President's Address 2017
22 March 2017, the Great Hall
We gather this evening to celebrate and pay tribute to some of our friends, alumni and colleagues who received external honours this year. The honours as you have seen range from National Honours bestowed by Her Majesty The Queen, to Fellowship of the Royal Society, medals, prizes, honorary degrees, best papers and entrepreneurial prizes. I note particularly Professor Tom Kibble’s posthumous recognition with the Institute of Physics Isaac Newton medal and I welcome his family here tonight.
Congratulations to all. You inspire us.
Since moving to London I’ve become quite a fan of making and drinking tea.
Tea is a social drink. It is more than a beverage. It is an occasion, a brief timeout from the pressures of the day. Many moments in life require time to sit down, take stock, and talk to someone or think about something. These times call for a cup of tea.
It takes time to make proper tea. There is the ritual of filling and turning on the kettle, waiting for the boiling that seems so robust in a proper British kettle, preparing the tea, letting it steep, and letting it cool before drinking it. Having tea forces me to slow down. It reminds me of the importance of patience.
I am not a patient person. I am eager to address the next challenge, to find a solution, to get done the many things on my to-do list.
We are now a couple of years into the College Strategy. We have done quite a bit in these years and today we are launching a new website to celebrate our actions, to assess our progress and review our work in the context of the strategy. The world looks very different now than it did in 2015. Our strategy has evolved because of this, and that is good. But we have a lot yet to do and it is hard to be patient about it.
In a world where information is at our fingertips, where news is instant, and communication rapid, we have become accustomed to thinking and acting quickly. We have forgotten the value and the necessity of patience.
When I first decided to talk about patience in this address, I had no idea how much anxiety would be created by the rapid, poorly thought out decisions affecting the world on a daily basis. We have witnessed astounding things, weekend judicial rulings, hate crimes, missile tests and divisive words uttered, retracted, and promulgated once again.
The past year of unexpected political events, and the instability created by 'uncertainty' has made many of us impatient. How will we navigate what is ahead? How can we cope with not knowing what is in store? What will Brexit be like? What will the world be like?
Much of the discussion about Brexit is focused on short term issues, yet there are many complicated things to be negotiated and we understand that these negotiations will take time. We need to, and we are, trying as hard as we can, to take a long view on Brexit and on the many other things going on around us.
There are, however, some things we must be proactive about. We need to know right now that Imperial’s colleagues who are EU citizens will be able to remain in Britain. While to some, this is a negotiating point with Europe, I strongly believe this: Government should take a proactive, and unilateral, position to welcome Europeans who live here today, to stay.
And, we will do our best to let our European colleagues know just how much we want them to stay.
Whenever there is a crisis, an abrupt change or a problem, our natural human desire is to 'do something'. While we all should be trying to do the right thing, to help out and to make our values clear, it seems to me that we also need to try our best to be patient. We sometimes need to step back, take a deep breath and assess the situation. Just as there is a time for action, so too is there a time for assessment and reflection.
As scholars, we are accustomed to the long deliberate process of research. We appreciate the understanding that comes from working methodically through a lengthy tome. We know that research and education, take time, and we know that this time invested is well worth the wait.
We must take that discipline of the academy, so well-honed by centuries of learned academics, and make it work for us. We must make it work in a world where we are conditioned to seize opportunities, file a patent, answer a Tweet, or catch an airplane.
These times require patience.
I want to share my thoughts on five areas where I think patience is important for Imperial. The first two are at the heart of our mission: research and teaching.The other three areas are translation of discovery, partnerships and philanthropy. All are central to our strategy.
So, I begin with research:
Funding for research brings accountability. Everyone wants to see resources put to good use. We are impatient for results. In some instances, lives depend on our new discoveries. In other cases, there is the pressure to create jobs, to beat our competitors and to tout new breakthroughs in the media.
We are all driven toward results and answers. But we must not neglect the long, slow, and careful process essential to excellent research. In the modern-day frenzy for 'impact' we need to continually remind ourselves, and our supporters, that long term, fundamental research takes time.
We know from experience that the wait is worth it. Think of some of the incredible breakthroughs that have happened after years, decades even, of hard work and patience. Like Professor Steve Bloom’s pioneering discovery of several gut hormones and their influence on appetite regulation and their role as neurotransmitters. His research since the 1980’s led to appetite reduction therapies brought to society through two spin out companies. Initial tests show that people consume fewer calories when they eat a meal after taking the hormones. He is now working on an EU funded project with Professor Chris Toumazou on a microchip to recognise and process signatures of appetite, mimic instructions to the brain, and reduce the urge to eat. These revolutionary advances came some thirty years after the initial discovery.
Supporting new, risky, ground-breaking research is a priority for Imperial. It was the reason we established the Excellence Fund for Frontier Research. These programmes will take time, courage and fortitude to be successful but we hope that government, foundations and philanthropists will take note, and they will follow our example by adding their support. It is critically important to support hard research that takes time.
We must make the case for looking to the long term with regard to research and we must not rush forward with research solely driven by short term needs and problems.
We do welcome the steadfast support of Government and especially the new investment of £2bn per year by 2020 into research and development. We need to ensure that this investment is made judiciously so that long term, sustainable, fundamental research is supported so that it has impact on a grander scale.
We also need to be patient in our approach to teaching.
We are passionate about teaching students. Education is at the heart of Imperial and we have generations of stellar alumni who make us very proud of what we do. When I visit our alumni, and we talk about their time here, I am struck by how little the essence of an Imperial education has changed. We still have extremely rigorous courses that inspire our students to learn, to think, and to dig deeply into themselves to master the concepts. This is the mark of an Imperial education.
Yet we know that students today are very different than students from decades past and we know that the world they will work in has changed significantly.
We know that we need to be open to new ideas about the way we teach. But we must do so in a way that does not harm what we are really good at. The new Excellence Fund for Learning and Teaching Innovation has been a catalyst for generating innovative ideas for how we teach at Imperial. These approaches will challenge our students to fulfil their potential and they will challenge us to deliver a world-class educational experience for all of our students.
We support these risky, innovative teaching initiatives while facing new and uncharted territory in the evaluation and assessment of teaching. The Teaching Excellence Framework is an admirable attempt to make our educational offer as accountable as our research excellence. The true challenge is that educational outcomes are difficult to measure, they take time and they require patience to see. And, they are not readily put into an analytic framework that provides the desired clarity and measure of excellence.
Advanced education is a means to produce learned members of society and to create an educated workforce. Arising out of both secular and religious organizations, the first universities in the 11th to 13th century, in Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca and Paris, were founded on the belief in the value of gathering teachers and scholars to develop and transmit scientific and scholarly knowledge.
The dialogue surrounding the value of a university degree is important, and yet it has lost these founding principles. Today, too often it is reduced to a discussion of salary, job placement or a snapshot of student opinion in a survey. There is much more value to our society from our system of higher education than we commonly realize. It is hard to imagine where the world would be without the millions of university graduates contributing to society as a whole. How can we measure the value of an educated citizenry? How can we appreciate the lives well-lived and the communities that thrive thanks to experiences gained in the formative years in university?
We must make the case for looking to the long term with regard to education and not rushing forward with teaching metrics solely driven by short term measurements. Surveys and salaries are poor proxies for lives well lived and they do not fully capture the value of a university education.
3. Translation of discovery
Perhaps nowhere are we more impatient these days than when we invest in entrepreneurial activities. The promise of a new invention gets everyone excited, from the inventor to the investor, to the media. Sometimes that promise is still a long way from certitude and it may take years to come to fruition. Expectations can get out of hand and the resulting disappointment may increase risk aversion and produce more timid investments in the future.
The Government’s Green Paper Building Our Industrial Strategy rightly looks to universities for the research that will bring innovation and it considers how to better translate discovery into commercial enterprise. But we must take care to protect and support those ideas having great societal, but little short term economic impact. We need to provide 'patient capital' and invest in ideas that take longer to develop.
I personally believe that it is not government’s role to drive innovation. It is something that universities and private enterprise can do best. Government’s role is to create and nurture an environment that supports small enterprises and entrepreneurs.
I think that we need appropriate tax incentives for startups, we need appropriate immigration policies for entrepreneurs, and small rapidly growing enterprises, and we need those with a good idea to be able to find space, patient capital and an environment of collegial mentors.
At Imperial, we are doing our part to promote innovation amongst our students. This week being Enterprise Week we are celebrating this promotion: we have our new Enterprise Lab, the Althea-Imperial programme, our Venture Catalyst Challenge and our Incubator at the I-Hub in White City. We are building these and more. We need partners with patience and foresight, partners to help us make the UK and London the innovation capital of the world.
The first of the ten pillars in the Government’s Green Paper is increased investment in science research and innovation. I welcome the increased investment; however, the emphasis is on the commercialization of the UK’s science base and it is critically important that the expectations behind it are realistic.
We must make the case for looking to the long term with regard to innovation, translation of research discoveries and entrepreneurial activities. Misplaced expectations can do more harm than good and patience is essential when seeking truly game-changing societal benefit.
Imperial College London excels at collaboration. We are wonderful partners, and we build relationships. We know that collaboration is positively correlated with academic excellence. This is more important than ever as the UK negotiates its changing relationship with Europe and we strive to maintain our strong partnerships there.
We have invested in seed funds for collaborations with MIT, and with European colleagues. We will do more of this and we would like to convince others to support this type of sharing.
The UK, like 25 other nations, contributes significant funding to the absolutely unique and ground breaking facility and research at CERN. The involvement of so many nations and scientists is its strength. What if we took the same approach to working together, across nations, around the world, to tackle antimicrobial resistance, climate change, food or energy supply? We could, as a global community, muster some incredibly powerful collaborations to tackle these and other fundamental challenges.
Just look at the breakthroughs that the European Research Council has brought about by patient investment in individuals and by fostering European collaboration. The support for Imperial professor Zoltan Takats and his work on the iKnife allows surgeons to immediately know whether the tissue they are cutting is cancerous or not. Or, support for Professor Andrew Davison whose research into robotic vision enables robots to move beyond controlled environments and successfully navigate the real world. Incidentally, the iKnife is based on electrosurgery, a technology invented in the 1920s, the same decade that the word robot was first used. Once again, we see the virtue of patience.
We have excellent corporate partners and our relationships with them have persisted and grown through multiple economic cycles and leadership transitions. Our partnerships endure because of the great relationships between our staffs working side-by-side on vexing problems requiring the very best research by the very smartest people.
We know that a partnership is a relationship and it takes time to build true, lasting and sustainable relationships. Patience is required for strong, lasting partnerships.
We must make the case for looking to the long term to ensure that the relationships needed for effective partnerships are sustainable and enduring. Patience and consistency are important in strong partnerships.
Our work would not be possible without the friends, alumni, foundations, staff and parents who provide the financial support for scholarships, chairs, fellowships, laboratories, classrooms, outreach facilities, prizes and lectures. They support us because they understand the importance of our work.
This support dates back to our foundation, from the financial support to the Royal College of Chemistry in 1845 by 'landowners, doctors and manufacturers', to the generous legacies from Alfred Beit in 1906, and Sir Julius Werner in 1912.
Over time many many more stepped forward with financial support in order to help advance our mission and our cause. Their names have become part of the fabric of Imperial College. We use and hear these names every day. To give just one example: In 1990, James A. Hartnett made a donation to support an academic post in neurology and mental illness. Mr Hartnett passed away in 2003 and his generous gift created the Hartnett Chair, today held by Professor David Brooks. Professor Brooks' prodigious research on positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging is helping to understand and treat the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Prof Brooks and his colleagues’ work is enhanced by the Clinical Imaging Facility with a new PET scanner in the Wolfson Building at our Hammersmith campus. The Wolfson Foundation has invested in breakthrough research and facilities at Imperial since 1959. Their support at that time was instrumental in creating a new Biochemistry department, and bringing back the Nobel Laureate Ernst Chain as its first Professor. The Foundation has contributed to new centres and laboratories having long lasting impact across the College, in areas such as Chemistry, Genetic Therapies, Family Health, Surgical Technology, Robotic Assisted Microsurgery and Education.
We honour the patience of the individuals, the alumni, friends, parents, and staff, and the institutions, the trusts and foundations who have stood by us, and continue to stand by us, as we ask the questions that will lead to greater understanding.
Philanthropic support requires trust, and the building of trust takes time. Philanthropists do not make donations lightly. It is our responsibility to show the lasting impact of their gifts, not only at Imperial, but across the world.
We need to offer them wonderful opportunities to make a difference in the world through Imperial.
In order to establish a stronger philanthropic tradition at Imperial, we must make the case for looking to the long term in building lasting relationships that will benefit society. It is important to be patient and open-minded when developing long-term trusting connections.
So I would like to conclude. Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Philanthropreneurship Forum in Vienna. I was inspired by Amr Al-Dabbagh’s creation of this Forum, and by his book, Omnipreneurship where he describes a holistic, integrated, entrepreneurial attitude toward life. It bears reflection and I think that there is a great opportunity for us to take stock, and to try to live our lives for the larger purpose of building a better world.
Whilst in Vienna, I visited Mozart Haus. I was struck by two things:
Firstly, Mozart was so incredibly productive in that house, composing some dozens of concertos, 5 operas including Figaro, and a symphony in the three years from 1784 to 1787. I noted that his productivity bloomed after considerable travels around Europe lending credence to the idea that seeing, working with and experiencing other cultures stimulates intellectual creativity. All the more reason to cherish our international colleagues, collaborations, visitors and travels.
The second thing that I took from his house was Mozart’s inscription, interestingly written in English, to his friend, Johann Georg Kronauer’s Stammbuch:
“Patience and tranquillity of mind contribute more to cure our distempers as the whole art of medicines.”
The distemper of these times is uncertainty and doubt. In 1787, Mozart understood the curative power of patience and tranquillity. The centuries since have not diminished that power.
Imperial will continue to move forward. We will continue our tradition of excellence in teaching and research. We will continue our focus on translating great science into enduring benefit to society. We will continue to be a great partner with a global perspective. We will continue to build a lasting philanthropic tradition that will enable Imperial to do even greater things.
We will do this through hard work, a commitment to excellence and, of course, patience.