IOP calls for more investment at launch of its report on physics in food manufacturing

24 October 2016

The UK should invest in food manufacturing to maintain its economic competitiveness in the face of a new relationship with the EU, according to a new IOP report.

IOP calls for more investment at launch of its report on physics in food manufacturing

The report, The Health of Physics in UK Food Manufacturing, calls on the government to establish an industrial strategy committee for the sector, to be chaired by a minister from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Such a committee would, it says, be able to provide a coordinated, strategic, raised investment in the research that underpins what is the UK’s largest single manufacturing sector.

It would also support collaborations between academia and industry, spread awareness of the industry’s reliance on technological innovation, and inspire physics students to work in food manufacturing.

Speaking at a launch event held at PepsiCo’s Leicester premises on 21 October and attended by representatives of industry, academia and research councils, the Institute’s chief executive, Professor Paul Hardaker, said: “We believe food manufacturing should play a key role in the government’s industrial strategy.”

In welcoming attendees to the event, the Institute’s president, Professor Roy Sambles, said: “MPs are concerned about Brexit. Some of you here will be key in that space.”

He noted that the IOP’s role in this area is about “recognising the value of physics and focusing attention on innovation, and encouraging the UK to look to the future.”

IOP calls for more investment at launch of its report on physics in food manufacturing

Hardaker added that it’s important for organisations such as the Institute to get involved in this process, and called upon industry to join with the IOP in driving these messages forward.

The Institute’s report notes that the food manufacturing sector is larger than automotive and aerospace put together. It accounts for 19% of total manufacturing turnover, generates a gross value added of £28 bn and doubled its exports in the decade to 2014 amid an overall decline in UK exports. However it isn’t growing as quickly as the automotive industry.

R&D spending is low compared to other sectors, and it receives little public R&D funding, meaning the UK’s food manufacturing sector is at risk of losing out to international competitors.

Science is a proven driver of economic growth and productivity – research by the UK Innovation Research Centre suggests that for every £1 invested in R&D by the UK government, private sector R&D outputs rise by 20 pence per year in perpetuity.

This effect exists at both national and sector levels, and the fast growth within automotive correlates with an increase in that sector’s R&D spending since 2008 – an increase not seen in the food industry.

Consultations between academia and industry facilitated by the IOP revealed that physics is relevant to many of the precompetitive research areas that the sector has identified as priorities.

Although much of the sector’s productivity is underpinned by physics, there is a widespread lack of awareness of this.

IOP calls for more investment at launch of its report on physics in food manufacturing

The report also says that there is clear room for growth in funding for the physics disciplines that underpin food manufacturing, and the IOP’s analysis of the funding landscape suggests that it is fragmented and doesn’t meet the sector’s needs.

The launch event saw a Q&A session with a panel made up of three leading industrialists: John Bows, senior principal scientist at PepsiCo R&D Snacks, Dr Robert Farr, expertise team leader for creation and management of microstructures at Unilever, and Dr John Melrose, strategic process and technology manager at Jacobs Douwe Egberts.

The trio had contributed case studies to the Institute’s report, which were published as extracts on the IOP blog in the days before the launch.

Reiterating the importance of physics to the sector, Bows said: “Soft-matter physics is one of our main challenges. We transform a lot of matter from one state to another. We do a lot of computer simulation. We don’t have to do so much ‘cook and look’.”

Melrose added that a physicist’s role is often to “sketch out a framework for people to think through their process of manipulation”.

Asked about careers for physicists in food manufacturing, Farr said: “The strength of physics is that it is such a broad area, so the opportunities are diverse.”

Bows, who has predominantly worked on Walkers crisps, added: “I’ve had a whale of a time over 30 years applying field physics to food. [It’s] fabulously interesting and challenging – especially crisps.”

A delegate to the event – to whom the Chatham House rule under which it was held prevents us from attributing comments – observed that the industry’s recruitment challenge is exacerbated by none of the job titles for physicists in the sector having the word physicist in them. In response, Hardaker noted that there is a general shortage of physicists in the UK, and added: “For a sector like food manufacturing, not traditionally thought of as physics, it’s doubly difficult.”

A second delegate emphasised that while the government may talk about wanting to see the UK’s exports increase, they had to commit to actually delivering something. “We need to put the jam on the table for the academics to create this,” he said, “otherwise we’re going down and out.”

The report is among the outputs of the Institute’s pilot programme of open innovation in food manufacturing, part of the IOP’s strategy to position businesses to actively exploit physics research. The IOP identified an opportunity in the food sector after being approached by two of its fellows.

The Institute is developing further legacy activity as part of the programme, including holding a two-day conference in January 2017, looking into the feasibility of establishing a Food Manufacturing Group, producing resources highlighting career opportunities in the sector, and carrying out outreach activities to engage the public.

Speaking after the event, the IOP’s head of science and innovation, Anne Crean, said: “Physics is behind so much of the innovation that keeps our economy strong. Food manufacturing is a great example of this, although physics is underappreciated in the sector.

“Our report, and our other work in this area, will help the food industry to fulfil its full potential and give a big boost to the UK’s knowledge-led economy.

“We’re pleased that it was well received by leaders from within the sector and representatives from the research councils today.”

The report is available to download from the publications section of the IOP website.