Article - Issue 32, September 2007

Dame Julia Higgins DBE FREng FRS

Prolific Professor

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Dame Julia Higgins’s career has taken her to the top of her profession as a researcher and as a leader of the profession in policy circles. In recent years she has used her position to campaign for more women to rise to the top as engineers and scientists. Michael Kenward talks to her about her career and plans for promoting science, engineering and womens’ role in the profession.

Dame Julia Higgins in her office at Imperial College London © Tom Whipps

Dame Julia Higgins in her office at Imperial College London © Tom Whipps

Scientist or engineer? Dame Julia Higgins considers this question carefully before answering. Not just because it came from Ingenia, but because Dame Julia’s career has blurred the boundaries between these two cultures. After all, she was the first woman to become both a Fellow of the Royal Society and of The Royal Academy of Engineering. However, as head of one of the UK’s leading academic engineering faculties, at Imperial College, her colleagues clearly see her as being firmly in the engineering camp.

Overlapping disciplines

Boundaries began to fall for Dame Julia when she chose to work on polymers. Like materials research in general, polymer science is a flexible subject when it comes to finding a home in a university. Sometimes science, sometimes engineering, materials is the quintessential interdisciplinary domain.

Dame Julia admits though that “fundamentally I am probably a materials scientist”. But, Dame Julia adds quickly, “after 30 years in a chemical engineering department, I don't actually think like other scientists do. I have gone native!” So much so that for the final year before she retired in September – in name at least – Dame Julia was Principal of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College.

She had previously tried to avoid this job but when it became unexpectedly vacant in 2006, Imperial wanted time before appointing a permanent replacement. With a year to go before Dame Julia officially retired, and urged to take on the job by her colleagues, she abandoned her earlier reluctance.

Prioritising projects

Bear in mind this is someone who says that she thinks long and hard before agreeing to take on any new task. Among other high profile appointments, she already chaired the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and was the Foreign Secretary at the Royal Society (RS).

This latter role was enough work in itself, with the inevitable need for foreign travel, not to mention the RS’s decision to build up its own international capability.

It is no wonder then, that in his anniversary address to the Royal Society last year, Lord Rees, President of the RS, said of Dame Julia’s workload, “I don't know how she manages it”. The answer, she says, is “by very tight time management. Sometimes with difficulty. I try to take on things that I really want to do, which means that you don't resent having to do it.”

Through the Glass Ceiling

This was why Dame Julia Higgins accepted the invitation to chair the Athena Project. Set up in 1999 by the UK higher education funding councils, Universities UK and the Office of Science and Technology, this initiative aims to increase the number of women recruited to top posts in science, engineering and technology.

Fighting for the position of women in engineering and science was actually a late move for Dame Julia. “I never did campaign for most of my career,” she says, “I just thought it was a pity that there weren’t more of us.”

Dame Julia preferred a personal approach to the issue on women in engineering and science, rather than joining what Dame Julia calls “the whingeing brigade”. “The best thing that I could do for women in science was to be one, and to be successful.”

In at the beginning

Dame Julia’s choice of research area may have helped to overcome gender boundaries. She was an early expert in a relatively new area of research, polymer science, and a brand new technique, the use of neutron scattering to study the structure of polymers. The few people around who knew much about neutron scattering for polymer science found themselves in demand from some influential scientists.

By coincidence, among the people keen to learn about the technique were two leading lights of the scientific community who also chaired EPSRC in one of its incarnations before Dame Julia took on the role – Professor Sir Sam Edwards and Professor Sir Geoff Allen.

As Dame Julia says, “because I was using this interesting technique they got to know me very quickly and they were hugely supportive.” This, she adds was a very positive experience and one where being a woman helped. “I have always said that, as a woman, if you are half-way competent you had a huge advantage in that they all remember you.”

Rising to the top

While there are still problems facing women in science and engineering, a lot has changed for the better during Dame Julia’s career. “When I became professor here at Imperial, I was only one of a few women to do so. There are now 40 or 50.” She then reels off a long list of senior positions currently held by women. “That is an enormous difference.”

There are, though, still things to be done for women in engineering and science, especially at those senior levels, which is how Dame Julia began to be actively involved in the wider cause of women in science and engineering in the 1990s. Partly, it seems, because being a role model for others to follow was not enough. “I had always assumed that if I looked over my shoulder there would be more following up behind, but there weren’t that many. So I thought I had better get involved.”

It was time for Dame Julia Higgins to use her own senior position for the benefit of those who were following her up the career ladder. “If you do this when you are already professor, dean and possibly FREng or FRS you have got a fair amount of clout. I could go and see any senior person and say ‘this isn’t working right’.”

Athena Project

The Athena Project, which brought together the Academy and the Royal Society, was an opportunity to do something about this. “It involved senior women and the senior women deliberately involved the senior people at universities.

“If we organised meetings we had very senior people there.” Which is how people like Lord May and Sir David King ended up at events. “They were there to make the point.” Dame Julia illustrates this with an anecdote about one woman researcher who had been filmed collecting an award from Lord Sainsbury, then minister for science. The next day, when she got back to her university, a call from her vice chancellor invited her along to “come and tell me about your conversation with David Sainsbury.”

The Athena Project has, she says, helped to persuade other organisations to take the issue more seriously and to put some effort into raising the profile of women in research. The enterprise started with a grant of £250,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The amount seemed enormous to those involved but it was small beer for HEFCE, probably the smallest sum that it could give to anyone.

HEFCE certainly could not spend the money as Athena did, in small parcels that could do some good in the universities. “We gave it out as projects, grants or prizes of £10,000, it wasn’t so much the money as the ‘kite mark’ that universities got, and having David Sainsbury give it to them.”

Public Engagement

As well as the role of women in science, Dame Julia has used her position as ‘grande dame of science’, as one newspaper dubbed her, to talk about “the responsibility of being a scientist”, a theme that she first started to explore as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. This has developed into thinking more broadly about the relationships between scientists and engineers, and society.

Some of the problems, says Dame Julia, are down to scientists themselves. “Scientists and engineers have not been very good at interacting with the public in a non-paternalistic way.”

It does not help that some researchers think that they just create new knowledge that society can then use as it sees fit. “I just don’t believe that. Every scientist is also a member of society. If you are a member of society with specialist knowledge then surely it is your responsibility to see that it is properly used.”

Dame Julia illustrates her point with a lesson from history, the famous letters from Albert Einstein to President Roosevelt (in 1939 and 1940), warning him that Germany might develop nuclear weapons. “If Einstein had not written those letters on behalf of the nuclear scientists, pointing out what was likely to happen, that would have been irresponsible.”

On the front line

This is not how every researcher sees the issue. Dame Julia talks of her surprise at how long it took a meeting of biologists to realise that they just might possibly have something to say, and a part to play, in influencing the development, or otherwise, of biological weapons. The academics saw themselves as completely removed from it, she says with some disbelief. “If nothing else,” she says, “they are the people who are training the students who will go and make biological weapons. If you can train them with the right attitudes, maybe they won’t.”

Dame Julia does not reserve her frustration for blinkered scientists. She has worries about engineers, not least because, she feels, they are poor communicators to the wider world. “Engineers are very bad at telling the story.

“Even within their own community, research engineers differ from scientists”, says Dame Julia. For example, many years as a close watcher of the EPSRC – she was on the council for a time before being asked to chair it – showed that engineers are very hard on grant applications from their colleagues. It isn’t that they mark them down, they just pick each other’s grant proposals to pieces. Scientists aren’t quite so ruthless in their refereeing, it seems.

A united front

When it comes to the public face of engineering, Dame Julia has high hopes for the Academy’s move to Carlton House Terrace, a few doors down from the Royal Society. This will create something of an academic enclave, where learned societies can work together. “There is a lot that could be done together.”

With feet in both camps, Dame Julia is well placed to act as a catalyst in this chemistry. She may have retired, but she gives herself a few more years before she reaches, as she puts it, her “sell by” date.

What about that retirement? Will it really happen? “I will certainly not go off into the sunset. I will drop about three gears, down to a reasonable level.”

One ambition is to get back to research after years in the corridors of power. Imperial has made Dame Julia a ‘Senior Research Investigator,’ their equivalent of an emeritus professor. Even while juggling her portfolio of posts, she maintained a long-distance research collaboration with a professor at Dartmouth College in the USA. “She does modelling and I have a lot of data on polymer blends. Her models are the first that I have seen that actually tell me something. We have had great fun, and that will go on.”

Industrial crossover

Another continuing commitment is a new adventure for Dame Julia. After a career in which she managed to avoid any temptation to work in industry, in 2006 Dame Julia accepted an invitation to join the board of Lonza Group. “To me it is a completely new experience.”

With about 7,000 employees all over the world, the company is based in Basle and makes chemical intermediates and biopharmaceuticals. Her role is to strengthen their connections with the R&D community and to advise them on innovation strategy. “That is going to keep me busy for a few years.”

Being a board member does fill some slots in the calendar, but they are less frequent and relentless than the treadmill of recent years. Even though she still has a handful of international commitments, Dame Julia expects to spend more time on the longer trips she has planned with her partner, a retired chemist. She might even find time to increase her opera and theatre going, another pursuit sometimes frustrated by a constant round of official engagements. It certainly seems that Dame Julia Higgins has got quite a few more years before she reaches what she calls her “sell-by” date.

Achievements

Education University of Oxford, BA and DPhil. Her research career has focused on the application of scattering techniques, notably neutron scattering, to the understanding of polymer behaviour. She has explored the way that molecular organisation and motion controls material behaviour, most recently in polymer blends and mixtures.

Appointed to academic staff in Imperial College in 1976. Professor in 1989, Dean of the City and Guilds College (Engineering faculty) from 1993 to 1997. Chaired the Academic Opportunities Committee from 1997 to 2006. Currently the Principal of the Faculty of Engineering, Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council from 2003 to April 2007, Trustee of the National Gallery and of the Daphne Jackson Trust. Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Academy of Engineering and a foreign member of the National Academy of Engineering of the USA. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2001 and a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 2003. She holds honorary doctorates from a number of universities.

Biography: Michael Kenward OBE

Michael Kenward has been a freelance writer since 1990 and is a member of the Ingenia Editorial Board. He is Editor-at-Large of Science|Business.

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