Professor Alice P Gast seatedOne year into her presidency at Imperial, Professor Alice P. Gast talks to Dr Anjana Ahuja about her experiences of leadership, the new college strategy, and the role of a university in the 21st century.

“It’s probably the biggest thing to happen to Imperial since Prince Albert acquired some land in South Kensington.” So says Alice Gast, the President of Imperial College London, of the purchase of a 25-acre brownfield site in White City in the west of London, currently being transformed into a substantial new interdiscipli­nary campus boasting academic departments, laboratories, residential halls and business space.

The same might one day be said of Gast, a distinguished chemical engineer, admired university administrator and a former science envoy for the US Department of State. Hers is an historic appoint­ment: Gast, who succeeded Sir Keith O’Nions in 2014, is the first woman and first non-Briton to lead Imperial in the university’s 108-year history. It also marks a break with tradition: while her predeces­sors were called Rector, the College has adopted the American model of having a President and Provost. Gast became President, overseeing the strategic development of this great global university; Professor James Stirling CBE, the former head of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, was named Provost. He is in charge of academic affairs but is ultimately accountable to the President.

Being President is, she declares when we meet for tea in her office, a “dream job, absolutely marvellous. What I love is how everyone’s passion for what they do comes through so well. People do tremendous things, it’s just awe-inspiring. Every day my Imperial Google Alerts are brimming with new discoveries.”

Gast, 57, who was previously President of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, has wasted no time in setting out her vision for the next five years at Imperial: July saw the publication of Imperial’s Strategy 2015–2020, a result of consultation across the campus. While it predictably maintains the emphasis on academic excellence, it is also a fiercely ambitious mission statement that may well reshape Imperial forever. Research will centre on four over­arching themes: discovery and the natural world; engineering novel solutions; health and wellbeing; and leading the data revolution.

Students and academics will be nurtured as technically brilliant, entrepreneurial, risk-taking leaders, capable of going out into the world and influencing decision-makers. The deep commitment to core academic excellence and cross-disciplinary working remains (in 2014, the university’s published research papers involved partners in 140 countries and 6,000 institutions). Most striking, though, is Imperial’s vow to “place our bets” on ideas ahead of their time, even if the gambles don’t always pay off. The stakes will come from fundraising, via Gast’s networking and partnerships with government, industry, alumni and other friends who have cash to invest.

“By ‘friends’ I mean people who want to make a difference in the world, and have an interest in a field or an issue, or in young people’s education,” Gast explains, in her gentle American accent. “We have many potential friends, including alumni who haven’t yet built a relationship with us and haven’t yet understood what an impact their donations can have.

"We need to make clear the importance of what we do, and invite people to become part of what we do."

“We need to make clear the importance of what we do, and invite people to become part of what we do. We need to enhance our corporate and foundation, trust and philanthropic investments – I view them as investments because anyone donating a sizeable sum to an organisation is placing a bet on the impact they can have with their wealth, and they want to see outcomes.”

Gast says that Imperial’s bold decision to change the leadership structure frees her up to be “a bit more outwardly focused. I see my position as one of a great advocate for Imperial – with government, industry and philanthropists. All universities have a tendency to look inward at their own matters and put their heads down and move forward. But UK universities have to be more externally focused.”

In practice, this has meant Gast marching out into the world on Imperial’s behalf. She has already collected a hefty number of air miles this year: visits to China and the US; appearances at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos and Dalian; trips to India, Malaysia, Singapore, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The gruelling sched­ule is paying dividends: Imperial academics are being invited to WEF, collaborations are growing in China and she has brokered a joint MIT-Imperial seed fund targeted at riskier technology research. Gast, it seems, is starting to place her bets.

While imperial has always been a prestigious institution,with corridors stalked by Nobel Prize winners, it is instructive to peruse the company it keeps in the global university rankings. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings put the California Institute of Technology in first place, on measures of teaching, research and international outlook. Imperial comes eighth, behind both of its major domestic rivals, Oxford (second) and Cambridge (fourth). Interest­ingly, Gast has professional connections with three other institutions in the top ten: she has a PhD from Princeton (seventh); taught for 16 years at Stanford (third) and was Vice President of Research and Associate Provost at MIT (fifth).

Imperial is clearly up against stiff competition as it tries to recruit talented students and scholars but, alas, it is a Cinderella at the global university ball, with around £500m in its endowment. Cambridge tops the European wealth league, with endowments across its colleges worth a collective £4.9bn; Oxford boasts £4.3bn. These vast sums, though, are eclipsed by the eye-watering endowments amassed by American universities, and in particular the two that have turned out the most US Presidents: Yale has built up around £21bn, while Harvard is the richest of them all, with around £33bn.

The endowment provides long-term financial security, and expanding Imperial’s is essential if it is to retain its competitive edge. Alumni, Gast believes, could be a game-changer in this respect; after all, Imperial graduates do rather well in the world. But us Imperial alumni and Brits in general are positively miserly (my words, not Gast’s) compared to our American counterparts. This is gradually being recognised in the UK, especially in the light of austerity and falling government support: in 2014, Cambridge nearly doubled its fundraising staff to 120 and declared its intention to capture some of the money destined for American universities, particularly from Asian philanthropists.

Gast has form here: she raised over $225m for Lehigh during her tenure. “People in the UK are very generous in their support of charities,” she notes. “The primary difference [between graduate-giving in the UK and US] is in the culture of the university and the way they’ve been organised, and the way students and alumni have been engaged. You are now seeing quite significant increases in alumni giving in the UK and we need to be a part of that.

“It will take a concerted effort from Imperial and we need to be more inten­tional about it. It’s about making sure we’re staying in good touch with alumni and that they know what’s going on here. It’s also about finding other ways to involve them so they can come back and recognise not only the value that Imperial had to them, but also the value it has to those coming along behind them.” She will be assisted in this by Sarah Porter Waterbury, who came from New York University in April to become Imperial’s first Vice President (Advancement).

The value of a great global university accruesnot only to its students, staff and alumni – but should also accrue to the world, according to Gast. When I ask her what the role of a university should be, in the 21st century, she responds with another plank of her strategy: a vision of Imperial as global problem-solver.

“I’ve thought a lot about the principles on which our institutions are founded,” she muses. “It’s usually to create new knowledge and impart that knowledge to create an educated citizenry for the community or the region or the world. Even today, institutions formed in the 21st century like King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (where she is a trustee) and Singapore University of Technology and Design, have founding principles that sound very much like those from 150 years ago, for economic development or to improve society in their regions.

“We are not solely here to provide regional development for London or even the UK; we are here to solve problems that affect the whole world … we recognise that many of the problems that our academics are dealing with, and that we are training our students to go out and deal with, are global in nature and know no boundaries. Diseases and climate change know no boundaries. We should be playing our part in world issues.”

Those world issues are not always predict­able, another aspect that Gast adopts as a key theme. Imperial’s new strategy document borrows heavily from the language of enterprise, with references to being “courageous” and “risk taking”. Gast signs off the document’s presiden­tial introduction by promising to build “a more agile, adaptive and resilient organisation so that we will be ready for whatever the future holds”.

How will she practically achieve this?

“We need to encourage our academics to take intellectual risks and try new areas of research that are unproven and untried. When you exist in a system that rewards excellence … it can drive you to take fewer risks because you don’t want to propose something that might not be successful. So over time, research can become more incremental and less bold. I don’t want to send the signal that we don’t have bold academ­ics, but we need to help them find the funding mechanisms so they can try out the things that are not so well-funded or proven.”

Where will Imperial get the money? “I need some co-investors and philanthropists who would love to help us move forward in those bold ways. True breakthroughs come from taking great leaps and doing things differently. When you look where funding goes, it’s some­times last year’s, or even last decade’s, big idea.”

In order to foster this spirit of creativity, Imperial is building incubator space (to germi­nate spin-out companies) and ‘hackspaces’ so that students can come together to kick around ideas. Academics are invited to contact Gast at any time: “We’re a pretty coupled and open and flat organisation – anyone with a good idea can approach the leadership team and we will figure out if we can find a way to support it.”

That reflects Gast’s leadership style, which she describes as consultative and consensus-oriented. She is also keen to see women flourish both academically and entrepreneurially, and points to the Althea-Imperial prize for women entrepreneurs as way of encouraging this. Does she regard herself as a role model? “Yes! We all forget that people are looking up at you and you can share simple bits of wisdom that you’ve picked up along the way, or simple ideas or experiences, and people appreciate that.”

Gast, who is married to computer scientist Bradley Askins and has two children, reveals that her own career has not always been plain sailing: “There have been difficult personalities along the way and I think it was rare for me to attribute any obstacles I encountered to my gender … Looking back, I realise that people may have had issues with me being a woman. I was more into interpersonal relationship management than worrying about it as a sexist thing.

“People have different leadership styles and different approaches to trying to build relationships and manage them. I hope that I bring good qualities to that.”

I had previously heard Gast described as “folksy”; I’m not quite sure that is the right word to describe the air of accessibility and approachability she brings to her elevated position. She has been spotted cooking pancakes on the Queen’s Lawn but is obviously keen to maintain smooth relationships beyond a hungry student body. One example of this was her decision, in response to a freedom of information request, to publicly reveal her £421,000 salary before joining from Lehigh (where she received substantially more) and before she was obliged to. It reflects her belief that “institutions shouldn’t struggle with transparency. So long as you’re true to your values and goals and doing as best you can to lead the institution even through difficult times, you want to share that philosophy and approach and the facts with your stakeholders.”

Gast hopes to grow Imperial’s influence with government and policy-makers; she recently hosted a high-profile meeting about antimicrobial resist­ance, attended by England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies, and the College will bring ministers and scientists together for a conference on climate change ahead of the United Nations conference summit in Paris, commencing in late November 2015. On this strategic issue, too, the Gast CV looks pretty solid: her appointment as a US science envoy to the Caucasus and Central Asia gave her influence in the White House, the State Department and in the National Academy of Sciences.

I put it to her that, unlike Yale, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial has never produced a head of state. “We currently have five Chief Scientific Advisers – isn’t that our thing? That’s how we contribute to policy and government. Just as we are very committed to our core disciplines and our depth, our communities should be articulate and able to communicate well and eager to share the wonder, to inform and influence.

“We have some people who’d be marvellous politicians but isn’t it better to be informing the politicians and be really good at the science than to try to make yourself into something else?”

Then she smiles: “I don’t want to suggest they’re all genetically bred to be scientists but I think, as an institution, we need to be true to ourselves and do what we do best.”

DR ANJANA AHUJA (Physics 1990, PhD Space and Atmospheric Physics 1993) is a science journalist and contributing writer at the Financial Times. She was a former columnist for The Times and is also a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph, Prospect and BBC2’s Newsnight.