Dame Frances Saunders appointed as Chair of the Future Photonics Hub Advisory Board

Dame Frances Saunders has been appointed the Chair of the Future Photonics Hub Advisory Board. She has held some of the most influential positions in physics and engineering including Chief Executive of Dstl, President of the Institute of Physics and Trustee at the Royal Academy of Engineering. She became British Leyland’s first female graduate engineer in 1975 and has spent her career promoting science, engineering and leadership, especially to young people. Dame Frances shares her thoughts on the role of the Hub, it’s ambition and what it has been like working in a male dominated industry.

How did your career in engineering develop?

I’ve always been interested in why things work and how to make them work better. It’s always been my passion. After studying physics at the University of Nottingham, I decided I wanted to go into industry and apply what I had learned, in an engineering way – to try and develop new technologies. I started in the motor industry and from there moved into research in the scientific civil service. I’ve always been interested in science, ever since I was at school. I was involved in what was then known as the British Association of Young Scientists and in fact, that is when I first came into contact with the University of Southampton, because the University provided a mentor for the scheme.

You’ve been appointed as the Chair of the Future Photonics Hub Advisory Board – what is the role of the Board and your role as Chair?

An Advisory Board is often attached to research collaborations to provide support, challenge and oversight. We are not there to give detailed insights into the technical aspects of the Hub’s work – they are the experts – but our job is to ask whether the plans make sense, progress is on track and, importantly, how are they going to take the research out of the lab and translate into real world applications that positively effect society. We are also the Hub’s advocates and should be ensuring that the technologies that they’re developing get the prominence they deserve.

What attracted you to the role as Chair? 

I’m very passionate about translational research – taking an idea from a lab and making it applicable to the real world. It’s really important that researchers and potential users of an emerging technology understand the gap between what they can offer now, and what they might be able to offer in future. It’s important they understand the benefits and risks of translation. It is really difficult to turn something from a lab-based endeavour into an industrial production line, and, I don’t think we, as a country, have a sufficiently good track record of it. I hope I can use my experience from all the different roles I have had from the shop floor in the motor industry to chief executive of the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratories, to give back and support these collaborations in translating their research to deliver economic and societal benefits.

What is the role of the Hub?

It’s essential to have centres of excellence in developing manufacturing technology not just research into the technologies themselves. They need to be flexible and able to adapt to both the nature of the technology and the industry it is aimed at. For example, if the target industry is dominated by relatively small and medium sized companies, they probably haven’t got the money to invest early in some of the necessary infrastructure. The Hub can provide access to manufacturing techniques, small companies wouldn’t be able to invest in themselves. This would help them better assess whether the technology could deliver for them in future.


In other parts of the ecosystem, there might be larger companies who can afford to have their own labs, but the Hub could provide a “consultancy” relationship, license technology or support them as they develop the technology further. It’s the Hub’s job to understand that ecosystem and adapt how it works with all partners involved.

How can the Hub support the industry?

I think it’s important to remember that it is not just about equipment and the technology – it’s also about skills and the people. By delivering quality PhD programmes and Post-Doctoral research opportunities, the Hub is training a workforce that can then go out and use their experiences to take the industry forward. The technology and research papers may be the obvious outputs but it’s the people behind it that are just as important.  The Hub needs to think about how to keep those people within the industry. I want the Hub to have a plan and an approach to translate their capability to industry. I want to encourage and challenge them to think about how they can maximise the impact of their research and their people.

Do you think COVID-19 will impact the industry and where do you see the industry going over the next five to ten years?

It’s been a very horrible year on so many levels and I’m sure the pandemic will have had an effect in some way. It may have slowed things down a bit, but I don’t think it has decimated the industry. I think there may be opportunities to respond to both the pandemic and Brexit. There is now an ambition to build up some of these high tech companies and I think there will be more emphasis on translational research. I think there is a view in Number 10 that everyone knows we are great at discovery research, but what we’re not necessarily good at is translating that research into economic and social benefit. Photonics has a great opportunity to contribute and we’re already seeing the potential in aspects such as high powered lasers being used in advanced manufacturing and novel imaging techniques in healthcare. So, we will be looking to see what changes there may be in the Government’s investment strategy that will affect photonics and also what matched investment they will be looking for from private companies operating in the field.

What has it been like to work in a male dominated industry early in your career and how has the position of women changed in engineering since you started working in the sector?

I have never been discouraged from liking science or getting involved in scientific activities – perhaps it was a help that I went to an all-girls school. But I try to encourage young people now, to get involved in extracurricular activities around science and engineering.


I was British Leyland’s first female graduate engineering trainee – I was one woman in a very male dominated industry, but I never thought about whether it was going to be a challenge or not. However, when I was on the ‘shop floor’ it was quite an eye opener. I did feel the odd one out, but the engineers were incredibly supportive. They didn’t treat me as different – I was just one of their team and that made me feel comfortable.


Unfortunately, however, it hasn’t changed much and there are still not enough women at all levels of engineering. There is a lot of effort underway to encourage girls, young women and people from different backgrounds, including ethnicity, to pursue a career in science. But it is an uphill struggle.  It is often the image that wider society holds of what engineering is about that limits whether someone thinks they could be successful and have a career in it. There are not enough women and people from different backgrounds in positions of seniority to be seen as role models. In the case of women specifically, we need more higher up in organisations and to sustain an effective chain of women rising through the ranks, so when those top women move on, there is a woman potentially there to replace them.

Do you think gender parity is improving?

I think awareness is improving and the more we can do to talk about it, is a good thing. There’s a lot of conversation about unconscious bias which is positive. The more we talk about it as a societal problem, hopefully things will start to change.

What would you say to someone who was wanting to start a scientific career?

Physics, engineering, photonics – whatever the subject – are all about solving problems, some of which are theoretical problems, and some are practical problems. Engineering and more specifically photonics, is improving our communications networks and leading to better healthcare. It underpins so much of what can make society a better place. So, if you like solving problems and if you like practical things that you think would help make a difference, then study science.