When you joined the RSC did you have any idea that, one day, you would become the chief executive?
HP: I probably didn’t think about it, although I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had ambition from a very early age – and that applied to everything I did at school, through my degree – it’s the reason I did a PhD – when I came to the RSC I always wanted to aspire to do more and to have an impact. So whilst I may not have thought explicitly about being chief executive, I always thought about the possibility and the opportunity and it did provide a drive for me throughout my career.
Why did you choose chemistry in the first place?
HP: Oh easy – I had an absolutely 100% inspirational chemistry teacher, but first and foremost, she inspired me because she was a deputy head teacher, then became our head teacher. She had a PhD in chemistry and I was inspired by the fact that she was such a strong and motivational leader. The fact she was a chemist was great because I enjoyed maths and I enjoyed science – Dr Cousens inspired me.
But I also enjoyed the subject of chemistry, because it offers everything – it offers academic rigour, it offers mathematical application, it offers the connection to the real world happening all around us, but, most importantly, it also enabled me to do something practical because I enjoy doing things with my hands. When I went to university, that’s what really struck me about chemistry – it offered this whole breadth of skills and application and knowledge and theory and just excitement about what chemistry does.
I’ve heard you talk previously about having real models, i.e. role models you identify with. With your appointment and recent women RSC presidents, does that send a message?
HP: Yes, I think it is about lived experience and I give credit to all those I’ve worked with at the RSC – I couldn’t do the job I do now, if I hadn’t worked with all those colleagues and members. My experience of working with Carol Robinson and Lesley Yellowlees, for example – in fact every president I’ve worked alongside, every single team member who has supported me, they’ve all added to my experience. Even when you have difficult relationships with people or you’ve had a setback or challenge, you learn from it and that becomes part of you and how you deal with things in the future. I also want to give huge thanks to Robert Parker who recently stepped down as CEO. Robert has been instrumental in bringing about change at the RSC.
What is your vision for the future and the things that you want to achieve as Royal Society of Chemistry Chief Executive?
HP: What’s really important to me is the reason the RSC exists – it’s about ensuring that chemistry and the community are well supported into the future, to deliver for society as a whole, and making the world a better place. But it’s the people who do that, so from the RSC perspective we occupy this really unique position in the global science community. That gives us a really fantastic opportunity to perform a role that other organisations could do independently, but actually it’s the impact of bringing all these different parts together.
So, whether that be across our membership community or our publishing community or the work that we do in education, it’s about bringing that all together in a connected way for the greatest impact. In a post-pandemic world or as we change in the future and tackle global challenges, there’s such enormous opportunity. But I have to stress it’s all about the community, it’s all about working in partnership and it’s all about teamwork.
There’s been a demonstrable change in our ambition to confront issues and there’s a real change in the kind of bravery with how we go about that, so what would you put your finger on as that change in attitude?
HP: For me personally, I could date some of it back to Simon Campbell’s presidency when he led the campaign for chemistry, and there was a desire from the community that we should do more, to be more proactive and have more confidence in our role and our voice.
More recently has been our inclusion and diversity work and I think the thing I really learned was to be brave – and I learned it because other people helped me to see this was the way forward. As you say, it was about being brave to really identify the challenge and the role that the RSC could play, because we should play that role, because if we’re not going to do it, then no one else will – and it’s going to make a difference.
I also had a chance to reflect that I’ve been through a whole generation at the RSC and, if we can’t make a change in a generation, then we we’re not doing the right thing. I think that Breaking the Barriers work was absolutely that kind of watershed moment. It is about being brave and it is about taking on those challenges and accepting that we have to put ourselves forward.
We’re in a changing world for research funding and a politically tricky time as well, so is there a reflection on where we find ourselves and those big challenges?
HP: Obviously the RSC has to play a role in advocating for and championing investment in the chemical sciences, whether that’s in discovery or application and innovation – it’s important that the fundamental discipline of chemistry is strong and because the skills and the depth is required but also that breadth of application and working as part of those multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary teams that are so important.
But in terms of the RSC itself and the threats that could come from a change in funding or the wider economy, it’s our strategy, ambition and plan that we should continue to look for how we create value from all the activity that we do, so that we can reinvest that back into supporting the community and supporting science.
The fact is that the world is changing, so the RSC has to adapt and change, along with its community – and the RSC has been doing that for the last 180 years – we just have to make sure we keep doing that and actually, in many cases accelerate that, because that’s what the last 18 months taught us – we have to accelerate our change.