Blue skies to sky blue

August 18, 1995

Alec Broers, a David-sized engineer with a Goliath reputation, exudes a boyish enthusiasm as he rushes through the multi-million pound research laboratory along Trumpington Street, pointing out the space-suited researchers, the gigantic Pounds 600,000 electron microscope, and the high-tech computers.

"If you want a laboratory to explore the ultimate limits of electron beam fabrication - you couldn't do much better than Cambridge," he says.

Research is his passion, and the chance just to be near the sparkling laboratory equipment - what he calls his "expensive toys" - fills him with joy. Yet these days, his packed diary - he juggles the roles of master of Churchill College and head of the engineering department - means that the chances are few and far between, and they will become fewer still when he succeeds Sir David Williams as Cambridge's vice chancellor next year.

Professor Broers admits that leaving will be hard. It was the magnet of research that attracted him to Cambridge, not once but twice. The first time was the early1960s.

He is English, but he grew up in Australia, still retains a definably antipodean accent, and fails the Tebbit cricket test by always cheering the Aussies at Lord's. After taking a degree in physics from Melbourne University, he came to England and did a PhD by designing advanced microscopes under the auspices of Charles Oakley.

He returned in the mid-1980s. After a spectacular career as an IBM research scientist in the United States. Professor Broers wanted to do pure blue skies research so much that he took an 80 per cent salary cut.

It is, then, an irony that his research reputation, together with his industrial experience, probably won him the vice chancellorship. He looks forward to bringing big business to Cambridge. Top scientists, possibly attracted by industry-sized salaries, are also in his sights.

But he has no ambition to turn Cambridge into a larger Churchill College, where the science-arts ratio is 70:30. He thinks the debate about "valuing a symphony orchestra versus a radio telescope" important. As an active sailor and a former near-professional choral scholar, he prizes Cambridge's cultural diversity. "It's one of our strengths over institutions like MIT and Stanford, which are technical places," he says.

Perhaps a larger challenge is the development of West Cambridge, a campus site that is the university's hope for the future.

Already home to the famous Cavendish Laboratories, there are plans to move the engineering department to an Pounds 80 million Norman Foster-designed complex. If this works out, what is being dubbed Cambridge's potential "MIT by the M11" would be the ultimate achievement for a researcher-turned-administrator.

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