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Culture, history and society

IOP President, Jonathan Flint CBE, outlines his aspirations as he takes office

10 October 2019

As he begins his tenure as President of the IOP, Jonathan Flint CBE speaks about his aspirations for the next two years. It will be a period of challenge and uncertainty for the UK and Ireland, but one in which the IOP can thrive.

Jonathan Flint, who began his two year term as IOP president on 1 October 2019, brings a business and industry perspective to his role, the organisation and its new strategy.

After graduating in physics from Imperial College in 1982, he began a career in industry, spending 20 years at Marconi and BAE Systems in technical and managerial roles. He went on to lead other physics-based companies including 11 years as CEO of Oxford Instruments and has served as Non-executive Director at several innovation-based businesses. Most recently he joined Refeyn, a tech company spun out from research at Oxford University, as Executive Chairman. He was awarded a CBE for services to science and business in 2012.

Talking to him as he takes office, it is clear that he has a deep appreciation of what physics can achieve for business and the economy.

“After my physics undergraduate degree, I did not go into research but I have seen what physics can do for the broader community and businesses,” he says. “Several businesses I have run are based on physics. Physics runs deep in their DNA. Oxford Instruments transformed an innovation developed in the lab, the magnets which made the MRI scanner possible, and into a significant wealth-creating company.”

This perspective informs his thinking about the opportunities and challenges for the IOP over the next two years. This begins with the strategy, which as president-elect for the last two years, he was closely involved in developing.

“It is very common in business to have a multi-year strategy. For the IOP it is great to have a well-defined strategy that all members can relate to. As with a commercial company, the best strategies are simple. If it takes more than five minutes to explain, people will lose interest. We have focused on three main things that the IOP can do to put the discipline at the centre of people’s thoughts.”

The key challenges outlined in the strategy; diversity and skills, unlocking capability and public dialogue, all have a strong business rationale. Jonathan’s commitment to each is borne from his own professional experience.

“In all the companies I ran, I pushed for greater diversity. These were science-based businesses yet often struggled to show true diversity, in terms of the number of women, ethnic minorities or people from disadvantaged communities employed.

“A lack of diversity like this is not only unfair to the people excluded from the workplace. It also has an impact on decision making. In my experience, diverse groups make better decisions. If you work in a truly diverse team then you can deploy, say, 100 years of experience from a just handful of people. If, however, you have a group where diversity is lacking, then you only benefit from the same 20 years of life experience, lived five times over.”

Jonathan also argues that a lack of diversity has an impact at a larger scale, as a lack of STEM capability in the workforce impacts on the economy’s ability to add value.

“If some groups do not believe that physics is for them, then the economy is missing out on talent from under-represented communities. We need to make sure the environment attracts people from all communities to physics so we can benefit from their ideas.”

Jonathan’s presidency will oversee the beginning of the delivery of the new strategy, but comes at a time of great uncertainty for the UK and Ireland.

“I believe the dangers of a no-deal Brexit are profound for the UK economy, and particularly physics.

“My experience in business is that uncertainty is particularly hard to deal with. In a chaotic environment it is very difficult to plan and apply rational problem-solving skills. Running a business in chaotic conditions is many times harder than doing so in a steady state or predictable environment.”

In a more general sense, Brexit has emphasised the importance of the public dialogue strand of the IOP strategy.

“In my opinion, evidence-based debate has been a casualty of the strong feelings that the Brexit debate has engendered. People have placed feelings and opinions ahead of facts, and the role of the expert has been downgraded. It is important to counter this. Generally, when people pay attention to facts, a consensus begins to emerge in the centre, around which the different sides can coalesce. Without evidence there is no centre ground and plotting a sensible path becomes difficult.”

For Jonathan, this need for evidence-based decision-making underlines the importance of the IOP’s public engagement work.

“It is important people understand what physics can do for them. I do not mean that everyone can, or should, be able to understand, physics at higher levels. Rather, they should be able to understand and interpret evidence, and how to process it in order to reach good decisions. That is something that we as a discipline can help achieve for society.

“It is important, therefore, for the IOP to be more outward looking. The strategy identifies the need to develop more and stronger external relationships. Through the IOP’s strong understanding of important strategic topics we can be instrumental in shaping policy.”

These are big challenges. What will success look like at the end of two years?

“At the end of two years if we’ve made a good start on implementing the strategy, if our links with government have reformed and we’ve preserved our links with our European co-workers, that will be a success.”

As he considers the start of his presidency, Jonathan pays tribute to his predecessor, Dame Julia Higgins, and fellow Council members.

“Julia’s term as President saw two landmarks for the IOP - the creation of the flagship new London office and the development of the strategy. These are great achievements. They are the starting points for a period of implementation and delivery.

“To be President of the IOP is an extraordinary honour, given the very many physicists who are so much more accomplished in the discipline than I!” he says. “However, as President-elect I had an extensive apprenticeship working with Julia and the rest of Council. There is a stunning amount of intellect at the IOP. It is an inspiring environment. The precision and fact-based nature of decision-making at the IOP is something many businesses could benefit from.

“Delivering value to our members is incredibly important to me and is another way that I can take Julia’s work forward so that we are better able to engage, inspire and support our members over the next two years.”

Jonathan Flint, CBE, standing in stairwell at the IOP building