Author: Steve O'Neil

Launch of The Forum: Remarks by Professor Nick Jennings and Sir Patrick Vallance.

On Wednesday 10 July Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance joined Professor Nick Jennings at an event to formally launch The Forum – Imperial’s programme to connect researchers with policy makers. The remarks they gave in launching The Forum and on the importance of scientists and policy makers working together are below.

Prior to the launch Sir Patrick was hosted by Professor Mary Ryan, Vice-Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Engineering for an audience Q&A. You can listen to that here.


Professor Nick Jennings officially launched  The Forum at Imperial College London on 10th July 2019

Professor Nick Jennings, Vice–Provost (Research and Enterprise)

Imperial has a fantastic of record of creating impact through spin outs and companies, but actually we have something to say around policy. I spent six years as the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security, so working in that CSA network, and it was a fantastic experience.  I really enjoyed it.  However, one of the things that I was surprised at was that I found relatively few people from Imperial that I would speak to and come across at meetings. I would see other universities, and universities that I do not think are perhaps as strong as Imperial very much present in those meetings. One of the things I really wanted to do was to make sure that Imperial was able to take the talents and the excellence of the research that we do and to really impact. In fact, I even pitched this as part of my job interview three years ago. It has taken me a bit of time, but I am delighted to launch The Forum.

The Forum

We have been running it for just over a year now, not quite in stealth mode but without a big launch, and it really is very effective. We bring together  a group of senior civil servants, we take a particular topic and we discuss it with a group of our academics. In your tote bags, which I see lots of you are carrying, you will see some examples of some of the areas and topics that we have done thus far. We have tackled issues from artificial intelligence to vaccines, and those have both been written up as long reports. It really is something that I think is really valuable and really important that we do as a college.

The Forum is our means of doing that. An important point to say is that we do it in concert with government departments. A couple of events and sessions that we have had had been suggested by groups of government departments, so if you are in a government department and you are thinking, “Would it not be great if we had a Forum session on that?” Then we have a way of doing that, which is through Government Office for Science, and they will collate together those issues. We really do want to be responsive. Wherever the initial thought comes from, we really work together to co-create it. We really want to see what the attendees are interested in hearing about. It is not just at the headline level but actually what details they would like to find out more about. I think it is a great means of getting greater science understanding and information into policy.

It gives me real pleasure to officially open it tonight, with Patrick as our guest, who is also going to say a few words about that. Thank you very much.


Sir Patrick addressing the reception

Sir Patrick Vallance, Government Chief Scientific Adviser

I should probably declare an interest that I am a UCL person, but I do hold an honorary degree from here and I am an honorary fellow, so it is great to be here. You have already had me for an hour talking, so I will only speak for 45 minutes or so now and let you get back to your drinks.

Science advice in government

When I took on this job, the previous holder, Mark Walport, who, of course, was from Imperial, said to me, ‘It is a very interesting job’. I do not think he meant it to be quite as interesting as it is at the moment in terms of politics, but it certainly is an interesting time to be doing it. What is absolutely clear is that science is central to the big societal and governmental challenges that we face. I can think of virtually no problem that comes through government that does not have some science and technology angle. There is no way that, as Government Chief Scientific Adviser, I can be the person who gives all the science advice. There is no way that the network of Chief Scientific Advisers can be the only way that we give advice into government. There is no way even the 10,000 or so people in the Government Science and Engineering Profession can be the only source of advice, and that should not be the case.

This idea that we need to get the science system in government right is important. One can compare, for example, what is happening in some other countries where science and engineering’s completely embedded in the system. The obvious is in China, where we see many people with science and engineering degrees in the government, whether that is in the civil service or the in the political side. Before I took this job, I spoke to a pervious Cabinet Secretary and he said to me, ‘Science advice across government has been a bit sporadic. Sometimes it is great. Sometimes it is really important, in emergencies and so on, but it is not always great. It is not embedded.  It is not absolutely part of the system in the way that, for example, the economists have become’. He said, ‘That was not always the case with economists. Economists were not always embedded in the system’. His advice was, ‘Why do you not try to make the science as instrumental and embedded as the economists are’. I think that is an aim which we need to go after to do that. That means that the science system inside government needs to be right, whether that is the Chief Scientific Advisers, whether it is the other scientists across government, whether it is the ability for people who make policy to be good customers of science, understand science and understand that science is a method, an approach and not the body of facts that constitute scientific knowledge but the way in which we approach problems and that it is problem solving.

It is also, and fundamentally, about the links to the external world and making sure that we can tap into the great expertise, the deep expertise and the experience that we have across science in the UK, whether that is in universities or whether it is in industry. That is a really key part to get right.  That is why, in my view, this initiative, this Forum is so important.

Making connections

It is almost impossible to navigate government and to understand where things happen.  It is almost impossible to navigate a university and find out where people are, what they are doing and who knows what.

I was an academic for long enough to know that you often found out that the person in the next corridor is working on the same thing that you’re working on, or something relevant or that you’re interested in and you found out because you bumped into them at the airport. Not because you met them in the university.

And so this notion of bringing together people in a way that we have networks that bring together not only policy makers, people from government and university but actually help to navigate both sides by bringing the university together is critically important. And it’s important for policy, and it’s important for emergencies.

I really welcome the fact that this has been set up. I think it’s going to make life very much easier in terms of interaction, but it’s also going to increase the level at which the interaction can take place and also the durability. And the other thing that you all know is that relationships are important in this. Whatever we think about the data revolution, there’s something quite important about personal contacts. Being able to pick the phone up and talk to people or come and see people, so the networking of this is important.

What do we need? We need experts for sure – experts underpin all of this and expertise often sits in academia and expertise is something that is very strong here at Imperial. We need to be able to access that easily and The Forum I think is going to help with that. We need evidence synthesis. We need people who absolutely understand how to bring evidence together, rather than have sporadic, almost campaigning approaches to science. We need networks and this is a network that I think is going to be important, and these networks need to be maintained and durable. From that, something will emerge which is a greater understanding.

I’ve been in my role for just over a year and I’ve learned an enormous amount about how Whitehall* works. About how things get done across government, how things cannot be done, how people can stop things happening as they’re doing in all sorts of walks of life. That greater understanding of how the systems work is an important part of this and if we can, through this, get more people to understand about policy, some of whom may come into government, some of whom may stay in academia, some of whom will be able to give advice from time to time. That’s a really important part of this. So I welcome The Forum and I’m really pleased that this has happened.

The launch of The Forum  included a networking reception for policy makers and academics

Opportunities to engage

I want to give two pitches for roles that are up at the moment. One is with ESRC through UKRI – two positions for academics to come and work with Government Office for Science to work on Areas of Research Interest. The aim of that is to say, how can we turn these Areas of Research Interest into things that are really attractive and tractable to academic projects. So that rather than just have a series of policy wishes and a big gap between how do I think about doing that to try and bring that together – so those two posts have gone live today. And the other is that I co-chair something called the Council for Science and Technology which is the Prime Minister’s advisory group. An eclectic group of people from academia, business, finance and other areas which tackle big problems, like some of the ones we were talking about, and try to give succinct advice to the Prime Minister. That’s been running for many years and we are just in the process of looking for new members of that – 7 new members – so that’s something that people might like to look at.

I’ll finish and say, The Forum is going to be important.  We’ve got policy units springing up all over the place in academia which is a good thing – but there is something about bringing that together in a manageable way, and I think The Forum does exactly that.

I’m delighted to be here at the opening of this and congratulate you Nick for the vision to do this and the team for putting this together. So thank you very much, and good luck.

* Whitehall is a colloquial word for the UK/English Civil Service. 

The Forum: Our initiative to connect Imperial’s researchers with policy-makers.

By Professor Nick Jennings, Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise).

Imperial’s research has a fantastic track record of achieving impact. Making our voice heard in important policy debates and providing policy-makers with knowledge and expertise is an essential part of this. With our science and policy engagement programme The Forum, we are building on our successes and maximising opportunities for all Imperial researchers to engage with policy and policy-makers.

This is timely due to growing demand in government for engagement with academics as part of ensuring policy has a sound evidence-base. On taking the job, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Valance made clear his view that “Science, engineering and technology have a vital role to play at the heart of policy-making”. Indeed, in my time as Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security I saw first hand the vital role that science can play in policy and in government more widely. Yet a detailed report on collaboration between government and academia by the influential think tank the Institute for Government found that “government often struggles to draw on academia effectively in forming policy”. Imperial through The Forum stands ready to help. I will be hosting a Q&A with Sir Patrick on 10 July to formally launch The Forum and would be delighted to see you there.

How is The Forum going to make a difference?

The Forum will connect our research community and decision-makers to help find innovative solutions to the challenges governments face. Over its first few months The Forum ran successful workshops on food and nutrition, air quality, data privacy, personalised medicine and vaccines which brought policy-makers and academics together. In 2019 The Forum has focused on the Grand Challenges identified in the Government’s Industrial Strategy – AI and data, Clean Growth, Ageing Society and the Future of Mobility. All areas where Imperial has world leading research. In March we ran a workshop on AI and health, in May on AI and the future of work. In June we will run one on the decarbonisation of industry. More will follow. These workshops allow policy-makers to build networks at a world-leading university. By connecting them with Imperial researchers we will allow them to access the latest evidence, helping them to shape truly evidence-based public policy.

Imperial is already influencing policy debates. Last year Imperial’s Computational Privacy Group, led by Dr Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye – who took part in the workshop on data privacy – persuaded the government to make changes to the Data Protection Bill in 2017, making the case for alterations to plans to criminalise re-identification from anonymised data sets. Imperial research has also made an impact on policy debates on the world stage. For example at this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos Dr Audrey de Nazelle, Dr Laure de Preux and Dr Marc Stetter presented work on the growing problem of air pollution, having previously taken part in the workshop on air quality last June.

What does The Forum offer Imperial researchers?

The Forum will aim to take Imperial researchers on a journey that will have long-lasting impact. They will build their fundamental knowledge and confidence in engaging with decision-makers, which will help them to build their profile as the ‘go-to’ experts in their fields – locally, nationally and internationally. To support this process we run monthly policy engagement seminars which give an introduction to engaging with government in the UK; and we are adding to that offer with lunchtime policy writing clinics which started in April. Additional sessions will follow soon.

So in summary, The Forum provides Imperial researchers with the opportunity to:

  • Present and discuss their research with civil servants and others working in relevant fields across government departments at our workshops.
  • Take part in bespoke internal training to enhance their knowledge of how to engage with policy-makers at our seminars and clinics.
  • Access a suite of tailored online resources that will help researchers communicate with policy-makers.

For those interested in engaging with policy, I recommended singing up to our internal policy bulletin which will signpost engagement opportunities. You can also follow The Forum on Twitter, @imperial_forum. And do get in touch with The Forum team if you have any ideas or questions.

Food for thought: How Imperial’s Nutrition and Food Network is helping to tackle global health problems.

By Professor Gary Frost, Chair in Nutrition and Dietetics, Department of Medicine.

Our Network

Food is an aspect of life that constantly challenges the ingenuity of scientists. Its most pressing questions may start out as problems of biology, but only find solutions once chemistry, engineering, psychology and economics have been brought to bear. Most of nutrition isn’t about a single discipline, it’s about bringing multiple disciplines together to work on a problem and that is why at Imperial we have created the Nutrition and Food Network to establish a multidisciplinary approach to tackle some of the world’s biggest health problems.

The goal of the Network is to bring the strengths of Imperial researchers together to focus on food and nutrition research. It is about bringing people with diverse backgrounds together to focus on problems which are associated with diet, many of which are currently intractable health problems, such as obesity and type II diabetes, where there seems to be no solution to the increasing burden. The Network works by posing exciting problems, you can’t force people to work together, but if there is excitement about what you are trying to achieve, then it works.

Although Imperial is not overtly known for nutrition, many groups’ focus is on nutrition and they lead the world. For example, Elio Riboli’s research into cancer has a big focus on nutrition, Jeremy Nicholson’s work with the microbiota has a big overlap with nutrition, and a number of the engineering projects also involve nutrition. So although Imperial may not have been seen as being a major player in the field, in reality it has been. It is this expertise which allows us to look at these important questions on food and nutrition and search out ways to answer them.

Our approach

Some of the questions that demand this multi-disciplinary approach are apparently simple, such as what people eat at home. This question alone is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand, to the point where most of the big datasets in the UK on this simple question have error rates of around 50%. The issue comes from the fact that people like to present a favourable picture of their eating habits, either deliberately or subconsciously. So you’ve got to have an assessment technique that takes the person out of the equation.

The approach being developed at Imperial combines engineering, nutrition and medicine. Dr Benny Lo from Professor Guang-Zhong Yang’s team at the Hamlyn Centre has designed a tiny, wearable camera that turns on only when a person’s jaws move in the specific way associated with eating. Surface recognition software can identify the food being consumed. Meanwhile Professor Elaine Holmes and Dr Isabel Garcia-Perez, in the Department of Surgery and Cancer, have developed methods to understand the quality food consumed by analysing molecules in urine.

These technologies could work side by side: if we can bring them together, we might start to understand for the first time what people are truly consuming. This will help policy makers who might, for instance, want to reduce diabetes by changing eating habits. We hope that these technologies will give the accuracy needed to understand the impact of public policy. This is also important when it comes to dealing with nutritional problems in developing counties, and alongside Professor Yang here at Imperial we have also been awarded a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to see if this approach and the use of new technology can be used to assess food intake in developing countries.

Our expertise

The range of expertise at Imperial really becomes obvious when you also look at all the research being pulled together by members of the Network, a range that basically covers all areas of the food chain. For example at the beginning of the chain there is Dr Laura Barter, a Senior Lecturer in the Chemistry Department and Director of the Agri-science Chemical Biology research network AGRI-Net, who is working on ways to make food crops more productive through improving photosynthesis. Her research looks at the surprising inefficiencies in photosynthesis and how to improve them. Then there is Marisa Miraldo, Associate Professor in Health Economics at the Imperial College Business School, who works on interventions to encourage healthy behaviour, including healthy eating. She is particularly interested in looking for the behavioural determinants of food choices and, in particular, how ‘economic’ preferences (e.g. risk and time preferences, and self-control) shape nutritional balance and how people react to interventions to curb obesity. An area of obvious importance to policy-makers.

While Dr Miraldo approaches eating behaviour from an economic point of view, Dr Weston Baxter has design in mind. A Lecturer in the Dyson School of Design Engineering, he works on ways that design can modify the way people behave around food. For example, studying how people prepare food in the developing world or use hand washing stations near community toilets has provided design insights that help maintain good hygiene practices such as handwashing. In the commercial context this work has to be less controlling, and one of the most intriguing projects Dr Baxter is working on involves food rituals, such as the way some people always separate the sticks of a chocolate bar in a particular way before eating them. This is interesting because rituals appear to make food more enjoyable.

Once the food is in someone’s mouth, another kind of engineer starts to get involved. Dr Maria Charalambides, Reader in Mechanics of Materials in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, applies knowledge that she developed studying food processing to food consumption. Beginning with the first bite, to look at the food breakdown, the forces on the teeth and so on. Next the aim is to cover the whole process of chewing, which will involve bringing in other engineering specialists, collaborating with fluid dynamicists and tribologists to take the food from the first bite to the bolus that you can swallow. Working out how the food interacts with the mouth cavity? Looking at how it changes phase from solid to liquid and how does it interact with the surfaces in the mouth?

And at the end of the eating process we once again return to my area, digestion and affecting the behaviour of the gut with short-chain fatty acids. The action takes place deep down in your colon, which is highly inaccessible, it was always a problem getting anything to travel there, because the body is very good at breaking stuff down. But together we have found the solution, which was to fix the short-chain fatty acid, in this case propionate, onto a common dietary fibre called inulin to produce a food supplement. It delivers a certain quantity of short-chain fatty acid into the colon, and you can get predictable effects on appetite regulation. To continue this research my team has been awarded a grant from the National Institute for Health Research for a randomised control trial to see if this supplement prevents weight gain in people between the ages of 20 and 35. If it works we hope we can really start to make a difference in the ongoing issue of obesity and the health complications that come with it.

Cars and our cities: The Imperial Air Quality Network and my research on how we can improve.

By Dr Audrey de Nazelle, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London. 

Air pollution is now the fourth biggest killer in the world after smoking, high blood pressure and diet. It contributes to more than six million deaths every year. The majority of these are in poorer nations. Worryingly, air quality may become increasingly worse with rapidly expanding urbanization.

More than half the world’s population now live in cities. By 2050, this will reach two thirds. As more people move from rural areas to cities, there will be more cars on the roads, more traffic congestion hotspots near homes and workplaces, and less green space. City dwellers are already suffering from fumes and smog on their daily commutes. It’s outrageous that we’ve reached a point where it’s healthier for some people to stay inside and not exercise, rather than walk outside and breathe polluted air.

Why do nations, political leaders, experts and campaigning organisations want to reduce air pollution? The main reason is to improve people’s health. But we can be bolder than simply mitigating this problem by trying to reduce particle concentrations. There is an exciting opportunity to go much further, and fundamentally rethink the way cities work. Paradoxically, air pollution can spur us to transform public health and infrastructure, and change how we design cities in the future.

We currently spend a lot of time focusing on ways to reduce emissions or develop cleaner and more efficient fuels. Lawmakers apply taxes and levies or ban older cars in cities. The car industry is seeing a boom in hybrid and electric vehicles, which are much more environmentally friendly. Of course, these solutions play an important role in cleaning up our urban air. But we are missing a huge opportunity to take a more holistic approach to the health and well-being of people living in cities. For example, what if we rethought the purpose of our streets. Are they really just meant for cars to get from A to B? Or can we see them as a place to walk and cycle, where children play and neighbours meet?

By removing cars from cities, you are not just reducing emissions –there are countless other benefits. Researchers in London studied the health impacts of cutting emissions by two different methods. The first scenario used a technology-led policy, while the second promoted walking and cycling instead of driving. Both scenarios resulted in similar levels of improved air quality. But the method which encouraged people to walk and cycle generated up to 30 times more benefits, due to health improvements from increased physical activity. I have carried out similar research in other cities and reached the same conclusions.

Sadly, current levels of air pollution may be putting people off from enjoying the outdoors and getting regular physical activity. A recent study in London compared the health effects of a walk in Hyde Park against one along Oxford Street. For people over 60, toxic air pollution cancelled out some of the benefits they got from the light physical activity. And in some of the world’s most polluted cities, such as Delhi and Beijing, cycling for more than an hour every day can do more harm to you than good.

Some cities have announced car-free or car-less visions, including Milan, Copenhagen, Madrid and Paris. Oslo plans to ban all cars from its city centre permanently in 2019. Chengdu in China is designing a new residential area in which people will be able to walk everywhere easily, reducing the need for cars.

Although it was forgotten for a while, we do have some history of planning cities with public health in mind. The urban sanitarians in the mid-1850s called for new planning strategies that included more green space, better ventilation through streets and increased sunlight into homes, to combat the epidemics of the time – cholera and the plague. These people made their mark on their respective cities through a conscious effort of planning for better health. We’re hoping to make similar strides again. Imperial’s Network of Excellence in Air Quality aims to identify the next big frontiers in air quality research, collaborating across disciplines to deliver new insights. Scientists and researchers from medicine, engineering, business and other disciplines are coming together to share expertise and find solutions to some of the biggest challenges. My colleagues Dr Marc Stettler, Dr Laure de Preux and I have explored some of these some of these issues with peers and global leaders at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin in China this year.

Like the urban sanitarians of nearly 200 years ago, we again have the opportunity to design our cities to improve public health. I have no doubt that we will get there, and that we will realize this new vision of what streets and neighbourhoods are for – a place for people to live in, not just cars. Why not start now, and begin reaping the benefits?