Gareth Mitchell: Happy birthday to us. Imperial College is 100 years old this month. I'm Gareth Mitchell, presenter of the BBC's Digital Planet and a lecturer here at Imperial. In this special Centenary edition an exclusive interview with our Rector, Sir Richard Sykes. It's a great opportunity for celebration and reflection in this important year for the College. But I'll also be challenging Sir Richard on some of the issues that have made him a sometimes controversial figure both within Imperial and outside. Like tuition top-up fees for instance.

Richard Sykes: If at Imperial College we can show very clearly that it costs us £15,000 a year to educate a chemist then surely we deserve to be paid £15,000 a year. Because where else are we getting the money from?

GM: And I've been searching for treasures in the Imperial College archive and inviting thoughts from one of the College's longest serving engineering professors. Among the historical gems, the founding father of laser holography, a Nobel prize winner for the College in 1971.

Bob Spence: Gabor was unusual and I think that's always good for a university department. Because you don't want a university department to be conventional.

GM: That's all right here on the official podcast of Imperial College London.

Interview with Rector Sir Richard Sykes

Well first then, the Centenary edition of this podcast is a great opportunity to hear from the man at the top, Imperial College's Rector, Sir Richard Sykes. Formally head of Glaxo, now GSK, he took up his post here in 2001. If you're a student or a member of staff here at Imperial I'm sure you'll be interested to hear about his hopes for the College and possibly some of the frustrations of being at the helm. I'm sure there must be some. Well, if you're on the outside of course there's a good chance that you've encountered Sir Richard in the media, not just as the prominent industrialist that he is but also as an outspoken advocate of increased tuition top-up fees and a critic of science teaching in schools at GCSE level. Well, Sir Richard, thanks very much for giving us a bit of time today. Can I start by asking you how you feel about this Centenary year? How important is it for Imperial College to celebrate the Centenary?

RS: I think history is very important to understand the future. It also gives us an opportunity to celebrate staff and students, bring people together, get the brand of Imperial College out there, help us with some fundraising, help us get involved with alumni around the world. So it's a great focus for doing the things that you always want to do but having the impetus to actually do it.

GM: And what's it like to be the rector here at a time when obviously the world outside is looking in at Imperial College in this phase of celebrations?

RS: It's always exciting to be the head of a successful operation. And as Imperial has been successful almost from its foundation a hundred years ago then I'm sure for every rector it's been the same. Because when you run successful organisations you feel good. Everybody feels good. And to be here celebrating a hundred years of success just makes it even more exciting.

GM: Because I get the impression from reading comments that you've made to the media that you see this not just as a British university but a university for the world.

RS: It is a global university. Education today is a global business. We are opening our doors to the brightest and the best from anywhere in the world. On the other hand, we've got to make sure that we do keep a balance here. It is a British university. It is a British institution. And we should try to make sure that we get as many bright young students coming through the system in the UK to study at Imperial as we do from China and Singapore and Malaysia and countries around the world.

GM: I know that you're very publicly critical of science teaching, certainly at GCSE school level, here in the UK. Is it a concern of yours that Britain risks educating a body of students who aren't capable of the academic excellence that you need to come and study at a place like Imperial?

RS: This is a big issue. We have an independent sector which in terms of science subjects is pretty strong, the state sector is less strong, so today we are taking a disproportionate number of students from those schools. And we have to because if you come to Imperial without a basic understanding of mathematics then you'll fail.

GM: Is there a danger though that somebody in a prominent position like yours to be talking down the British science education system?

RS: I think it's rather politicised, in my opinion. Why do independent schools produce good students who come here and do extremely well? Because, one, they have an ethos. They have good teachers on the whole. They have selection, both in terms of student selection and the students have a selection. Whereas the state sector is trying to do everything for everybody. And we know that doesn't work. The government have to understand there is an issue here. And if we keep going on down this road more and more of our students will be coming from the independent grammar school sector. It's inevitable. And one of the problems today, particularly back into the school sector, is the lack of practical application. And that lack of practical application deters people from doing science. Whereas if they can do experiments and they can get their hands on things then obviously kids by definition are going to be very excited. So in a place like Imperial, even though it's a very expensive education, we've got to give them that practical application of what they're learning. And that is critically important.

GM: You still stand by your view then that students should be expected to pay maybe £3,000 top-up fees, possibly up to £10,000, for a science education?

RS: I think that's a very simplistic way of looking at it. What we need is choice. It's critically important. So there's no such fee that says a degree in physics at any university in the UK costs £3,000, £7,000, £10,000. It's ridiculous. It's the quality. It's the product, at the end of the day. So you can actually have a factory producing bicycles and you can have a factory producing Rolls-Royce. They're both quality machines, both fit for purpose, but it costs you a hell of a lot more money to build the Rolls-Royce than it does to build the bicycle. And so therefore let's recognise that. Let's understand that if at Imperial College we can show very clearly though mechanisms that have been put in place by the Treasury that it costs us £15,000 a year to educate a chemist then surely we deserve to be paid £15,000 a year. Because where else are we getting the money from? At another institution it might cost £4,000 a year to educate a chemist because it's different. There's nothing wrong with that. But we've got to understand that if we want places of excellence in this country, if we want universities that compete on the global stage, we've got to allow a mechanism to exist to charge for the qua lity of the product.

GM: But I suppose ultimately it just mean s that the richest and the most privileged students come here and it ends up just being an institution for the elite.

RS: But you know that would never happen, and it's not about that. Because first and foremost you come to Imperial College because you're smart, you're bright, you're intelligent. Then the question is, can you afford to pay the fee? If you cannot afford to pay the fee then obviously there's got to be a mechanism to deal with that. And we have modelled it very clearly that if we are allowed to charge the true cost of education here to those who can afford it we would then be able to fund students who could not afford it. And of course remember we do lots of other things. We run a student opportunities fund. We have the College Fund. We are building up the endowment to make sure more and more scholarships are being set up so that we can afford to help those people who are financially disadvantaged but are smart enough to come and study and benefit from an Imperial College education.

GM: Sir Richard Sykes talking to me earlier. So is it really on to run Imperial College like a business? And is teaching taking second place to research? Those points and more will be up for discussion in a few moments in part two of that interview with the Rector. First though let's have some quick headlines from around the College.

Headlines from around the College

Imperial researchers have announced an important step forward in combating deadly viral diseases. From the genome of the Aedes aegypti mosquito they've identified 350 genes that underlie the insect's immune system. It'll help scientists understand how mosquitoes carry the viruses that lead to yellow and denque fever. Nailing down genetic techniques for blocking this mechanism could help the mosquitoes fight off the infections and therefore reduce transmission to humans. The researchers, who've just published their results in the journal Science, include a team at Imperial's Division of Cell and Molecular Biology.

And an Imperial led project has found the coldest brown dwarf ever discovered. Brown dwarfs are stars that never got heavy enough to sustain the fusion reactions that power fully fledged stars like the Sun. The brown dwarf just discovered is called J0034-00 and it's thought to have a surface temperature of around just 430 degrees Celsius. It's just 15 to 30 times the mass of Jupiter, a true lightweight in star terms. Locating it was much harder than finding a needle in a haystack say the researchers. At least needles are shiny. This tiny celestial object is cold and faint. J0034 was found at part of the world's deepest ever near-infrared sky survey using the United Kingdom infrared telescope in Hawaii. I think they should give me the expenses to go and investigate that story further.

Exploring the archives

Well, you can find more breaking news from Europe's leading science university at our Press Office website. Just go to Right now though, as this is the Centenary year of Imperial College London, let's delve into the archive.

BS: Occasionally the designer will wish to calculate the value of a component. Conventionally he would use perhaps a pocket calculator. But in the mini system such a calculator is provided on the screen. After calculating the value of a component it can be assigned very simply with the light pen.

GM: From the archive then, that's Professor Robert Spence or Bob as he prefers to be called. That was actually recorded in 1979 but in 2007 I'm in your office with you Bob. You're now an Emeritus Professor here. You've had a distinguished academic career, probably the high point being in 1989 where you delivered what turned out to be the first ever lecture that I attended as a, in those days, young student in the Electrical Engineering Department here. But you were wielding a light pen in that clip. Just remind us what you were doing there and why it was important.

BS: I was a design engineer and I realised that designers draw things, on the back of fag packets in those days, and computer graphics had the potential to allow people to do that. So I thought, right, let's get this graphics stuff and programme it so that you could draw your circuit diagram and then the computer could plot the results of that design. At the time I think it was thought to be a rather ridiculous thing to be doing research on but in fact we were one of the pioneers of using graphics in design. So we implemented the system. So we put a calculator on the screen, which was thought to be hilarious at the time, useful but hilarious.

GM: And now we don't really think twice, do we, about having a calculator or if you're a design engineer you have all kinds of tools on screen that you interact with?

BS: They're going to be there anyway. So we started a little company, the first little company in the world, to offer a suite of software that would allow a circuit designer to draw their circuit on the screen and the computer would show the performance of that circuit. We sold to people like Philips and companies in the States. We went down the tube, as they say, five years later but it was an interesting time.

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GM: And it's a time that's certainly continued for you because to this day that's been your big thing then, visualising engineering systems on screen? In fact you have a book on your desk here called Information Visualisation. Spool us on a few decades here, where is the field at now then in terms of how people design systems on screen using graphical interfaces?

BS: I think the next thing we did actually was invent something that was totally impractical at the time. It was called Focus Plus Context. Imagine you've got something on the screen, a big document, that you necessarily have to scroll through. So most of that thing is hidden. How do you get around that? What you do is you take that huge system and distort it. You squash it so that it all fits on the screen but you can see details of that system. We invented that in 1980. It was received by deafening silence by everybody but we were the first in that field, and two years ago people started to apply it in real applications on PDAs and things like that.

GM: Okay, well Bob let's go back into the archive. One of the real founding fathers of the department here was Dennis Gabor who won the Nobel prize in 1971 for his work on holography. And about a year later in 1972 he gave this speech where he basically repeated his acceptance speech of his Nobel prize in Stockholm, but this was the speech that he delivered here at Imperial College.

Dennis Gabor: Holography is based on the wave theory of life. Monochromatic life is a regular scene oscillation and where we press and repress there you have a maximum of life. And where [ ] there you have extinction. Now, I must make you familiar with the idea of amplitude phase. Amplitude means of course simply the height of the scene oscillation and phase is the relative position of two waves. When they coincide they produce brightness and then they are in phase otherwise they are the anti phase.

GM: From 1972, Dennis Gabor talking about holography. And, Bob, he gave that lecture under quite difficult circumstances didn't he?

BS: Yes, I understand there was a power cut which made the delivery of his acceptance speech quite difficult. It's crazy that somebody who's done work into holography has got to fight a power cut. But I think it was at a time when the country was in a bad economic state and I think the power cut was necessary for some reason.

GM: Obviously Bob I know that you're not a specialist in holography but I just wonder if you can say in general terms how important Gabor's work was at the time and has turned out to be in more recent years.

BS: Gabor was unusual, and I think that's always good for a university department. Because you don't want a university department to be conventional, that's the last thing. Gabor looked into all sorts of things including flat television tubes, which presented very, very challenging problems, in electron guns and things like that. But I do remember one of my first meetings with him. It was a social occasion and he looked at me and said you will never have an original thought. I thought, well, you know. I was a young lecturer and I thought I'd better be careful what I say. I said, Professor Gabor, how did you come to that conclusion? He said I always get my ideas when I'm shaving in the morning. You have a beard; you don't shave. QED.

GM: That blinding flash of logic. You can't really argue with a Nobel Laureate can you? What has been his legacy then? Obviously many incredible memories for people like you who worked with him but what about for the rest of us then? How has his work touched our lives?

BS: I think just through the applications of holography that you find in many applications. Credit cards, for example. The holograms that you've got on your credit card for example. But I remember him as a character.

GM: Speaking of complete characters then Bob let's listen to this voice from 1980.

Eric Laithwaite: Well, I came, I thought, to make vehicles travel across the ground at 300 miles an hour. In 1964 this seemed a real possibility in Britain before the end of the sixties. Linear motors was my topic and that's the way it seemed to be going.

GM: Now, that's a character called Eric Laithwaite. And we heard him there talking about linear motors. And just for people who don't know what is meant by linear motor?

BS: Well, he looked at magnetic levitation. And he's got a wonderful lecture where he takes an electric motor and unzips it to be flat. That is the basis of magnetic levitation. So you can have a train or something sitting on this track which is levitated magnetically and propelled in the right direction. Although that reminds me of a situation when his train went in the wrong direction because somebody had connected two wires in the wrong way, which I think led to a hole in one of the walls of his laboratory. A subsequent concern was that when we had visitors, especially Royalty, it would be rather nasty for one of his trains to sort of pierce a hole in Royalty. But he was a marvellous guy. Again, he was one of these one-offs that I think every university department needs. He was really a one-off.

GM: And speaking of his death-defying, almost literally sometimes, stunts with his electromagnetic arrangements there was a memorable occasion where a film crew came in sometime in the 1970s to film one of his experiments and things didn't go quite to plan.

BS: Was that when he levitated a sphere but I think this sphere started rotating at a rather alarming speed and somebody then realised how are they going to stop it? Because if you just switch off the power supply this rapidly rotating sphere would hit the ground and according to the principles of conservation of momentum of course it would shear off in an unpredictable direction. I think that was one of the more alarming demonstrations.

EL: Well, an aluminium sphere, 3 foot diameter, weighing about 40 to 50 pounds doing 3,000 rpm is no thing to get in the way of. So best we stop it now. So when we'd got to about 600 rpm or so I just nodded to Barry and we went in and caught it with our hands and sort of took it out. They said, look, the coils are smoking now. So we poured some liquid nitrogen on the coils and started again. And the next time we put it in and let it go it did something quite different. It bounced and it came right out into my arms. I caught it. I said, right, cut, start again. So we sat down and had some tea while we thought what we ought to do. We'd now done this experiment three times and it had given three different results.

GM: Eric Laithwaite there Bob. So how important has his work turned out to be? Because you always get the impression with linear motors that they were all the rage in the late 70s and then somehow it didn't happen for him. Is that a fair way of remembering Eric or does his work still kind of live on importantly in these modern times?

BS: Eric had a test track, I think it was about 10 miles, near Cambridge and he was doing tests of real systems on that track. But then, as I remember it, the money for that track was withdrawn by I think it was called the Ministry of Supply at that time. So that killed off, I think, the development of linear motors here. But if we go to Japan, linear motors and magnetic levitation is alive and well. So it was very important work that he did but sadly it's being used for high speed transportation elsewhere. Not sadly used but sadly we don't use it here.

GM: So Bob this is the Centenary year so we've been obviously looking back at the archive there but we should look forward as well. What about in your own field, what do you see over the coming five/ten yea r s and beyond?

BS: In my own area, human and computer interaction and information visualisation, there's a great need to understand more about human vision and hearing but also how human beings search for information. We all use the Web when we look for data but what we're actually doing is foraging for information, for understanding, just like an animal forages for food. So it's our job to try and design what we see on the screen in such a way as to support our foraging for information.

GM: Professor Bob Spence in the Electrical Engineering Department here at Imperial.

Interview with Sir Richard - part two

Right, well let's now go back to my interview with the Rector, Sir Richard Sykes. Having discussed tuition fees, among other issues, I wanted to move on to Imperial as a research base. The question: does teaching take second place to research?

RS: Obviously Imperial is a very research intensive institution. There's no question about that. But remember we don't pack the place full of students because that's not our objective. We've actually capped undergraduate numbers so that we keep the staff/student ratio as a good one and that the people who come here are going to get a real benefit from the experience. So we're about quality and not about quantity. So a residential university, although people can say sometimes that teaching can become a bit of a burden, actually you talk to most people and they really enjoy teaching smart, creative, innovative, enquiring people.

GM: And you've mentioned quality and not quantity and yet certainly it seems early on in an undergraduate's career here at Imperial they're very likely to be in lecture theatres with 100 to 200 other students. Is it really quality over quantity?

RS: Yes, because there are some things which are basic fundamentals that have to be taught in large groups. That's efficiency and I think that's absolutely right. But that is not the norm. I think as people progress through their careers here they get a lot of individual attention. They get attention in small groups, particularly during the practical phases of this education.

GM: Okay, and so moving on to research. And I think few would deny that Imperial College really is a world leader in research and is doing some incredibly innovative research. And alongside that obviously a great emphasis, as I think we've seen under your term as rector here, on spin-out companies, effectively capitalising on that research and turning it to commercial use. Is that the model that you feel the happiest with? Not just having the ideas but marketing them and capitalising on them?

RS: The whole point about knowledge bases is that they've got to be part of the whole value chain. The value chain starts with basic fundamental research. You've got to always be breaking the boundaries of knowledge. So you do the basic fundamental work that can take you into areas that have an application. So we should be able to take that basic fundamental work and where appropriate apply it. When you can apply it that means you can actually move towards commercialisation. You can actually end up with a spin-out company which can get funding and develop a product from that basic fundamental work. So obviously universities are the places that do the fundamental basic research which really can be done in no other place.

GM: All this talk of, say, a value chain, for instance. A researcher sitting there who might be developing more, as we might call them, blue skies ideas, are they going to be thinking, well, there's a disincentive for doing this more speculative, more risky, research because it may not be commercially viable and therefore should be avoided?

RS: No, because there's no way of prescribing that, and that would be dangerous to do that. So you've got lots of examples where people would start in an area of research that it would be very difficult to understand what the potential benefit was in a commercial sense. But, funnily enough, that's where most of the great ideas and developments come from. So it's critically important to allow people to express their ideas, to do the work. And then it's important to try and somehow identify those areas that are going to have potential benefit in the real world. And so, in a sense, you could discover penicillin and just leave it lying around, as Fleming did of course for many years because he was on to the next thing.

GM: So maybe the next penicillin is lying around in some lab here or something?

RS: Yeah, it probably is.

GM: And so we're seeing innovation and research that in some cases is the spark that leads to spin-out companies and you hear increasingly terms bounded about around campus to do with setting up companies and there's a corporate ethos on campus. Is there a danger of people perceiving your style of being a rector here as one of kind of running a business rather than running a university?

RS: But it is a business. It's just a university business.

GM: They are different though aren't they?

RS: No, not really.

GM: But universities are places where people come to learn, to develop skills to go into the outside world. And of course some businesses serve those functions but of course the training is usually to support the business areas of whatever commercial entity that is. A university surely has a different purpose, a different function, to a business and shouldn't it be run differently as a result?

RS: I don't think so. I think you've got to be very careful. Today most things are based on knowledge and the competitive edge is going to come from the knowledge base. Once you're the creators of the knowledge base then by definition you've got to be responsible for that knowledge base. As the world becomes more and more competitive that competitiveness is being driven by science and technology. You can't escape from it. So if you want to get out of this business then you need to be a classicist and translate The Iliad or something and then nobody is really going to commercialise it.

GM: And that would certainly be the case for science and technology that has applications outside in the world. And you referred there to the Classics. I know you weren't trying to be derogatory about the Classics; you were saying it's a different form of intellectual pursuit. But that could be said about many forms of science couldn't it? I mean there are branches of physics, for instance, that are verging on the philosophical, you know, for the creativeness of the ideas involved, not necessarily ideas that may have any bearing on the outside world other than a pursuit for the sake of it being a scientific intellectual pursuit.

RS: Well, fine. And what we're doing now in CERN in Geneva with the Large Hadron Collider. This is a billon dollar operation to actually answer some basic fundamental questions about the construction of the Universe. Is that about products? Absolutely not. But it's about discovering things that we really want to understand. There's nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with it at all. You're absolutely right. But if you're working on malaria and you think you've found a way to either prevent malaria through vaccination or treat malaria through new drugs, you're going to put your notebook in your drawer and forget about it? Absolutely not because you know that that information could benefit mankind.

GM: There are many things that are important to you about the experiences that students have when they come to Imperial College, one of which is sport, something you're known to be keen on because you're very i nto keeping fit yourself. And as a result, about 50 metres from where we' re sitting, we now have a state-of-the-art sports centre. How important is that do you think for the students here?

RS: Critically important. First of all you're bringing them into the centre of a city. It's critically important that we make available to them free of charge a first class sports centre and they can have the best equipment, top swimming pool, squash courts, play games, whatever it is, right here in the centre of Kensington.

GM: Finally then, this is the Centenary year so what are your thoughts and your hopes for the future?

RS: As we look forward, science and technology are going to play critical roles in people's lives, even more than they do today. Because medicine is going to change out of all recognition over the next 50 years and Imperial are going to have a very significant role to play in that. And it's not the medicine itself but it's medicine engaging with the engineers, with the computer scientists, with the mathematicians, with the physicists, with the biologists. All that integrated science is going to actually have a big impact on mankind. And Imperial College, if it plays its cards correctly, is going to be at the forefront of developing and bringing those technologies forward. In fact the next 50 years will be like a rollercoaster ride in a place like this. It'll be wonderful.

GM: Sir Richard Sykes, Rector of Imperial College.

Well, that's it for today. More Centenary celebrations for you next month as author and former Imperial student Hannah Gay tells us about her definitive history of the College.

Hannah Gay: Imperial College was expected to help the industries not just of the United Kingdom but also the industries of Empire. And in the early days that meant agricultural industries such as cotton, cocoa and coffee. And this is why the biological departments were strong in the early days.

GM: And there'll be plenty of present day news from around the College next month too.

Well, this theme tune is called Lila and the composer is Ozgur Buldum. Hear more of his work at The official podcast of Imperial College London is a co-production of our Press Office and the Science Communication Group. So until next time, from me Gareth Mitchell, thanks for listening and goodbye.