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IOP impact: how we’ve delivered for members, for physics and for society

14 July 2023

Rachel Youngman, IOP Deputy Chief Executive, reflects on the IOP's impact over the last four years.

As we begin to shape a new strategy, it seemed timely to pause for a moment of reflection about the last four years and our strategy Unlocking the Future (PDF, 141KB). It launched in 2019, which seems a lifetime ago, given the profound changes we’ve seen in our world since then.  

I’d like to reflect on some of the impact we’ve had so far. So much of this work has been with our members and the wider physics community and other sciences. That has given invaluable insights and advice to shaping how the IOP responds to the strategy. Here are some highlights that for me give a flavour of what we have all achieved together for physics, for society and for the wider world. 

Supporting physics through the pandemic  

Soon after the launch of Unlocking the Future, the world faced the COVID-19 pandemic – with unprecedented and lasting impacts in the UK, Ireland and across the globe. The IOP invested significant funds, resources and practical support into helping the physics community during this challenging time.   

We worked with the Treasury to ensure that research funding was protected, focused on ensuring that the supply of physics teachers was not disrupted and found new ways to engage with the IOP community virtually – with virtual events taking off and making IOP events more accessible to an even wider range of people. We supported the Benevolent Fund to help members facing financial challenges through COVID-19 and we continue financial support today for those affected by the war in Ukraine.  

On an international scale, we initiated a roundtable of national physics societies from the USA to China, India, Japan and across Europe to share ideas and develop common themes.  

As an employer, we worked to keep our team safe and supported to work from their homes within an inclusive culture.  

Supporting young people to change the world  

In 2020, we launched our first ever influencing campaign, Limit Less, which works to break down the barriers and stereotypes, including in our media, that put young people from underrepresented backgrounds off continuing with physics to a post-16 training or qualification.  

Among so many highlights, we’ve shared the stories of young people, their families and current physicists and inspired new audiences via TikTok, working with well-known influencers to reach more than five million people. Now in its second year, the Eurekas competition has encouraged young people to explore their creative thinking in how physics impacts their world. We’ve had everything from songs to cake baking.  

We know that it is often government policy that needs to change and in 2022, we gave evidence at the UK’s Science, Innovation and Technology Select Committee inquiry, as well as Ireland’s Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. This year, more than 30 MPs and members of the House of Lords attended our recent parliamentary event. And we’ve challenged off-putting stereotypes in the media through our front-page Bin the Boffin campaign and our very well-received guidelines for social media and journalists. I’m so excited for the campaign to grow and have an even greater impact in years to come.  

Unleashing the potential of physics in society

Our work to help the UK and Ireland power the new industrial era has gone from strength to strength, with IOP research, convening power and political influencing making the case for physics as a vital answer to the challenges facing our society. We brought that to public audiences through the three series of IOP’s Looking Glass podcast, which was a New York Festivals 2023 award winner.

We published our blueprint for physics research and development (R&D) last year, described by former Universities and Science Minister Lord Willets as the most significant report for physics R&D since 2008. The blueprint sets out the conditions needed to create more, and more impactful, R&D and looks at what changes are needed in each of the core pillars of the R&D system.

We’re backing up this long-term R&D vision with our Shaping the Debate programme, which focuses on the potential of key areas of physics and sets out the action we can take to fulfil that potential. We’ve already published A Vision for Quantum Technologies in the UK, which contributed to the UK government’s recent £2.5bn quantum strategy, and UK Semiconductor Challenges and Solutions, which made headlines on BBC News.

With our strong focus and track record in building international collaboration, we worked with governments and academic partners to design a multinational and partnership proposal to increase physics research partnerships between the UK and five countries in Africa.

We continue to work with the UK government to ensure that it prioritises association to Horizon Europe and that any alternative provides the science community with a chance to shape the proposal. 

Supporting a diverse, thriving and effective physics community

Young people must have access to good physics teaching no matter where they live and, alongside our Limit Less campaign work to break down the barriers that put young people off physics, it is also vital that we recruit, support and retain teachers. We continue to push for action to end the shortage of physics teachers, by working with partners and influencing governments.

In late 2020 we published Subjects Matter, which urged policy makers across the UK to back a new subject-specific programme of support and professional development for teachers. This major piece of work has become a reference point for planning the future of science continuing professional development and has helped successfully make the case to the UK Government of the potential to retrain existing teachers of the other sciences as physics specialists. We also worked closely with engineering bodies to persuade the UK Government to launch a new pilot teacher training course aimed specifically at recruiting engineers into teaching physics

Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is right at the heart of all our work and we know from our members that this is not only important but seen as an essential part of IOP’s role. I’m particularly proud to lead this work in the IOP, the media and beyond. Our Case for EDI highlights the importance of EDI and sets out how we can make physics more representative of society as a whole. We know this takes time but we cannot take a back seat lest we let down our members and the next generation of physicists.

Project Juno, which we set up and funded in partnership with the physics community 15 years ago, continues to drive gender equality in UK university physics departments and, in August 2021, we were awarded the status of practitioner status ourselves. We are now working with the community to develop planning a new inclusion model that will go beyond gender equality, recognise the shifts in society and make sure that everyone belongs and can thrive within an inclusive culture wherever they study, train or work. It is right that we do this, and we know there is value by creating this change.

Talking to the public about the impact physics has on the problems that matter to society

One of the central aims of our strategy is to show how society can benefit from physics, and we’ve found new and exciting ways to engage with the public through diverse voices, from our Superheroes Unlimited 2022 Summer Exhibition to our Communities in Conversation public dialogue programme in which we’ve engaged with local communities in Rochdale, Cardiff, Coventry and Belfast.

Our public engagement teams around the UK and Ireland have supported IOP members in their engagement with families at key events including the Big Bounce Festival in Glasgow, the National Ploughing Championships in Ireland, the Northern Ireland Science Festival and the National Eisteddfod of Wales/Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru.

Looking to the future

So much has changed since we launched Unlocking the Future in 2019. The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis have changed the way we live and work and shone a light on many inequalities which exist today. New technologies – many powered by physics – are pushing us ahead into a new industrial era.

But much has not changed. The core challenges for physics are as salient as ever, and physics remains one of the most important tools for humanity and our society to build a sustainable, equal, prosperous future.

That is why our refreshed strategy must build upon the success we’ve had together over the past few years. We must continue to support our members and advocate for the solutions physics needs to deliver on its potential for society.

I am so proud of how far our organisation has come and so delighted that we can come together to renew our ambition for the future, as the community did at last month’s terrific Celebration of Physics. Together we will continue to celebrate the importance and sheer excitement of our great discipline in making our world a better place. I’d like to thank all our members, volunteers and staff, past and present, for being part of this.

Rachel Youngman, IOP Deputy Chief Executive