London calling

John Wood, the new head of Imperial College London’s engineering faculty, aims to promote the profession as a creative pursuit by adding the wow factor.

To say that Imperial College London’s engineering faculty has a reputation to live up to is putting it mildly. With an annual turnover of £125m, its nine departments, 1,000 staff and almost 5,000 students make it the largest of its kind in the UK and an internationally recognised centre of excellence.

According to the Times Higher Education Supplement’s most recent rankings, it is the top university for technology in Europe and the fourth best in the world. From the fruits of its research, to its rich history of spin-outs (more than 70 to date) and stream of high-profile academic advisers to both government and industry, its influence is considerable and its contribution to society huge.

Heading all this up is an important task, representing possibly the biggest academic engineering job in the UK. And that, says the faculty’s new principal, Prof John Wood, is why he took the post.

One of the big attractions of Imperial, said Wood, is that it has the strength and depth to address the really big challenges: ‘It’s big enough to come up with solutions to the big issues that face us: health, transport, energy, the environment. I think Imperial can make a difference and has the credibility to work with others — big industry and government.’

This is a world in which Wood, who graduated from Sheffield in 1971 with a degree in metallurgy, is experienced and apparently at ease. He joins Imperial from the council for the central laboratory of the research councils (CCLRC) where, as chief executive, he was at the forefront of some of the UK’s biggest science projects. He also chairs ESFRI, the European forum that looks at the next 20 years of big European projects, such as the ITER fusion reactor and the Square Kilometer Array radio-telescope.

He must now bring this expertise to bear on some pressing issues. In the face of mounting global competition, a Europe-wide fall in the number of students taking up science and engineering, and the emergence of new centres of academic excellence elsewhere in the world, how can Imperial maintain its illustrious reputation?

‘One thing you don’t do is compare yourself with other institutions in the UK,’ said Wood. ‘You’ve got to look at other places around the world — especially what’s going on in China. A very good friend of mine has just become head of Jiaotong university —it’s the Oxbridge of China — and he tells me they are paying West coast salaries to get people back. We’ve got to do the same. If you grind your academics into the ground and don’t pay them proper salaries you’re going to be uncompetitive. We’re in a global game, we have to provide global salaries and globally competitive facilities and we’ve got to tackle the big challenges.’

A key to developing solutions for the big problems is, he said, getting students involved in delivering solutions from the word go. As a result he anticipates major changes in the way engineering is taught. He is, for instance, a vocal advocate of e-learning, where students get all their data and content from the web and the role of the teacher is to bring it all together and place it in some kind of context.

‘Why do we you teach the same course on FEA in every dept? Where is it being taught best? Instead of the teacher just rattling out the facts you can envisage much more exciting methods for teaching. I treat engineering as a verb. You engineer solutions. You don’t say I’m a this, that, or the other engineer because that is disappearing.’

He is also keen to encourage the idea that engineering is at heart a creative pursuit. ‘Currently we wait until people have their chartered engineer status before we give them any responsibility. We’ve got to get over this creative element far more and you’ve got to take risks.’

An important component in this is raising students’ awareness of the real-world applications of their chosen field, which Imperial can do by building on the success of its lauded spin-out operation, Imperial Innovations, and fostering greater links with industry.

Although keen to join forces with big technology companies, Wood is content that Imperial’s status means it can choose who it works with. ‘I have a view that you don’t take dirty washing to pay the bills, you decide what you want to do, then say “that’s what we do, do you want to be with us or not?” ‘

He added that as the engineering faculty’s work moves into the heart of unfamiliar disciplines, such as healthcare, the ethical dimension of its research and industrial relations also warrants closer scrutiny. ‘I think we need to explore this area much more, there are some areas that academics feel very uncomfortable working with, and all areas of technology, even the most apparently benign, have an upside and a downside. For instance nuclear energy is probably the most benign form of energy production going but the downsides we all know about.’

Defence is another thorny area that Wood is uncomfortable with, but he doesn’t want to be prescriptive. ‘Each academic has to decide on their own conscience. I’m not so keen on institutions imposing a conscience — that smacks of totalitarian regimes. But I think you should be willing to have the debate.’

Beyond his immediate responsibility to his staff and students, Wood also believes the engineering faculty has a role to play in promoting the profession to the wider community. He hopes to kick this mission off by giving the faculty’s Exhibition Road frontage a hi-tech facelift that could inspire the thousands of school children who walk past on their way to the Science Museum next door. ‘We’ve got to get over the message that this is exciting and creative. It’s not about spanners and grease guns — it’s about dealing with today’s problems,’ said Wood.

He also believes that by engaging more effectively with schools, Imperial could be the catalyst for a resurgence of interest in engineering. One way he hopes to do this is by borrowing an idea from his previous organisation, and sending academics out to schools as science and engineering ambassadors. Anything that helps bridge the divide between schools and universities will, he said, be beneficial.

‘It’s always been a bit of a problem linking the schools with the universities. One idea is to integrate school teachers with university departments so they feel wanted and part of the excitement of what’s going on, and can then communicate that back to the kids.’

For Wood nothing encapsulates the excitement and creativity of engineering better than the big scientific projects that have dominated so much of his career.

He is now, for example, chairing the international council for XFEL, an immensely powerful particle accelerator that will send electrons hurtling down a 3.4km underground tunnel to generate pulses of brilliant X-ray light. This instrument will enable researchers to film at atomic detail the precise sequence of events in chemical reactions and biological processes and promises revolutionary developments across a range of industries.

‘That’s got the wow factor,’ enthused Wood. ‘Mind-blowing science with real engineering applications. Some of them won’t work — that’s a risk you have to take — but you’ve got to have the dream, otherwise you’d give up.’