Oral history of British science

Humphreys, Colin (7 of 9) Oral History of British Science

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  • Subjects

    Materials Science

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  • Recording locations

    interviewee's office, Cambridge

  • Interviewees

    Humphreys, Colin, 1941- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 7: Remarks on trips to USA in 1970s: vibrant and well funded nature of science in USA, much higher level of funding of materials science in USA; CH turning down jobs at United States Steel Corporation and Bell Labs; 3 month period at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, superb and well funded facility; anecdote about high salaries offered at Bell Labs; wife not wanting to bring up children in USA; anecdote about CH's children's education at American primary school and parochial nature of teaching; scientists rarely motivated by money; [04:40] difference in funding between Bell Labs and British universities, such as in equipment. [05:35] Remarks on British research funding: CH position in [SERC] Science and Engineering Research Council. [06:30] Anecdote about CH first SERC council meeting and the decision to sell Herstmonceux Castle, an observatory and conference facility: unsuccessful attempt to cut the number of gardeners; decision to sell castle opposed by CH; intention to use profits to fund science thwarted by Treasury. [09:43] Anecdote about SERC meeting at CERN: background of science funding under pressure; Bill Mitchell having two letters to cover contingencies of Britain withdrawing or not withdrawing from CERN, depending on immanent government decision. [11:18] Remarks on SERC: purpose of SERC to fund science and engineering research in British universities and facilities, such as Rutherford Appleton Laboratory; contrast with multiple sources of funding available in USA; CH membership of council from 1988-1992; quarterly meetings of council; Science and Engineering Board, CH chairing materials commission; strategic level of decision making at council, grant decisions made by sub committees; council key description to set up interdisciplinary research centres [IRC], if extra funding was available; style of chairman Bill Mitchell and Brian Fender; description of meeting setting; anecdote about joke made at council by David Wallace to Jean Thomas during debate about further funding for SERC research students; [17:48] consensus decision making process at council; example of decision on IRCs, and decision that CH should make a presentation to Minister Kenneth Baker about funding, decisions to fund some fields at expense of others; lack of transparency in budget readjustments at time; CH support for IRCs as a way of increasing funding; anecdotes negotiation process with government for funding, CH hypothetically using success of Olympics bicycles to increase materials funding, arguing for materials research to make better artificial hips, increasing energy efficiency by funding LED light research; partial government funding of new areas; [22:25] SERC council membership, including representatives from Ministry of Defence, civil engineering company Arup; CH pleased to be on SERC, becoming increasingly politically involved. [23:30] Remarks about meeting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: intelligent but making wrong decisions; alleged scientific background; cuts to science funding; anecdote about CH beating Thatcher in an argument; Thatcher's self presentation as a scientist; anecdote about challenging minister Gillian Shepherd over cuts to science teaching funding at university. [27:39] Remarks on CH role in influencing science politics over 1980s: difficulties employing science and maths teachers at Liverpool schools inspiring CH to do a report into small number of physics graduates at state schools due to limited numbers of physics graduates produced by Britain, CH suggesting that physics teachers should be paid more to Science Minister David Sainsbury; CH backing away from political involvement due to limited influence; anecdote about meeting Margaret and Dennis Thatcher at Carlton club; dinner discussions with Michael Heseltine on science and industry; [32:25] interest of 1980s Conservative Government in using science for economic benefit and concerns that universities spent too much; opposition by Oxford staff to awarding honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher; anecdote about Tony Crosland at cabinet meeting; heavy Conservative cuts to universities; social nature of meetings at Carlton club with politicians, difficulty having an informal discussion with Thatcher. [35:25] Comments on CH early time at Liverpool University: CH concerns about leaving well established and equipped large department; small but well staffed nature of Liverpool department; anecdote about interview; risks in accepting appointment; improvements over CH time at Liverpool, difficulty leaving when offered post at Cambridge; CH strategies for growing department, encouraging Bob Pond to apply for research funding, research focus groups, increase in student admissions; [39:30] CH research grants; anecdote about receiving grant from an unprompted Department of Trade and Industry [DTI] fund, to purchase semi-conductor growing equipment, need to appeal to Vice-Chancellor Graham Davies for extra funding to build a clean room; swift moving Liverpool administrative structure compared to Oxford and Cambridge bureaucratic committee structure. [43:52] Description of Liverpool Vice-Chancellor Graham Davies and his impact on Liverpool University rejuvenation; anecdote about his effective work with Deputy-Chancellor; anecdote about his swift decision to appoint extra geography professor. [46:30] Description of molecular beam epitaxy equipment used to grow semiconductor materials, such as Gallium Arsenide, CH purchase of MOMBE [Metal-Organic Molecular Beam Epitaxy] equipment used to grow organic semiconductors. [47:50] Remarks on CH research at Liverpool: mainly electron microscopy, increased involvement in semiconductors; growing materials for semiconductor devices, joint projects with industry, such as GEC, Plessey and British Telecom [BT] laboratories at Martlesham Heath; example of industrial collaboration to help Plessey solve a problem; reduction CH research work due to other responsibilities. [52:20] Remarks on: discussions with politicians, such as Keith Joseph; funding cuts to Liverpool University, later merger of materials department with mechanical engineering, to its detriment. [53:50] Remarks on CH life at Liverpool: CH busy life with early trains to London meetings; description of home at West Kirby and gardens; social occasions at home; difficulty leaving home, nice neighbours; schooling arrangements for children; nearby Hilbury Island; CH not missing Cambridge dinners; CH lack of free time at Liverpool, anecdote about not being able to help at church; CH not having time to visit Wales or Lake District; CH prioritising work over social life; anecdote about success in increasing funding of materials commission. [59:50] Comments on moving to become a Cambridge Professor: crime in Liverpool affecting lecturers David Eaglesham and Johanna Baxton, who left to work in USA, influence on CH move to Cambridge; Cambridge job offer process, CH appointed without an interview; anecdote about desire to concentrate on research and not become head of department; existing head of department Derrick Hull, who retired to Liverpool, leaving CH as head of department. [1:05:30] Story about difficulties starting at Cambridge due to extreme lack of office space. [1:07:55] Remarks on Cambridge: difficulties with other applicant for CH job; description of Cambridge department, focus on traditional metallurgy; hostility to CH desire to focus more on semiconductors; CH selection of deputy head John Leake to manage teaching; CH creation of advisory committee under Sir Robin Nicholson; modernisation of electron microscopy facility. [1:12:29] Remarks on difficulties changing things in Cambridge compared to Liverpool: differences in promotion and salary increases between Liverpool and Cambridge; Cambridge staff working in research groups rather than more collaboratively. [1:14:45] Remarks about foundation of Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre [UTC]: competing joint bids; way of bringing five members of staff to work together; CH pitch of UTC plan to Rolls-Royce, blue sky research, joint research direction, assistance to Rolls-Royce; UTC deputy director Julia king, who was recruited by Julia King, subsequent Vice-Chancellor of Aston university. [1:19:35] Remarks on: growth of Cambridge department; anecdote about opposition to appoint staff from industry; research relations with GEC, Plessey; value of advisory board for building industrial links; lack of research into semiconductors at Cambridge; due to strength in traditional materials; CH predecessors as head of department Derrick Hull and Robert Honeycombe supporting research in their own areas; Jan Evetts research group on superconductivity; CH encouraging semiconductors teaching and building up research group. [1:23:30] Remarks on CH other duties in Cambridge University: role as head of faculty board for physics and chemistry; story about how CH became a fellow at Selwyn College at instigation of Alan Cooke, despite Michael Pepper trying to recruit him to Trinity and Archie Howie to Churchill; anecdote about Cambridge quote system for appointing professorships to colleges; value of Selwyn College accommodation before CH family joined him from Liverpool. [1:28:55] Remarks on: CH arrangements for seeing family before they moved to Cambridge. [1:29:38] Remarks on CH research at Cambridge: lack of semiconductor growth equipment at Cambridge due to EPSRC setting up semiconductor growth centres at other universities; CH setting up group to characterise semiconductors using electron microscopy; story about CH talk at conference leading to Ted Thrush of Thomas Swan company offering Cambridge free growth reactor after assistance in electron microscopy, EPSRC rejecting initial proposal for funding for installation, until resubmission also involving Phil Dawson at Manchester, and Jack Harris at UCL for their expertise in measurement; [1:35:03] Remarks on CH research into blue light emitting materials: material supplied initially by Heriot Watt and Nottingham Universities, early scepticism over Gallium Nitride; research into Gallium Nitride use in displays and signs; recruitment of material grower from France; need to catch up with other growth centres; Cambridge assistance to Thomas Swann's equipment sales, praised by EPSRC; [1:38:20] joint EPSRC-DTI grant to CH to study LED lifespan; story about CH group helping to solve a problem with Ford-Europa semiconductor devices manufactured in China with the aid of a Chinese post-doc; Ford-Europa winning of Queen's awards and other successes. [1:42:20] Remarks on: successful collaboration with Photon Star LED company; collaboration with Philtronic company and Quinetiq to develop cheaper silicon semiconductor growth material; Philtonic takeover by RF & D, who lacked resources to exploit research; [1:45:10] collaboration with John Ellis of Plymouth based X-Fab, thwarted by German parent company closing facility; takeover of X-Fab by Plessey; establishment of CamGaN and Intelec spin-off companies to exploit research themselves; decision to work with Plessey to manufacture LEDs at Plymouth. [1:49:50] Remarks on interview. Anecdote about developing allergy to red wine.

  • Description

    Interview with materials scientist, Professor Sir Colin Humphreys

  • Related transcripts

    Colin Humphreys interviewed by 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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