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Once a physicist: Ian Leigh

Ian Leigh is the managing director of Postwatch, the UK’s independent watchdog for postal services.

Ian Leigh

Why did you originally choose to study physics?
I always found the sciences much more satisfying than the arts — it seemed far tidier and more rewarding to be able to reach a solution to a problem rather than to interpret situations where there was no right answer. I studied maths, physics and computer science at the University of Edinburgh but chose to specialize in physics because it seemed to be so fundamental and to have so much relevance to everyday life.

How much did you enjoy the subject?
I enjoyed the practical side of physics far more than the theoretical side, but even found the theory fascinating when it could be related to real-life situations. That said, I developed a deep admiration for those of my tutors — such as Peter Higgs — who appeared to be so comfortable with theoretical concepts I could never grasp.

What did you do next?
After I graduated in 1979 I took a job at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where I researched the development of standards for micro-indentation hardness. The problems encountered in getting accurate and repeatable results on a microscopic scale were enormous because there were so many sources of error in the equipment, the measuring system and thematerials themselves. I submitted this research for my PhD thesis, which was examined by the late David Tabor, the undisputed master of this subject.

Why did you move away from physics?
From very early in my career I was given opportunities to develop administrative and policy skills as well as practical scientific expertise. I rapidly became a “jack of all trades” — more politely known as a “technological generalist” — and before long I found myself doing scientific administration and programme formulation rather than working at the lab bench. For example, in the late 1980s I established the LINK programme in nanotechnology, which provided UK government support for projects undertaken jointly by industrial and academic partners. This laid the foundations for some of the work that is taking place in this field today.

How did you end up working for Postwatch?
After many years of technological generalism, I eventually transferred to a purely administrative job in the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), dealing with their regulatory programme and its impact on business. From there it was a short step to Postwatch, which was sponsored by the DTI.

What does your role there involve?
My job is to try and ensure that consumer needs are at the heart of the debate over the transformation of postal services in the UK and beyond. The postal industry worldwide is evolving very rapidly in response to changing methods of communication and customer behaviour, and traditional monopolists such as Royal Mail are having to adapt. They not only need to improve efficiency by cutting labour costs and introducing new technological solutions, but also understand the requirements of consumers and provide products that will encourage these customers to continue to value postal services. I also manage the organization’s programme of research on consumer needs. As the only country with a statutory body dedicated to understanding and articulating the needs of postal consumers, the UK is well placed to contribute to current international debates — such as the full liberalization of the European postal market.

How does your physics training help the way that you work?
I’m really good at fixing the photocopier when it jams or needs the toner replacing! More seriously, the disciplined way of thinking and analysis that a physicist develops, and the metrologist’s attention to detail, are useful in any field of work, as is the experience of presenting complex concepts and ideas to a sceptical audience. And although it’s not the result of cutting-edge scientific research, people are often surprised to learn how much technology is actually involved in modern postal operations. That said, the accuracy with which postal operators measure size and weight are not quite up to the standards of NPL!

Do you still keep up to date with any physics?
Apart from trying (and often failing!) to help my son with his sixth-form physics homework, I still take a keen interest in developments at NPL. I also read the science pages in my daily newspaper and look forward to receiving Physics World every month, which is now my most regular contact with the world of physics.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Physics World

last edited: September 11, 2018

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