Ensuring the voice of physics is heard loud and clear

Tom Grinyer, the new chief executive of the Institute of Physics, talks to Michael Banks about why he took the job, the challenges facing membership societies, and what excites him about physics

Could you say a bit about your career before you replaced Paul Hardaker as chief executive of the Institute of Physics (IOP) in June?

The IOP is the sixth membership organization I have worked for in the past 25 years and my third as chief executive. I joined from the British Medical Association (BMA), where I was group chief executive and led the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic. I also restructured the BMA with a particular emphasis on membership engagement. Like the IOP, which owns the substantial specialist publishing business IOP Publishing, the BMA owns BMJ Publishing, which publishes more than 60 medical and scientific titles. Before the BMA, I led the Royal College of Anaesthetists, where membership grew substantially under my leadership, and before this I was executive director of strategy, communications and policy at the Royal College of Physicians, where I was also interim chief executive.

What was it like leading the BMA during the COVID-19 pandemic?

With the BMA representing more than 160,000 doctors, it was incredibly busy and at times incredibly difficult, particularly hearing the news of doctors dying. We set up a 24/7 member-support helpline. In the press we highlighted the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and then worked to get PPE to the front line. We emphasized the impact of the virus on those from ethnic minorities – including medical professionals – and were a leading voice in the public health debate. I am immensely proud of what we achieved, and it is as close as I have ever come to 24/7 working, but that was nothing compared with what many doctors and the wider medical profession had to endure, which I remain in awe of.

So what attracted you to the IOP?

I have long admired the IOP as a great organization and I believe that it has further potential. I’m hugely excited by the IOP’s agenda and I’ll be leading the IOP as it continues to emerge from COVID-19, tackle climate change, seek to cement science and physics in the post-Brexit landscape, and continue to make physics a more equal, diverse and inclusive discipline. The report we launched in September shows the UK and Ireland needs a clear, comprehensive and long-term vision for research and development.

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What have you discovered during your time so far at the IOP?

How terrific the physics community is, and that includes its members, those in elected positions and the staff, who have a real professionalism and passion for the organization and its mission. I recently attended Photon 2022 in Nottingham and it was great to see seven IOP groups come together to discuss a crucial area of research.

What is top of your to-do list?

I believe in the importance of greater member engagement and influence, which is a key part of the IOP’s existing strategy. All member organizations are only as good as their member engagement, whether that is through Physics World, education, research, policy-making or sharing ideas through IOP’s thriving groups, branches or the wider physics community. That membership engagement needs to be grounded in inclusivity, as stated in our strategy: “We must ensure our profession better reflects the diversity of our society”. The role of the IOP is to bring together that member and staff expertise to ensure our influence in scientific debates and that the voice of physics is heard loud and clear.

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Is it a help or a hindrance not being a physicist by training?

I hope my background in membership organizations and for the past decade working with professional bodies, each with a substantial publishing arm, brings something to IOP. The IOP membership is such a rich and valuable source of physics expertise – unmatched in the UK and Ireland – and it is important that we bring their knowledge to bear on the IOP’s work. For me, membership organizations are at their best when the members and staff work together seamlessly, respecting each other’s expertise, and I hope to continue that drive at the IOP.

What do you see as some of the main strengths and weaknesses of the IOP?

The IOP has a proud history stretching back to 1874 that covers all aspects of physics. Our strength is in bringing together the physics community. To do this to greatest effect we need to make sure that we increase and represent the diversity of that community and ensure a steady flow of physicists drawn from all parts of the population. It is vital that our profession better reflects the diversity of our society, and I am really impressed with the IOP’s work on inclusion, including the excellent Limit Less campaign. I also think we can – and must – do more to positively raise our public profile to ensure the voice of physics is listened to.

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Longer term, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the IOP?

We need to educate and inspire the future generations of UK and Irish physicists. There is a large shortage of physics teachers, something I will be discussing with the permanent secretary at the Department of Education. I will explain all the resources the IOP has put in place to support teachers and discuss what actions the department could take to attract and retain more physics teachers.

Do you keep up with the latest physics news? What areas excite you the most?

Absolutely. I have always had a keen interest in physics. The biggest excitement for me since starting was the early images from the James Webb Space Telescope. It is truly inspiring what physics can achieve. I was disappointed that the Artemis Moon rocket launch was delayed but hope it will happen soon.

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