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Once a physicist: Tom Brake

Tom Brake is the member of parliament for Carshalton and Wallington and deputy leader of the UK House of Commons

Tom Brake

Why did you decide to study physics? I had an aptitude for maths and physics, and I got interested in astronomy. I went to school in France, and I did a dissertation on astronomy for my International Baccalaureate, which is what I studied rather than A-levels. Then some lecturers from Imperial College London came over to France and explained why Imperial College was the best place in the UK to do physics, so a friend of mine and I decided that that was what we wanted to do.

What did you do after graduation? When I graduated in 1983, the options for physics graduates seemed to be accountancy, IT, defence or further study. I opted for the IT stream in part because that's what my father did, so I had an appreciation for what was involved; I suppose there was also the intellectual challenge of making systems work. Later, my role became more about managing people, and that was something I really enjoyed.

What sparked your interest in politics? The early 1980s were a very political period for the UK. Margaret Thatcher had a straightforward effect on people: they either loved her or they hated her. I fell into the latter category, although looking back on what she achieved, my views have mellowed slightly. But it felt like a very difficult time for the UK, and that motivated me to get involved.

There were also a couple of policy issues that I was concerned about. One was the environment. Back then, the main environmental challenges we faced were things like acid rain and the potential environmental disaster associated with a possible nuclear war. That's not something people think about nowadays, but in the 1980s it was a realistic prospect, and the environmental consequences would have been horrendous.

The other big issue for me was Europe. Because I'd lived and studied in France, I felt an affinity for Europe, and since Europe was and is the UK's biggest trading partner, it's important that we have a good, strong relationship. I joined the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) because I thought it had the best policies on the environment and Europe, along with a pragmatic approach to other issues.

How (if at all) has your physics background helped in your career? Insofar as my physics studies led me into working in IT, and to adopting a methodical, rational approach to resolving problems, I think it has helped. I'd like to think that that attitude has fed through into the way I do politics, at least in terms of making sure there are always clear priorities and targets, and understanding that things have to be measured before you can tell whether a policy's been effective.

Any advice for today's physics students? In the UK, we require a very large number of science graduates to support research and manufacturing, and I think there's a real potential, from a jobs point of view, for people to get involved in the sciences. So I'd encourage them to do that. But if any students or graduates are worrying that studying physics at university might preclude them taking up a political career in the future and becoming a government minister – well, I can demonstrate that they should have no such concerns!



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