Philip Diamond is helping to forge a new future for the IOP

24 November 2014

Philip Diamond has seen the IOP evolve from something that had “the feel of a gentleman’s club” into a modern organisation, and wants to see it progress even further.

Philip Diamond

As the Institute’s associate director for programmes, performance and policy, he has a new role in leading a drive for greater coherence and co-ordination in the IOP’s activities.

“In the past we had directorates with specific functions and to some degree they operated independently of each other,” he says. “We’ve recognised that for our projects and activities to be successful, many teams of people need to contribute, so we want to organise our work around this. We want to do this from the beginning of planning our activities so that we can be more effective at working together.

“To this end, we’ve set up a programme office, with a programme board of senior staff, to be the fulcrum of that planning. This is new, and part of my role has been to set that up. We’re in the process of testing that out and improving it. We’ve set up a process for how we agree, introduce and review projects to identify areas where things have not worked so well.”

As well as taking on these new responsibilities, Diamond still has oversight of the IOP’s fundraising activities and of a new policy centre that is coordinating the IOP’s policy activities. His first job at the Institute, when he began working for the IOP in 1990, was in the education department.

“We were in Belgrave Square and there were roughly 40 staff on the London side of the operation. When I started we were very much a learned society that felt a little Edwardian. There were stuffed leather chairs and a back entrance to the building for staff, with a separate dining room for senior staff. It had the feel of a gentlemen’s club. It was a little quaint – some might say charming – but it had to change and we modernised. We have moved a long way from that.

Quote

“At that time the IOP’s publishing company was not the successful generator of gift aid that it is now and so we were a smaller family. I think that in the past 25 years I have seen an increasing professionalism in our activities, whereas in the past we had more reliance on our volunteers.

“However, I think that there’s now some recognition that over that period we became a little disengaged from our members and our active volunteers, and we’re working towards redressing that balance. The Institute is its members and we don’t exist without them. They are incredibly important to us and as a larger and necessarily more bureaucratic organisation we have to make sure that we connect well with them. The members are the heart and soul of the Institute.”

Diamond first became interested in physics as a child, he says. “I suppose I was a little pretentious as a kid and I wanted to find a subject that looked like something that only clever people did. It looked hard, it looked serious and so I gravitated towards it. I had friends a little older than me whom I admired who studied physics and it sounded interesting. I liked the ideas and the philosophical aspects of it.

“I think for many years at the Institute we were worried that the fact that physics looked difficult and had this geeky image was a barrier to access. But times have changed and some would say that these things are actually attractive to many people – they are not so fearful of being seen to be interested in physics.

“Our subject has the power to address some really difficult questions. If you understand it you can discover new things and invent new things but you have to do the hard work in order to get to those.”

After graduating in 1983 from Brasenose College, Oxford with a degree in physics, Diamond went to the Royal Free Hospital in London as a physicist. As a student on work experience there, one of his tasks had been to calibrate thermoluminescent dosimeters. “I found it quite therapeutic, working alone with my machine, and I felt useful,” he says. Dosimeters are used in determining the radiation dose for people being treated by radiotherapy and he could see that it was important work.

“Initially I was employed as a research associate. In particular I was involved with using radiation as a tool to investigate how well organs function. When I started, MRI was a nascent technology. I was also interested to see many former particle physicists using their skills to develop PET scanning, and ex-astronomers working on imaging algorithms.”

He undertook an MSc in nuclear and particle physics at Birkbeck College, London, in his spare time. “I had lectures after work. It was hard work but it really provided me with the intellectual stimulation that I was missing in my day-to-day job. I was very interested in different approaches to quantum mechanics. For many students, Birkbeck played a critical part in their education and it offered something that nowhere else did.”

He became a member of the IOP while working at the Royal Free. “I joined various groups; I was interested in the history of physics and attended meetings organised by the IOP. I remember as a young member being invited to the Science Museum to celebrate the centenary of Niels Bohr’s birth. Neville Mott was there, as was one of Bohr’s sons. I would not underestimate the importance of such interactions between members and the Institute, if somewhere along the line they have a good experience.”

Diamond kept up with the wider world of physics through Physics Bulletin (the precursor to Physics World) where he saw his first job at the IOP advertised. Though he missed medical physics, he accepted that there was a trade-off with being involved in education policy.  “You gain and you lose some things. I was keen that we should be advocates for our members and I had some appreciation of the concerns that our working members had.

“I am proud that I worked with the community on enabling four-year degrees to happen. Our job was to check that the government ministers responsible for higher education were happy to let a four-year degree sit alongside a three-year degree. It was an issue that I fervently believed would improve the education of physicists in this country. I worked with many senior academic physicists and I found that personal engagement tremendously fulfilling.” He was also involved in the IOP successfully making the case for more money to go into university physics departments for research and teaching.

Wider culture
“When I first worked at the IOP we recognised that we needed to focus more on undergraduate students. Now pretty much all physics students join the IOP as undergraduates, but we also need to engage with them better as they become postgraduates and postdocs, understand their needs and support them in their early steps towards becoming physicists.”

He has been involved in setting up the IOP’s recent fundraising initiative. This has had some notable successes, including substantial gifts from the Drayson and Wolfson Foundations. “I am delighted that the IOP is starting to be seen by donors as an organisation that is making an impact. We should be encouraged by that and increase our efforts in this area. An aspect of this work has been to raise our profile with those not traditionally associated with physics. This has included organising events to show that physics is part of the wider culture.

“We have invited artists and writers, for example people of the stature of Tom Stoppard and Ian McEwan, to come and have dinner at the Institute and meet physicists. I have been thrilled that they have accepted these invitations and that they have appreciated that and enjoyed themselves here. It’s good for the Institute to make friends outside physics and we are doing that, but we could do more.”

Film is also one of his interests and as a member of the British Film Institute he made contacts that led to the IOP collaborating with them on an educational project based on sci-fi films.

“I get satisfaction from working with members of the physics community, the trustees, the active members in groups, and staff, in areas where I feel we want to make things better – either in the way things work in the Institute or in the physics endeavour. The challenges are in putting the steps in place to make that happen, and in having the will to persist.”