An Interview with Prof Pam Thomas, CEO

What attracted you to serve as CEO for the Faraday Institution?

This is an exciting time for battery research in the UK. We are living in a unique moment where research and development will transform how energy is stored and deployed – for transport, but also for capturing wind and solar energy for use on the grid. There is a great opportunity to position the UK as a leader in this industry and to create new, green jobs. This excitement drew me to the Faraday Institution as a founding director and trustee, and now even more so as CEO.

On the research side, unlocking knowledge and understanding of how batteries operate and how they can be improved to facilitate the move to an electrified economy is a singularly important research question of our generation. It will define whether we succeed in the global imperative to decarbonise to meet climate change targets and expectations for air quality and health outcomes in our cities. The Faraday Institution is the focus of the UK’s national effort in this regard. It was set up with a new and exciting model of conducting research to industry defined goals. It is beholden upon all of us to see that, through a fully professional dedicated national effort, we make that model work. I’m enormously excited to be playing a leading role in this initiative.

As CEO what will your priorities be for the Faraday Institution?

To deliver. To develop further the environment in which scientific discovery is translated from the lab into something with demonstrable societal, economic and environmental impact.

Collaboration and partnerships will be key to delivery: with industry, with research councils, nationally and internationally. The Faraday Institution is positioned well to be an exemplar in how this can be done well. Our benchmark is excellence and with this high bar we’ll be looking to engage all those organisations that have something to contribute. In particular I will be striving for a deepening of industry engagement in the Faraday Institution’s research programmes.

I’ll be making it a priority to conduct a listening tour (virtually and with COVID-safe lab visits) of the UK battery research community and our industrial partners so that my tenure as leader of the organisation comes from a place of understanding.

I’m also excited to be furthering the team’s efforts to develop a strategy for extending the Faraday Institution’s mission in energy storage into other sectors such as aviation and grid and securing long-term funding for the organisation.

How should the UK look to quickly deliver world class science of industry relevance?

The building blocks of success are in place. I am a great believer and supporter of a challenge-based research model for tackling particular problems where a mission-based approach makes sense. The Faraday Battery Challenge is a perfect case in point, where there is an evident advantage in industry being integrally involved with defining research requirements and in ongoing decision making and collaboration – and this is the model we have adopted.

In a whole host of research areas great things can be achieved by assembling the best and the brightest researchers and experts in translating scientific breakthroughs into commercial reality, and establishing a collaborative and agile environment for them to work in. To drive towards impact we need to prioritise the most promising areas, be brave and allow researchers to pursue directions that are high-risk, high-reward, and give them the space and freedom from bureaucracy to focus on what they do best. These are all sentiments that were echoed in the Government’s UK Research and Development Roadmap published in July.

What is needed to enable great research to successfully cross the divide to commercial reality?

To define the science questions around industry requirement. And to keep researchers – at every career level – focused on impact, whether it be societal, economic or industrial.

I commenced my academic career when this recognition of the importance of impactful research inspired by real-world problems including those posed by industry, was gaining momentum, so this mindset is fundamental to how I see research. Also, speaking as someone who has patented her research and has spun out a company from a university, it is vital that plans are put in place at an early stage for the commercialisation of promising research. Researchers need support to facilitate this. And recognition needs to be given to the fact that the skills and expertise to complete excellent research and then successfully to complete a commercialisation process rarely reside in one person or organisation.

How do academic career paths need to evolve to deliver this model for optimum success?

The Faraday Institution’s research model is different from many other national endeavours. It funds highly collaborative projects and focuses its efforts on tackling specific challenging research issues. Should they be overcome, they would be game changers for the automotive and other sectors.

Operating this distinctive research model brings its challenges. It is safe to say that the single predominant career path open to researchers in universities is too restrictive for the UK to fulfil its ambitions and potential in this area.

I’m a passionate proponent for the establishment of multiple career paths open to academics that would allow them to specialise in research or programme management, teaching or facilitating spin outs. This would allow industry and institutes to deploy researchers with more specialist skills sets into their programmes, and prevent researchers having to look abroad in some cases to pursue their career. Doing this successfully would bring huge benefits to the UK, not just in the commercialisation of battery technologies but in many other research areas and industry sectors in which the country is or could be industry leading.

What skills sets are missing from battery research in the UK?

The Faraday Institution programme already draws in expertise from a large range of disciplines, from chemistry to materials science, computer modelling to law, mathematics to engineering. There is value in engaging with an even greater range of specialisms, backgrounds and universities.

In particular I believe that engineering scientists are currently insufficiently involved in the existing programmes. I have huge respect for the engineering profession and the value that they can bring to the scientific endeavour. All too often, the contribution of engineering science is only considered later on in programmes, adding on at higher technology readiness levels, but I believe that only integration of engineering expertise from the outset can deliver the solutions to the challenges that we pose here.

Additionally, I’ll be striving to see increased recognition for the value that behavioural and social scientists can bring to the uptake of electric vehicles. We need a robust understanding of the gap between perceptions and reality as they relate to EVs and pattens of behaviour around purchasing decisions. This would help to inform how government, automakers and other stakeholders can facilitate the millions of consumer purchasing decisions that will be needed before a ban on new sales of petrol and diesel cars could be realistic.

What has been your experience as a woman working in STEM?

Early in my career I was frequently the only woman in the room, and it was sometimes hard work to have my voice listened to and my contribution recognised. This kind of experience can be upsetting, reduces confidence and seeds self-doubt. Things are definitely better now as teams have become more diverse. I hope that the work that many of us have done over the years to make STEM careers more welcoming for women has led to improved experiences for them early in their careers.

Being a woman, with caring responsibilities, and wanting a stable home life for my family in a two-career household has certainly shaped my career. It’s led me to actively seek out opportunities for advancement within the University of Warwick. That’s been my route to success – the one that was right for me.

What advice would you give to women or individuals in other minority groups who are building their careers?

My advice for all early career academics would be two-fold:

Get yourself in a position where you are being heard, where you’re taken seriously. This comes with experience, time and perseverance. It’s important to understand that if you’re not being listened to it can be because of youth or inexperience (something that all early career academics go through) not necessarily because you’re being undervalued or side-lined, although it can be the latter too! It can be difficult early in a career to understand the difference. Mentoring – particularly for researchers in groups under-represented in STEM – is particularly valuable in this regard.

Many researchers, particularly those with caring commitments, simply don’t have or don’t gift themselves time strategically to plan their professional future. I would say take time and space every so often away from the day-to-day pressures of research to reflect on your career. Understand yourself, what you’re good at, what you enjoy. Accept that this may change at different times in your life and be confident in your decisions.

What experiences can you bring to the Faraday Institution’s skills’ development and diversity agendas?

As a university teacher of over 25 years I know what needs to be in place to deliver effective teaching and learning. I have supervised around 20 PhD researchers over my career, many of whom have gone on to significant academic and industrial careers. As the Chair of the University of Warwick’s Faculty of Science I provided over-arching academic leadership to nine departments and led faculty-wide activities in widening participation, employability, public engagement and engineering education.

Skills development and diversity in research are areas I feel passionately about. For the UK to play a leading role in the new electrified economy the Faraday Institution must create a dynamic, diverse, driven pool of talent to work in the battery technology sector of the future. The Institution’s aim is to create an environment where all researchers can thrive as the team and I know that combining the skills and talents of a dynamic and diverse community brings great strength.

Will you continue to maintain any links to the University of Warwick or your research group?

Yes. I’ll be running my own research effort in Ferroelectric Crystallography indefinitely. This is a role that I enjoy enormously. Maintaining links at research group level will allow me to stay tuned in to the issues being experienced by lab-based academics. This will be of value to the Faraday Institution as it continues to align the day-to-day needs and wants of its researchers with the urgent need to deliver research that will underpin the UK as a leader in battery research, innovation and manufacturing.



Posted on September 24, 2020 in Blog

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About the Author

Louise Gould is a marketing and communications professional who has centred her career around technology-based organisations. She joined the Faraday Institution after 5 years as Marketing Communications Manager at the renewable fuels company Velocys.

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