Oral history of British science

Higgins, Julia (Part 9 of 9). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Materials Science; Scientific Instruments

  • Recording date


  • Recording locations

    The British Library

  • Interviewees

    Higgins, Julia, 1942- (speaker, female)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 9: Story about writing 1997 book on Polymers and Neutron Scattering: Oxford University Press; textbook; slow progress at first; enlisting Henri Benoit as a co-author; value of Benoit's theoretical perspective; working arrangements, Benoit using computer, JH writing by hand, meetings in Strasbourg, anecdote about working in French, working on book around the world; JH nephew drawing figures; anecdote about Benoit suggesting JH translate from French. [06:50] Remarks on: reasons for writing a textbook, limited available resources, such as Russian book by Tarchin; doing less hands on research as other university duties grew, running a research group until c2000; recent research activities working with students; story about sabbatical arrangements for working with theoretician Jane Lipson from Dartmouth College on polymer blends to produce better models; satisfaction of working on results and solving why. [12:27] Description of improving polymer models:importance of experimental data;working with blends; improving mathematics to fix inconstancies; Jane Lipsum's improvements. [14:50] Story about election to Royal Society [RS]: processes for election to RS; Sam Edwards proposing JH for RS; hints and whispers that she was on proposal list; highest point in her professional life; feeling recognised as a good scientist; encouraged to get involved in women in science; feeling of success. [20:45] Remarks on duties in RS: committees, such as Hook Committee for discussion meetings; refereeing grant proposals; sectional panels; JH joining council. [22:00] Remarks on JH duties as foreign secretary of RS: elections for a new officer annually; Bob May asking JH to become foreign secretary; Ann McLaren's earlier holder of post; attraction of running society; JH representing RS in other countries academies of science, royal treatment; world wide respect for RS; high level meetings with overseas ministers; example of visit to South Africa to improve science in former black universities post-apartheid, working South African Research Councils, RS returning to Commonwealth Status, British Council support; [27:45] JH visiting USA little as foreign secretary, as RS presidents preferred duty; visiting India, Australia, Japan; international Inter-academy panel and ICSU work, example of intervention in stem cell debate, G8 meetings, and environmental issues. [30:00] Remarks on stem cell debate: French philosophical arguments; trying to find what would be morally acceptable; eliminate possibility of high level ban on work; Nancy Reagan's support for stem cells in USA. [32:15] Remarks on: work toward a biological weapons convention, worries over chemical industries hampered, JH on the “Today Programme'; European Academies Science Advisory Council [EASAC] to provide reports on science to European Commission, expansion of EU, value of EASAC support to science in small EU countries; mixing with people from other scientific fields, existing experience in neutron scattering and at Imperial. [36:15] Remarks on time commitment of being RS Foreign secretary: anecdote about telling Imperial College head Richard Sykes about post; JH role directing new graduate school in physical science at Imperial, college effectively buying her out of administration and teaching. [39:15] Remarks on setting up graduate school: template from medical graduate school and Mary Ritter; money from research council to set up courses; battle for support, wider context of PhD students skills not matching needs; anecdote about mathematician’s need for communication skills. [41:35] Remarks on women in science issues: JH previous awareness of imbalance of women not in science but reluctance to become involved at grass roots; FRS status giving her status to influence people; JH discussions with rector Ron Oxburgh about women's position in Imperial; JH approached by other universities; meeting with Brian Fender and finance from Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE]. [45:10] Remarks on Athena Project: relevance of name; JH chairing for early years; funding; ensuring legacy for project; Athena Swan Awards for universities; Athena forum meetings at RS; JH becoming Athena Swan Patron; reactions and resistance to Athena; raising money; anecdote about Sally Davies of NHS funding stream demanding Athena Swan awards for funding; competition for Swan awards; medical schools poor gender attitudes. [52:00] Remarks on nature of polymer science: fair nature of field; status as a new science without a natural home; JH lucky as a polymer scientist to be elected FRS; JH Lucky to fall into field. [53:40] Remarks on: others involved in Athena, Nancy Lane, Caroline Fox; anecdote about JH's position in Georgina Ferry's description of increased rate of women joining RS; others involved in Athena, Athene Donald, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Jan Peters; impact of Athena project, changes in unviersity attitudes, legacy of Swan Awards, anecdote about Brian Cantor's response to York Chemistry department's gold award, difficulties monitoring change;JH feelings about being a female FRS. [59:30] Comments on role as chair of EPSRC: radical 1990s reorganisation of research councils; first chair Alan Rudge and executive Richard Brook; JH sitting on first council; effects of changes in committee structures; JH approached in 2001 to chair EPSRC council, differences in industrial and academic perspective; period of generous funding; acrimonious debate over new HECToR supercomputer, based in Edinburgh; [1:05:44] debates over relationship between research council and central research facilities, such as ISIS Neutron Source; pressures on chair; JH enjoying chairing meetings in general. [1:08:50] Remarks on: strategies for balancing of various responsibilities, support staff, speed reading, prioritising; JH experience as head of department at Imperial in 2000; JH negative experience as principle of engineering and physical science faculty after Julia King left. [1:12:00] Remarks on JH role chairing Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education [ACME]: reasons for not choosing a mathematician from the divided mathematics community; JH enjoying but looking forward to leaving before next big project; payment arrangements for committee to support teachers members; project to determine what employers and national need of school maths education; upcoming project on maths available to 16-19 year olds; discussion on new National Curriculum; differences in opinion with Schools Minister Nick Gibb over maths teaching; JH views on why maths is important. [1:20:05] Remarks on awards: amusements of being a Dame in spite of socialist principles; CBE value to her as father had one; Chevalier of Legion D'honneur; Fellow of National Academy of Engineering; Fellow of Royal Academy of Engineering.[1:22:25] Remarks on: happiest points of career, Foreign Secretary of RS, writing book in 1990s; reflections on doing this interview.

  • Description

    Interview with polymer scientist and physicist Professor Dame Julia Higgins

  • Related transcripts

    Professor Dame Julia Higgins interviewed by Dr Thomas Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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