics and what does it do?

The Institute is the professional and learned society for physics and the national physical society for both the UK and Ireland. We exist to further the discipline of physics and the professional development of physicists. The history of the Institute goes back to 1874 when the Physical Society of London was formed. The Institute of Physics was at first a separate body formed in 1919 and the two ran in parallel until 1960, the physical society taking on the learned society role and the Institute was the professional body. In 1960 the two organisations merged and in 1970 we obtained formal recognition with the Royal Charter for this new combined body. It’s interesting that we decided to keep the IOP name.

Institute of Physics logoLike many other such societies in their own disciplines, we have a unique view of Physics, working with the young children in primary schools, through secondary school, into further and higher education, careers in industry and importantly government policy in both science and education.

Increasingly we are also undertaking much more outreach and engagement work with the public, not just because we think it is important that people have a cultural right to enjoy physics in the same way they can enjoy the arts or music, but that there is an identifiable benefit from increasing what we call the ‘science capital’ in society at large.

The Institute is a charity, with an elected Board of Trustees (our Council) who oversee the governance of the organisation. It is always interesting to hear new trustees say that they have worked with or been members of IOP over many years and think they know the Institute until they come on to Council and realise the wide range of programmes we deliver. With about 55,000 members (one quarter of whom are outside of the UK and Ireland) and 580 staff we are the second largest physical society in the world after the German Society. People are often surprised to know we are bigger than the APS, and we have one of the world’s largest learned society publishing programmes. In order to deliver all of this you might also be surprised to know that we are a group of 9 companies, with registered offices located in 8 countries.

In 2015 we published what I think is our most challenging 5-year strategy yet. I’m conscious that strategy documents are not immediately thought of as the most interesting to read but they do define the breadth of the impact we hope to have over the next few years and the scale of change we hope to make for physics, for the wider physics community, and for society.

We felt this naturally broke down in to five thematic areas, summarising our focus:

Education, Economy, Society, Discovery and Community. Here community refers to our community of physicists. I’m biased of course, but I think it’s an interesting document and hope you are able to take a look and to let us know what you think.

IOP for physics for physicists for allWhich recent activities were most successful and what are your key initiatives for 2016 and the next few years?

I can’t do justice to all of the important and successful things IOP is doing, but I will pick one or two things from each of our themes, and I will start with Education.

Our Stimulating Physics Network (SPN) is working now in 420 secondary schools, and last year delivered over 9,000 days of teacher continuing professional development (CPD). In those schools Physics A-level uptake is twice the national average, the average AS grade went up in 78% of schools, and the number of students achieving A* to C in Physics increased by 82% compared with 69% nationally. I think that’s something to celebrate.

What we are not celebrating is that we still have far fewer girls taking A-level Physics than boys; girls make up only 21% of the cohort. In fact around half of mixed maintained schools send no girls on at all to take A-level physics, and at a single sex school girls are two-and-a-half times more likely to go on to A-level than in a co-educational school. In our SPN schools the number of girls progressing increased by 43% compared with 17% nationally, so we are beginning to make a difference, but there is still a lot to do.

Under our Economy theme we have launched two new initiatives:

The first is our Open Innovation programme, which brings together industry and academia to solve physics-based problems. We are currently running a project with the food manufacturing sector where some 120 delegates from across our university physics departments and from a dozen major multinational companies will come together to review a range of current challenges and begin to formulate funding proposals for how these can be addressed.

The second initiative is a new business Launchpad. We are setting aside affordable workspace, eventually across the UK and Ireland, but stating in our new headquarters building when on comes on line in late 2017. As well as offering space to physics-based small and medium-sized businesses we will be holding workshops and seminars on business services that are important to start-up companies. That will include accessing investment capital and innovation grants, and protecting intellectual property.

IOP Logo from "Painting with Light" at Stocksbridge Science Day © Institute of Physics

“Painting with Light” at Stocksbridge Science Day

In our Society theme, as I mentioned earlier, we are working hard on trying to develop the public’s ‘science capital’. During 2015 many events were light-themed to coincide with the International Year of Light, in which we were a founding partner.

We were delighted with the participation in the recent events with the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Tate Modern, which explored through art and music the contribution of physics to society. Over the next 12 months we will be developing a series of curated exhibitions to take around the UK and Ireland that will showcase Physics, and we have set ourselves the target of reaching 1 million over the next 3 years.

Flexible and Printed Electronics

Flexible and Printed Electronics

Our Discovery theme is broad and covers our publishing programme, our Groups and Conferences and our work with the Research Councils.

I am pleased to say that our publishing programme is going from strength-to-strength and expanding. In the last two years we have launched three new materials science journals and a new journal on flexible and printed electronics, which have all been very well received.

We now also have our new ebooks programme, comprising two collections, Expanding Physics and Concise Physics. We are delighted that the programme has already won several prestigious industry awards

We are also about to launch a new initiative that has a working title of ‘Physics 2020’. This is a very ambitious programme to map our physics community. The idea is to build a data cube, as we are calling it, of information about research activity, collaborations, funding, outputs and impacts. It will draw data from the Higher Education Funding bodies, Research Councils, Horizon2020 and the National Science Foundation, Journal publications and our own Groups and conferences programmes.

By putting all of this together we hope to see more clearly where areas of key activity, strength and future development are coming from. This information will be available to our member community, so watch this space!

It is not often we think about our membership structure. However this year, under our Community theme, we are conducting a major review on the different membership categories and the benefits we deliver to our members. This is about both the value of what we deliver and how we are delivering it. This is not something we want to rush so we hope to develop and consult with our members over the next two years and bring a well thought through proposal to our AGM in 2017. We want a membership structure that is fit-for-purpose for a modern and progressive society. Within this review we are going to take a particular look at how we can improve the offer we have for our physics technicians and apprentices. At the moment I think we are neglecting this important part of our community.

I hope that’s given you just a flavour of what we are about. Earlier this year we produced a short video that gave a diary of some of our key achievements in 2015.

How can scientists get involved with the IOP?

There are lots of ways to get involved with IOP. You can stand for election to Council and be a Trustee, serve on one of our committees, either one of our governance or our programme committees, which help to shape what we deliver, or help to run one of our 48 Groups or 14 Nations and Branches. This is a common way for early career physicists to gain some experience outside of their home institution. Or you can volunteer for one of our many outreach events. I get the chance to do a few of these events and it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to communicate a passion for physics to others. Increasingly we are also developing opportunities for more senior members of our community to help out directly by contributing to our project work and by helping as mentors for our extensive CPD schemes. If you are interested then please contact one of the Groups, or your local Branch, or send me an email at

Which areas of physics do you feel the UK and Ireland will excel in over the coming years? Can you predict any challenges researchers in these areas might face?

That’s a tough question to answer as UK and Irish physics is so strong in such a breadth of areas, and there are interesting developments we could talk about in any number of these, but I’ll have a go. I could start by pointing to the growth we have noticed in our member’s activities in areas where physics comes together with other disciplines like biophysics and environmental physics. There is already exciting progress in areas where physicists, chemists and biologists are working collaboratively to tackle cancer and neurological diseases. The Quantum technologies programme, which IOP helped to bring about, is now beginning to take off and of course 2D materials, new composites and printable electronics still remain real strengths.

It was great to see a strong UK involvement in the gravitational wave detection and it’s exciting to think of what we might observe when the space-based systems come on line, and when we bring the light-based astronomy, so to speak, together with this new way of observing the universe.

The next 5 years look equally exciting for the particle physics community with the upgrade to the LHC already suggesting new discoveries, and it will be interesting to see what the new nuclear build and ITER coming on line does for the growth and development of our nuclear and plasma physics communities. I think photonics will continue to be a strength and an important enabling technology for a number of key industry sectors. Just to be parochial for a moment given my own background, it is interesting for me to see the advances we are making in the electromagnetic properties of metamaterials and in the latest development of earth-system models for weather and climate research, where we have a strong international lead.

The significant challenge that the research community will face in all of this is funding. Although on the face of it the real-terms settlement for science funding in the UK looks positive in a difficult financial environment, in practice this is likely to lead to a cut in funding for our more established areas of strength. Much of the growth in funding will come from the new Global Challenges Fund where the focus is on projects that address overseas development needs, and with the already committed funding requirements for capital facilities this means less for the basic research pot. We are still waiting to see what will happen with funding post-election this year in Ireland.

I am particularly concerned about the pressures the settlements are putting on the future funding to run well-established important national and European facilities. I am not naive about the difficulties of the funding environment and tough choices that Governments have to make between areas like education, health, social welfare and science, but it is interesting to dwell for a moment on the international comparators. The UK spends far less that the many other countries on science as a percentage of GDP, some 1.7% of GDP compared to a European average of closer to 2%. Ireland spends around 1.5%. The OECD average is more like 2.5%, with China just above 2%, Germany at 2.8%. Japan and the Scandinavian countries spend over 3% of GDP and South Korea is at 4.2%.

Paul Hardaker QuoteWe know well that science benefits the economy and creates jobs; there is now a strong evidence base. Every £1 of public R&D funding spent returns an additional 20p to 30p in private sector value and what’s known by economists as ‘social return’ is estimated at 2 to 3 times that. Physics-based businesses employ some 4 million people across the UK and Ireland with a contribution to the economy of some £80 billion (which is more like £280 billion if we include the whole supply chain). If we are to see these benefits continue to grow we need to remain competitive in funding, and both the UK and Ireland need to be the places where physicists can do world-class science. The existing contributions made by our physics community are built on many years of investment. It is hard-earned and quickly lost without a clear long-term strategy and commitment. This is a regular topic for discussion in my meetings with the Science Minister.

There are other interesting challenges we face. Being more effective in the way we work with Big Data, and indeed Open Data, remains important for much of physics. The restructuring of Research Councils and Innovate UK into Research UK by the end of this Parliament has introduced uncertainty, and whatever the outcome of the EU referendum, confidence in longer-term partnerships and related inward investment in the UK will be affected, I am sure. Our restrictive immigration policy is undoubtedly having an impact on our ability to bring or retain talented physicists who are not EU nationals. And the number of young people taking physics subjects beyond age 16 still lags well behind other science disciplines, in part for the reasons I mentioned in one of the earlier questions. Some 30 years ago physics was the most popular choice for a science subject and there is no reason why that should not be the case again.

What advice would you give to young scientists?

First off I would say join your professional body. For students in particular it’s often free and there are a number of benefits offered to those in study or early career. IOP for example offers a number of specific grants and bursaries, careers events, mentoring, etc.; things that I wish I’d have had access to when I was a young scientist. It also allows you to more easily become involved in the work of IOP, which can be a great way to develop skills and experience. From time-to-time I sit on appointment committees for young scientists in academia and in industry and I see first-hand how this can help to differentiate candidates and demonstrate their future potential.

It’s important to establish strong networks early in your career and, although I’m conscious of the difficulties of finding appointments, it’s often not good to stay too long in the same place – if you have the chance to move around a little early on in your career, then take it. Working abroad is not for everyone but I had opportunity to do that twice for short periods relatively early in my career and very much enjoyed it; that’s something I would definitely recommend.

More generally I would say don’t become too specialist too soon, try to keep a broad interest in what’s going on. Also I see early-career physicists who are used to being successful in all they do and are not pushing themselves because they are afraid to fail. Don’t be, as long as you’re prepared to learn from your experiences.

Finally, how do IOP Publishing and its journals like those in the JPhys Series support the Institute?

IOP has a long and distinguished history as a learned society publisher which we are very proud of, and these days IOP Publishing has grown to be amongst the largest of the learned society publishers. So it’s not surprising that high quality, scholarly publishing remains an important part of what we are about; it’s a key performance indicator in our strategy. Many people are surprised to know that overall about 95% of our journals content comes from outside of the UK and Ireland, which makes our publishing programme very international.

As you might expect there is a large overlap and therefore interaction between our Groups, our conference programme and our journal editorial boards. This means we have good links between the work of our journals and our wider programmes. And, of course, any surplus from the publishing activities goes directly back in to funding our charitable activity. So all of this funding is returned to the physics community, which is a further important benefit of learned society publishers like IOP.

CC-BY logoThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Flexible and Printed Electronics cover image © IOP Publishing. All other images © Institute of Physics.

Categories: Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical, Journal of Physics B: Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, Journal of Physics G: Nuclear and Particle Physics, Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter

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