Having spent 25 years criss-crossing industry and academia, Professor John Pethica now finds himself straddling both spheres as Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington. He is therefore keen to inject strong research practices, as well as an entrepreneurial take-risk attitude, into UK science.
‘The NPL is sitting on the halfway line,’ says Pethica. ‘It provides a reference standard in terms of physical measurement quantities and codes of practice, but it is also the UK’s leading science research centre across the board. It is not a purely commercial entity in the sense that it is purely self-serving, nor is it like a university that does just research.’
Born in Birmingham, UK, in 1953, Pethica graduated from Cambridge University in 1978 with a PhD in physics. He soon moved into materials science, working as a Staff Scientist at Brown Boveri Research Centre in Baden, Switzerland, before becoming a Lecturer in Materials at Oxford University, UK, in 1987, and Professor of Materials Science in 1996. He was named Science Foundation Ireland Research Professor at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2001. He continues to hold posts at both Dublin and Oxford.
‘I was really drawn to physics because I’m interested in the mathematical basis of things, but I’m also interested in making them do something useful,’ he says. ‘Materials science is an obvious development of that, and I gradually moved into the area of mechanical properties and materials.’
His areas of expertise are the studies of mechanical properties at the nanoscale, as well as surface atomic structure and transport processes using scanned probe microscopy. He invented nanoindentation and helped develop atomic force microscopy and force spectroscopy of single bonds, work which earned him the IOM3 Rosenhain Medal in 1997 and the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal in 2001.
While developing a flourishing academic career in the UK, Pethica also founded and directed Nano Instruments Inc in Knoxville, USA, in 1984, which was sold in 1998. He continues to provide advice to similar companies in the USA.
Pethica’s experiences abroad have shaped his ideas of how to foster a successful science industry. He believes the UK should develop a closer focus for its research activities. ‘It is not a sufficiently large economy that can afford to do everything. We may need to do some targetting. It’s a case of investing in where you can have the most impact.’ Chemicals, materials processing and biomaterials are all subjects where the UK has a strong record, says Pethica – a tradition that should be maintained.
The NPL’s remit from Government is to support UK industry. One way to do this is to continue to develop standards that are adopted internationally. Pethica explains, ‘This can be used to advance your own industry. The USA is extraordinarily good at that – software standards is an example, they define them for the world, which gives them a competitive advantage’.
The NPL has traditionally been involved in time and weight unit definitions, areas that have helped it set international scientific standards. It is also expected to create standards and measurement techniques for the latest technologies and materials, while relating them to the practical processing steps of other materials. This measurement capability is now extending into environmental, energy and biological areas.
‘Someone has to define measurements in such a way that is useful and reliable, and the practical impact is significant – we can actually help companies,’ adds Pethica.
As Chief Scientific Advisor at NPL since October 2007, he wants ‘to make sure that the quality of science remains cutting edge. If you want to provide the definitive standard, you had better be as good or better than anyone else in terms of the research. My main mission is to ensure the structural laboratories and support facilities enhance the process’.
But it is not simply a case of standardising the measuring of a new material out of thin air – there are too many properties that need factoring in. Devoting time and money to future broad technologies is the only way to stay ahead.
Say it like it is
‘An important area for the future is biomaterials – how can we characterise them?’ asks Pethica. They do not have as long a track record in measurement as other materials. ‘We’re looking at complicated composite structures, multilayered structures, and micro and nanoscales. You need the right tools to characterise that.’
Over the next four years the NPL will redevelop some of its core laboratories, create an innovation centre with facilities that that will be available to local companies, and build up areas such as software and security.
Communication is also vital. ‘One of the things I’d like to develop is scientists speaking out more,’ insists Pethica. To that end, he is not afraid to offer his opinion on what is good in UK science, and what needs addressing.
‘One of the reasons I decided to come back to the UK is because there is an incredible reservoir of talent here. Given the circumstances, the UK’s impact is extraordinary in terms of science and R&D. The question is, how do you exploit that?’ says Pethica.
‘If you think of the aspects of innovation and exploitation, first of all, there’s psychology. This is something the Americans have right – you need to take risks. I think people in the UK have been comfortable for a long time. Risk-taking isn’t so much a part of the culture here as it is in other countries. But it’s only partly psychological, the other part is the environment we work in.’
In terms of Government action, while Pethica is concerned about the national R&D budget and improving student enrolment numbers, he is more interested in seeing the UK become an appealing place for science corporations to invest in. ‘Tax is a competitive process. In my view the UK needs to prioritise that more. I hate to say it, but corporate competitive tax is very weak here. If you were Intel, would you invest here or go some place cheaper like Ireland? It’s an easy choice.
‘At the end of the day, science is funded out of economic activity.’
But, he hastens to add that the situation in the UK is not all ‘gloom and doom’.
‘I think the UK’s prospects are good. It has the raw materials, and, in terms of people, it has a fantastic track record. But you have to have all the components in place – including the right fiscal policy.’