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Culture, history and society

Phil Evans reflects on his first three months as IOP Director of Physics Programmes

15 May 2020

After 32 years with the Met Office, Phil Evans says it’s the IOP that is making the weather when it comes to ensuring the societal benefits of physics.

Phil Evans’ first few months at IOP have been, in his words, ‘mostly virtual’.

Joining in February 2020, just a few weeks before ‘lockdown’, and the social distancing restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, gave him an opportunity to get to know the team and see a few programmes in operation, but since then, like many others, most of his conversations have been through video calls.

It’s clearly an unusual context in which to join a new organisation. His executive role as director of physics programmes oversees the IOP’s Education, Science and Innovation and Project Office functions at present; and shortly the IOP’s diversity and inclusion work – so there are a wide range of activities to learn about.

In fact lockdown has provided a golden opportunity to familiarise himself with some of the work of the Education team. As father to two young daughters, he has been a regular on the ‘Do Try This at Home’ pages of the IOP website, where resources are available for families looking for inspiration for children at home.

“We did a physics experiment yesterday,” he recalls, “using surface tension to stop a glass of water emptying over my head. It worked, fortunately.”

The IOP’s commitment to help widen participation and help correct the gender gap in physics in schools, colleges, universities and the workplace particularly resonated. “As father to two young girls this aspect of IOP’s work really means something to me,” he adds.

This kind of social contribution has marked Phil's career, and closely links his time at the Met Office with his move to the IOP.

Starting out as a young physics graduate, he was attracted to the Met Office for the opportunities it gave to use his skills in a fascinating area of science that makes a major contribution to society. For more than a decade he worked in technical and scientific roles, including procuring and testing satellite systems, working on collaborations with Nasa and commercialising the technology developed.

Later he held roles in corporate management, setting up a business innovation function within the organisation, serving as a chief advisor to government (and as managing director of the Met Office’s commercial arm and the director responsible for all services provided to governments.

His final role was chief operating officer, where had overall responsibility for all the Met Office’s weather forecasting services and a staff of 700. 

“The Met Office is a public body but works like a business in many respects. All the work it does is done under contracts with the government. I was incredibly privileged to work there for as long as I did in the roles I did because it does some really interesting things in areas like atmospheric modelling, observation science and research. “It’s the epitome of a leading science organisation that is working hard to exploit that science for the benefit of society. It’s very congruent with what the IOP is all about.”

This blend of public service and private enterprise, of promoting science and innovation and using them to make a contribution to society, links closely with how he views the IOP’s work under the new strategy ‘Unlocking the Future’.

Phil will be playing a major role in helping the IOP to work effectively towards achieving its ambitions under the strategy. What changes does he see as necessary to get there?

“I don’t have a blueprint for change and I’m still learning about how the organisation works. A priority for me is to work to enable colleagues to achieve their goals. I’m asking, how can we help you to work in the best way possible.”

This theme of enablement also echoes through the IOP’s engagement with members. Phil cites the current consultation with members on their concerns about the short, medium and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as a good example.

“I think we are asking some really important questions at the moment about what is important for physics and science generally. We need to understand how best to support society’s needs, and then see how we as an organisation can support our members, and beyond them, the community. I see the IOP doing this every day and the consultation of members in the current context of the COVID-19 situation is pivotal.”

For physics to play its full role in society, Phil is clear that perceptions of physics as an elitist discipline need to change.

“There’s a misconception that physics is only for certain types of people, but in reality it’s no harder or easier than any other subject. It’s important in a democratic society undergoing great technological change that people understand science and its application – whether to COVID-19, climate change, energy generation or clean water. Decisions in all these areas rest on an understanding of physics, which is central to so many of them.”

For Phil, the starting point for thinking about the IOP is the societal benefit of physics. “I see the IOP as contributing to society in a meaningful and powerful way, and that’s something that I feel passionate about.”