Frances Saunders prepares for IOP presidency

20 July 2013

When Frances Saunders becomes the next IOP president on 1 October she will already be a party to some important conversations – about the future direction of the Institute, about convincing business and industry that the IOP is relevant to them, and about helping to make the case for sustaining funding for science.

Frances Saunders

“To persuade policymakers and politicians to continue to invest in science, it’s not sufficient to say that it creates new knowledge. If that’s all that it does then it could be considered to be a minority cultural pursuit, and attract about as much funding as opera,” she says.

“As scientists, we may value knowledge for its own sake, but to make the case for science in the current climate we must recognise that we are competing for attention. Politicians are going to be more interested in how it can be applied for the benefit of society and the economy,” she argues.

“We also have to explain to taxpayers why it is worth it, since it is their money. How can we make that case if we’re not prepared to talk about impact? We should not be afraid of it. I absolutely value leading-edge academic work but I do worry that the kudos of scientists who apply such work to solve real-world problems is not high enough.”

Building the LHC at CERN, for example, depended on “industrial scale science and fantastic engineering”, she says, and she wants the people who achieved that to be as well recognised as those who used it to find the Higgs. She also wants business and industry to have reason to value the IOP. “What more can we do to help business to exploit the current advances in physics? That’s about communication, bringing communities together and providing the right briefings and meetings.”

Her own career has been very much on the applied side of research and in management roles in the defence sector, culminating in her appointment as chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, from which she retired last year. But it was a fascination with stars and space that first attracted her to science.

“I had a picture book about Mars when I was 9 or 10, then we had the Apollo programme, and of course Star Trek, in my formative years. My mother was fascinated by science fiction so I read a lot of it as a child. But I was always interested in engineering and building things with Meccano™ or taking things apart to see how they worked.”

At the end of her first year at the girls-only Portsmouth High School she said that she wanted to be an electronic engineer. “Was I being a bit of a rebel? Possibly. My friends where I lived were all boys and I was a bit of a tomboy, but I don’t think that was the main reason. My physics teacher had an engaging way of explaining things and I loved that.”

Saunders did a physics degree at the University of Nottingham. Being one of only 10 women out of the 70 physics students in her year was rarely a problem. After graduating she applied for engineering traineeships in the West Midlands where her boyfriend (now her husband) had just got a job.

She became Leyland’s first female graduate engineer, on an electronic engineering traineeship. “They’d never had a woman before and the guys didn’t know how to react. The air-spanners would go off whenever you entered the shop floor and you put up with a bit of banter. I laughed it off – if you’d done anything else they would have kept on. One supervisor told me to get my hair cut then realised I was female and said ‘oh my God, it’s a girl’. You had to be fairly thick skinned. This was 1975 and I was aware that I was doing a bit of trailblazing.”

Saunders was working on designing electronic systems for cars, then in their infancy, but was frustrated by these being used only as proofs of concept rather than in manufacture, so moved on after nearly three years to the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment at Malvern. There she worked in the Liquid Crystal Devices (LCD) group and did a part-time PhD on the physics of LCDs.

She later joined the Defence Research Agency of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), going on to take various research and technology management roles within MOD establishments and eventually becoming director of the Centre for Defence Analysis at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.

She’s had no qualms about working in the defence sector. “It’s called the Ministry of Defence, not the Ministry of Attack. It’s about protecting the UK and its interests and making sure that if politicians do decide to put our forces into armed conflicts they’re more likely to succeed and come out alive.”

From 2000–03 she worked in the Department of Trade and Industry’s Office of Science and Technology, leading in managing the interface with the research councils. She worked with them to establish the Diamond Light Source and represented the UK on CERN’s council.

As a manager she supported flexible working for both men and women with caring responsibilities. “Good employees are an asset and you want to hold on to them. About 15 years ago my own job moved. My husband was in Worcestershire and I was in Hampshire, so we ran two houses and met up at weekends. You have to find a way through and after nearly six years we relocated. For me it was certainly not ‘career at all costs’.

“There are a lot of myths about having to plan your career in detail. That works for some people; but for me it’s always been about doing things that have interested me. If there’s a challenge for women in senior roles it’s in the interactions with your peer group. Men often have more things in common and you can feel a bit of an outsider. If you don’t find a colleague with whom you have sufficient empathy to talk things through, it can be stressful and lonely.”

Saunders was made a CB in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours. She’s a member of the physics panel of the Research Evaluation Framework for 2014, and of Cranfield University’s council, a non-executive director of a small security company and on panels of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She’s also a trustee of the Engineering Development Trust, which helps young people to learn about science and engineering careers through schemes such as Year in Industry.

She’s joined discussions about the role of a professional body such as the IOP in the 21st century. “What is it that only the Institute can do or is best placed to do, alone or with partners? I see my role as ensuring that the IOP is fit for the future. It’s fundamentally not broken, but needs to raise its game in some areas and to broaden its appeal.”