President's Address Booklet (PDF)

Welcome. Thank you for coming. It is always wonderful to gather to celebrate the excellence around us.  As always, very many of our colleagues received exciting external awards. I hope that you enjoy reading about the amazing array of accolades in the programme, and that you will join us in the reception afterwards to celebrate these impressive colleagues.

In celebrating these colleagues, it is interesting to note that the people we acknowledge for their awards come from more than 25 countries. 

This leads naturally into my theme this year: 

We are international and we will stay that way.

I’m sure many of you remember your first truly international experience. I vividly remember my first days in Europe.

I was ill when I landed in Athens. I stopped at a pharmacy and was surprised to get a medication only available by prescription back home. Being an engineer helped me decipher the Greek alphabet.

I made my way to the suburbs with an address written on a paper plate.  Every so often, I’d ask someone for directions, showing them my plate. They warmly helped me; I understood the direction they pointed.

Friendly strangers pointing the way; it was a sort of early turn-by-turn navigation, long before Google maps and Siri.

I managed to find my group, and, before I knew it, I was staying with a widowed yaya on a Greek Island, studying Greek language and mythology.  I found out that my shower was a cold water douse over the toilet operated by pulling a chain. My yaya served me “chamomilla” tea.  I recovered, I learned some Greek and I also learned a tremendous amount about people and about myself.

After study in Greece, I took the Magic Bus to Austria and travelled around Europe by train. I went to Italy to see Rome and Florence. I went to Germany because of my family roots. I went to Spain because I had studied Spanish in school. I ended my travels in London, expecting to understand the language.  The friendly waiter serving breakfast cautioned me to take a “brolly”, as it was likely to be wet. The weather did not disappoint.  It rained.

I became a different person that summer. My eyes, my mind and my heart were opened to the world.

One thing that struck me then, and has always resonated, is how much we have in common with people, no matter where we are from.  We all care for family and friends, and, sometimes, even for strangers asking for directions. We share the desire for a good future. We appreciate a thing of beauty, a flower, a sunset, an adorable child, a cat. We have a common curiosity about others and about faraway places. 

We thrive when we explore. 

Hybrid Vigour

Our similarities are complemented by our differences. Each of us have world views shaped by our families, our experiences, our schools and the local culture where we grew up. Spending my postdoctoral year in France opened my eyes to how these differences are beneficial when we work together.

Sitting down to tackle a complex problem in condensed matter physics, I found my French colleagues taking a different approach from mine.  While I was ready to dive into solving some differential equations, they sharpened their pencils, took a clean sheet of paper, framed the problem in an elegant and simple way, and evaluated what needed to be done.  Our complementary strengths, when combined, augmented our work. 

We need not always agree with one another, in fact, sometimes the greatest discoveries come from disagreement. 

Collaboration is important not only across disciplines, but also across cultures. It brings new insights, leads to new approaches and to new discoveries.  I sometimes make the analogy between collaboration across cultures and the “hybrid vigour” or beneficial qualities that come from cross-breeding.  

Many of you have experienced this hybrid vigour in your collaborations and in your own research groups.  One need only to look at the award winning work across Imperial to see the qualities our diverse community brings to us and to society.

We are truly international.

Over the past decade, we have collectively collaborated with peers in 192 countries and more than half (56%) of our research papers have had international co-authors. On our website you can find a wonderful map showing these collaborations. This is some 105,000 research papers.  Almost two-thirds (63%) of our corporate research support comes from collaborations with businesses outside the UK.  Our students come from more than 130 countries.

Our diverse international research collaborations and our own international community produce breakthroughs benefiting us locally, regionally and throughout the world. Here are a few examples:

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing Professor Elio Riboli eloquently describe his work to a group of friends and supporters.  Thanks to support by the European Union and the World Health Organization,  Elio leads one of the largest cancer cohort studies in the world following more than half a million participants from 10 European countries for over 20 years. The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, or EPIC, is showing that a diet based on fruit, vegetables, whole grains and moderate consumption of poultry and fish reduces risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Our new School of Public Health in White City will bring this international approach to West London where over 120 languages are spoken in communities having a variety of traditions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds.

Another multi-national group, Natural BionicS, led by Professor Dario Farina, combines his expertise in neural interfaces with experts in neurosurgery at the University of Vienna and robotic specialists at Italian Institute of Technology to take prosthetic technology into a new era.  Funded by a European Research Council Synergy Grant, they are developing prosthetics that allow users to feel and command them as part of their body. The multidisciplinary and multicultural connections are literally helping us improve connections between the brain, spinal cord, and prosthetic limbs.  

Professor Molly Stevensleads a global group of bioengineers, material scientists, chemists, surgeons and biologists, from over 25 countries. They work with partners in the United States, South Africa and Australia to engineer human bone, liver and pancreas for autologous transplantation.  Their different cultural and disciplinary perspectives have helped the Stevens Group transform the development of biosensors and brought bioengineering approaches to regenerative medicine.

Professor of Sustainable Chemical Technology, Jason Hallett loves how his multinational group “bring their personal history wherever they go.”  New ideas, contacts and cultures, improve the whole group and enhance their work. He says “By far the easiest way to cross-fertilise ideas is to hire people from other places, especially those with different research backgrounds." Thanks, in part, to their group members, their vaccine work has made its way to India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China.

Hallett’s Swiss PhD student won a WE Innovate Prize for Chrysalix Technologies. Their BioFlex process transforms waste wood into material for fuel. When they couldn’t find the right hard wood in Europe, a fellow group member helped source it from China. 

Our immigrant heritage

Today, while the US is building a wall with Mexico, and the UK is likely departing from the EU it is especially important to remember that immigration is an integral part of the both countries’ history. 

The UK has benefitted from waves of immigration throughout history from the earliest settlers through recent recruits. Shakespeare’s London was multicultural and multiracial, including many North and West Africans, as well as Europeans. The Huguenots came to Britain in the 17th and 18th century and brought with them many capabilities in science, banking, weaving and glass. Appropriately, our major partnership with CNRS of France is named after Abraham de Moivre a Huguenot mathematician who came to England.  

After two world wars immigration was essential to rebuilding the UK. Our infrastructure was built by people from Europe, the West Indies, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Today, this diversity is part of what makes the UK the success that it is.

The effect of immigration on Imperial has been just as profound over the years.

Decades before our 1907 founding, in 1845, Professor August Wilhelm Von Hofmann, was recruited from Germany to be the first Director of the newly created Royal College of Chemistry by none other than Prince Albert himself.  Hoffman made significant contributions to synthetic chemistry and, he mentored exceptional students. One of his students, William Henry Perkin, discovered Mauveine and started the synthetic dye industry.

You could say that modern international collaboration was born in our neighbourhood.  Prince Albert had the vision to open the 1851 Great Exhibition to the world.  The possessions and innovations from more than 40 countries were represented in this first World’s Fair.  Over 4 million people from around Britain and the world arrived in London, over 50% more than the previous year.

We are a legacy of the Great Exhibition, and Imperial was international from its beginnings. By 1925, nearly a fifth of our students came from abroad.

Several of our Nobel laureates were foreign born. At the Dennis Gabor Lecture honouring our Hungarian Nobel laureate we learned how his writing, research and his teaching influenced the world.  Gabor moved to Imperial in 1958 and his pioneering development of holography was recognized with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1971. Today, we are the first university to use holographic technology to connect our business school to people around the world.  His phrase: "the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented" is just as apt today as when he wrote it in 1963.

Sir Ernst Chain came to the UK in 1933 and developed the unique "freeze drying" method to purify and concentrate penicillin. His 1945 Nobel Prize with Alexander Fleming and Howard Florey celebrated the discovery and production of penicillin. Coming to Imperial in 1961, Chain founded and chaired our Biochemistry department and helped make the Wolfson Laboratories one of the leading research centres in the field. 

Our international alumni and students are innovators and entrepreneurs.

This international flow of talent has always gone both ways. Many early 20th century Imperial students, such as Herbert Wright, moved abroad to conduct research into rubber in Ceylon and Malaya. His important and lucrative inventions propelled the emerging rubber industry.

In the late 1930s, Hiru Patel undertook the long journey on foot, by plane and boat from India to London, where he began study in Mechanical Engineering. His PhD thesis in Aeronautics developed our understanding of ‘flutter’, the unstable oscillation on the wing of an aircraft during flight. He returned to India as a proud alumnus and became a pioneer in the plastics industry.

In 2016, thanks to his family’s generosity, we celebrated the Dr Hiralal N Patel Wind Tunnel and we gave him a new copy of his PhD thesis, still relevant 75 years after it was published.

Risk takers

I often hear people talking about the successes of the Silicon Valley or the Boston area.  What is the key to success in these areas?  One element is that American entrepreneurs are working side by side with, or often led by, foreign born talent. 

Forty-three percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants and their children and 20 percent of the world’s tech founders are immigrants, even though immigrants only make up about 4 percent of the world’s population.

If we are serious about achieving the UK Industrial Strategy and eager to develop new enterprises in the UK, our new immigration system must be welcoming to international talent.

At MIT I did an informal study of our patent data and found that foreign students filed more patents than their domestic counterparts. This entrepreneurial strength is shared by foreign staff and students here at Imperial where they are also more likely to file patents than their UK peers. In our Enterprise Lab for student entrepreneurs 70% of the participants are foreign students.  European students are twice as likely than others at Imperial to become student entrepreneurs.

On a recent visit to our White City Incubator, I talked to the founders of CustoMem who are making adsorbent materials to rid water of chemical pollutants.  They have rapidly grown to ten employees; one of them was born in the UK. Our WE Innovate awards last week showcased five finalist female entrepreneurs with amazing pitches.  They and their teams came from 11 countries.

Why is this the case?  Why are immigrants overrepresented as entrepreneurs, as tech founders, as corporate leaders? I have always thought that students who travel far away from home are already risk takers.  They are immersed in a culture that is different from theirs and they take in new ideas rapidly and readily.

We have such risk takers at Imperial. International innovators are improving lives, creating jobs and making the world a better place.  Some have stayed in London: 

Like Hiru Patel eighty years earlier, Malav Sanghavi came to Imperial from India and now he is saving lives.  Working in the Dyson School, Malav set out to solve a problem in neonatal survival in his home country. He founded LifeCradle to create a neonatal incubator that is 90% less expensive than existing incubators and can be used as a cot when incubation is no longer needed. Malav is a serial entrepreneur now running two businesses in London. 

One day we need not worry about being hit by an autonomous vehicle if our alumnus from the Netherlands has his way. Leslie Nooteboom is staying in London to develop Humanising Autonomy  to help autonomous vehicles better predict human behaviour such as jay-walking pedestrians.

There are many more such examples, and we need to craft our immigration policies to encourage more of them to stay.

There are also many who leave London and the UK. They take with them their formative experiences at Imperial and they remain global citizens, and they improve the world around them. You can see this in the thriving entrepreneurial community in Shenzhen where many of the entrepreneurs you meet are Imperial alumni. From wineries in Western Australia, to tech start-ups in California, our alumni are talented, innovative, and entrepreneurial. We need to stay connected and ensure that they have opportunities to come back. 

Academics are among the best diplomats

There is a long history of scientists working across borders, even during times of conflict. The Royal Society of London appointed its first foreign secretary in 1723, long before the British government did. CERN was established in 1954 and played an important role in rebuilding relationships that had been divided by the war. Likewise, SESAME, a synchrotron for the Middle East, modelled on and supported by CERN opened in 2017. SESAME won the AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy this year. In addition to supporting research in environment and health, SESAME will foster peace and international collaboration.

The reality of science diplomacy or, more broadly, academic diplomacy is that academics can and will work across political and cultural differences.  In 2010, I was privileged to be named US Science Envoy to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Wherever I travelled, I was warmly welcomed by the scientists, academics, community members and fellow university leaders I met. I will never forget the young people who came to my “chai chat” in Tashkent with impressive questions and exciting ideas.

Science diplomacy needs nurturing. I have been asked by the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation to Chair the Newton Prize Committee. I am pleased to help with this important mission to recognise excellent science, research and innovation in support of economic development and social welfare in Newton Fund partner countries. 

A network of respect and collegiality connects universities, laboratories, and research groups. It is true that, through our common search for discovery and our common language, academics and scientists can indeed be diplomats.

I believe that this is still true today and is more important than ever.  I am proud that Imperial is making international engagement a high priority.  We have new and growing collaborations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and are augmenting and strengthening our collaborations in Europe and the Americas.

What does the future hold? What can we do?

The operative word of the day is uncertainty.  We have unclear futures before us.  We see shifting policies and politics across the world. We must not, and will not, let the uncertainties of these times distract us from the important work before us.  

Our international engagements make us stronger and we will continue to build them. We will not relent in our quest to keep our doors open to students, collaborations and colleagues from around the world.

In terms of the immediate issues of Brexit, we are witnessing unprecedented political turmoil. We must lift EU research collaborations out of politics.  

If there can be side deals for fisheries there can be agreements for research collaborations and student and staff mobility. 

In my view, these agreements should apply in two primary areas: (1) mobility of our colleagues and students, and (2) fostering and supporting our collaborations across the world. 

Mobility

In order for academics and scientists to be excellent entrepreneurs collaborators, and diplomats, they need the ability to work together across borders. We must be ambitious in liberating mobility for academics and students.  A 2017 poll showed that 86% of the British public want to increase or maintain levels of migration of scientists and researchers.

We must seize this sentiment, as we design a new post-Brexit immigration system. I applaud the new two-year Startup Visa. Extending the duration of the Graduate Entrepreneur visa is long overdue and is a welcome step towards our shared goal of making the UK a haven for entrepreneurs. Just this afternoon, the Chancellor announced PhD level roles would be exempt from visa caps, and that overseas research activity will count towards residence when applying for settlement in the UK. These are positive steps for science and research.

But we can, and we must, be bolder.  Here are three ideas:

1. Invite and welcome exceptional talent. Create a single Tier 1 visa for exceptional researchers, PhD students and graduate entrepreneurs. A single route for all academic and entrepreneurial talent, and removing number caps, would serve as a clarion call to make the UK a beacon for talent.

2. Make it easier for talented immigrants.

  • liberate visa sponsorship to allow trusted university employers to sponsor talented staff;
  • grant automatic visa sponsorship to all recipients of major international research funding such as the Wellcome Trust, Gates Foundation and ERC; 
  • allow the visa to follow the researcherso that they can move from one sponsor to another; and,
  • lower salary thresholds for Tier 2 skilled migrant visas for talented staff like our technicians; 

3. Benefit from graduates’ talent. Post-study work visas for all undergraduates and postgraduates, with a duration of two years for STEM graduates, will help meet the UK’s £1.5billion skills shortage. It will future-proof businesses as they adapt to a rapidly changing global economy where STEM skills are increasingly vital. This would put us on a level-playing field with competitors like the US.

Supporting collaboration

We will continue to establish partnerships and collaborations in Europe and throughout the world.  We call upon government to expand opportunities to support international students and scholars and to foster and fund international collaborations.

Finally, we will vigorously defend our right to collaborate with international partners. Apart from national security concerns or government restrictions, we will work with others who share our commitment to furthering research, education and science diplomacy, no matter where they are from, no matter what their current government has done, and no matter what others are accusing them of. 

We are international. Our international community, our collaborations, our partnerships, and our own experiences in other cultures and places have an immeasurable and profound effect on the world.

We have a great heritage of mixing people, views, ideas and cultures to create wonderful discoveries and insights. 

We must ensure that such mixing continues for our benefit, and for the benefit of society.

Thank you.

Alice P. Gast