IOP Press Office information

Asking for a “strong, positive signal” for science

Notes to editors

1. Full-text of Professor Sir Peter Knight’s speech
Ladies and gentlemen ……….

As President of the Institute of Physics, it’s my great pleasure to welcome you all to the IOP Awards for two thousand and eleven.

It’s wonderful to see so many supporters of physics gathered together tonight. We have representatives of the Institute’s Groups and Branches, of other scientific societies, the Research Councils, physics-based businesses, universities, government and Parliament.

I’d like to extend a special welcome to our award winners, who are the real stars of the show. And to the colleagues who tonight will become Honorary Fellows of the Institute – Ian Halliday, Carole Jordan, Jon Ogbourn and Michael Payne.

Welcome too to representatives of other physical societies – David Lee of the European Physical Society and Bernhard Nunner of the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft – to Michael Sterling and John Armit, chairs of STFC and EPSRC, to Adrian Smith, Director General, Science and Research at BIS, and to Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Home Office.

And a particular welcome, of course, to our guest speaker for the evening – David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science.

A very warm welcome to you all.

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I did not expect to be standing here today.

At this same event one year ago, Marshall Stoneham was introduced as the new President of the Institute. Marshall represented all that is best in British physics, with a wide and eclectic range of scientific interests, a huge talent for fundamental research, and a passion for its application – what he called “physics in action”.

Very sadly, Marshall was taken ill within three months of taking office, and died on 18 February this year.

I know how much he would have enjoyed being here this evening, to present the awards to such an outstanding group of physicists. I’m deeply honoured to be here in his place.

Please join me in a moment of silence to reflect on our own personal memories of Marshall.

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I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Jocelyn Bell Burnell for stepping up to the mark, and returning from her “retirement” as IOP President last year to serve as acting President over the past 9 months.

I can tell you it’s no sinecure – having been President myself for all of 6 days now! And I’m sure Jocelyn was looking forward to a little respite, and a chance to focus on her many other interests.

But she picked up the baton again and ran with it brilliantly, never complained, and did a wonderful job. Thank you Jocelyn – I’m very glad we have this opportunity to show you our appreciation.

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This is an important evening for the Institute, and one of the highlights of the physics year. It’s our annual opportunity to remind ourselves of the strength and reach of UK physics, and to celebrate the achievements of those who have excelled in physics teaching, research, outreach and application.

It’s also an occasion to look back over the events of the past year.

Exactly one year and one day ago, UK physics received the ultimate accolade, with the award of the 2010 Nobel prize for physics to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novosolev for their discovery of the “wonder material” graphene.

A personal triumph for the two physicists involved, of course. But also a beautifully timed illustration of two key principles which are dear to the hearts of many of us in the science community: that curiosity-driven research can deliver the kind of unforeseen results that lead to real breakthroughs in technology; and that welcoming top-class researchers from overseas into the UK can only benefit us all.

I was hoping we might have a similar UK triumph to celebrate tonight – but I guess we will just have to wait for two thousand and twelve!
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For more years than I care to remember, the state of physics education in our schools has been one of the Institute’s biggest concerns.

Now it looks as though we may really have turned the corner.

For the fourth year in a row, A level numbers were up again this summer, returning physics to the top ten most popular A level choices. The numbers were supported by a big increase in uptake at AS level, which promises an even better year next year.

Applicants to physics courses at universities were also up – by some 17%, much more than the average for all subjects – and three new courses have been announced at universities which have not traditionally offered physics – Portsmouth, Bradford and St Mary’s Twickenham.

The government announced separate targets for trainee teachers in specialist science subjects – a policy for which IOP has consistently argued – and set the physics target at an ambitious level of 925 new physics teachers every year. Recruiting so many each year may not be easy, but encouragingly this year marked a 30-year high in applications, with almost 700 new recruits.

Meanwhile, IOP’s own programmes to support physics teachers and students continue to expand. The government-funded Stimulating Physics Network has been extended to 2014. Working with the TDA, a pilot project has been launched to train teachers of maths and physics, rather than teaching the three sciences together. And with funding from a private donor, IOP has started a project in an inner city Newcastle school to improve access to physics for disadvantaged students.

And finally, last month, IOP launched the “Physics for All” campaign at the British Science Festival, asking members to talk to headteachers and governors in their local schools, to promote the value of studying physics. We hope this will be a real grassroots campaign. If anyone here has contacts with your local school – as a parent, grandparent, governor or volunteer – please get involved!

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The past year has also been a very significant one for IOP membership.

In January, for the first time, the number of members passed the 40,000 mark. We celebrated with a small ceremony in the Institute, where David Willetts kindly came to meet our 40,000th member – an enthusiastic undergraduate from Kings College London.

Underlying the increase in numbers has been the introduction of a range of innovative new forms of membership:
• free membership for undergraduates;
• youth membership, aimed at 16 to 19 year olds;
• and the snappily titled “IOP iMember”, available world-wide at £25 per year or at low- or no-cost to physicists in the developing world.

Most recently, IOP has announced the extension of its free undergraduate offer to include all students world-wide studying for a first degree in physics or a related subject.

And at the other end of the career spectrum, IOP has introduced a new scheme to encourage the nomination of Fellows, resulting in a 100% increase in the number of new “FInstP’s” joining us this year.

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The Institute has also dipped its toe in the water in terms of corporate fundraising, to support the work we would like to do but cannot always afford.

Our Lab-in-a Lorry project already benefits from the generosity of donors – like Opito and the Thales Foundation who are represented here tonight. And as I mentioned earlier, one generous private donor has enabled us to pilot an initiative to raise aspirations in inner city schools.

In the future, we plan to raise funds for a range of good physics causes, including more support for schools and teachers, and for students facing increasing financial challenges.

But our main focus this year has been on the IOP for Africa campaign.

The campaign was launched in a letter to all members from Marshall Stoneham just before Christmas last year. Marshall himself was a strong supporter of this cause, and his family continues to support it financially and to take an interest in its progress.

Marshall’s letter asked members to donate towards our African schools projects, which enable IOP volunteers to provide basic equipment and train teachers in practical classroom physics. Successful projects have already been established in Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.

Through the generosity of IOP members we have now raised an additional £25,000, which has funded two new projects, in Malawi and The Gambia.

But the campaign didn’t just bring in money. It also brought in requests to support more projects! Members with links to other areas of Africa – South Sudan, Nigeria, Cameroon – are queuing up to volunteer, and we would love to be able to support them.

In the booklets on your table, you should find a leaflet that will tell you more about the IOP for Africa campaign. It’s not too late to make a donation to a very good cause.

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At this time last year, the really big issue on all our minds was the anticipated announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Horror stories abounded – cuts in the science budget of 20, or 25, or 30% were grist to the rumour mill. Speaking on this stage, against that background, Jocelyn gave us three good pieces of advice – so good that they still hold true, and I’m going to rehearse them again now.

She said:

  • “First – be passionate about the case we are making. It is about a vision for the future of our country, not just a special interest argument for science
  • Second – never give up. Even if the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review is what we fear, rather than what we hope, keep speaking out on the case for science. There will be other years, and other opportunities
  • Third – stick together……. We will make a much stronger public case for science and engineering by speaking with one voice, and highlighting the overall benefits, than by rushing to criticise other areas of research.”

Well, by and large we did speak with one voice, and we did focus on the case for investment in science as a key force to drive renewed economic growth.

I am certain these factors contributed to the successful outcome for science, by helping David Willetts and his colleagues make a convincing case to the Treasury star chamber.

Of course, I recognise that a flat settlement for science now seems perhaps a little less miraculous than it did on the morning of 20 October last year. We’ve started to see the impact of inflation on real levels of funding, and the lack of capital for any major new investment.

But we would be very foolish to forget that – at a time when the UK is making police officers redundant, scrapping our only aircraft carrier and closing public libraries – science has survived remarkably well.

And on Monday this week, the Chancellor announced a £195 million investment in graphene research and supercomputing, in explicit recognition of the role science can play in economic growth.

Thank you David – as a community, we owe a big vote of thanks to you and your team.

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But that doesn’t mean that we should forget Jocelyn’s remaining message – “Keep speaking out on the case for science. There will be other years, and other opportunities”

We know that public funds are under huge pressure, and we’re not looking for miracles now. But if the government shares our view that research excellence can restore Britain’s economic vibrancy, why not make a firm commitment for the future, to renewed investment in the science base?

What a strong, positive signal that would send to our young scientists and engineers about their future prospects here, in the UK!
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Now – having thrown down that challenge! – I would like to introduce our guest speaker this evening – the Right Honorable David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science.

I don’t know anyone in the science community who doesn’t recognise and appreciate David’s support for science and innovation. We are all deeply grateful that he has been at the helm over the past 18 months, to steer us through some very choppy waters.

I am also very grateful that he has taken time out of a hectic schedule to come and speak to us tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen ……. David Willetts.

2. Contact
For further inform information, contact IOP Senior Press Officer, Joe Winters, on +44 (0)20 7470 4815 or email joseph.winters@iop.org.