In the news: Julia Higgins

September 10, 2004

Dame Julia Higgins, president of the British Association, is convinced that the public must be allowed more of a say in the direction of science.

She told delegates at this week's BA Festival of Science, hosted by Exeter University, that the public had little control over what use research was put to, despite funding it through taxes.

It is a lesson she learnt when conducting research into polymers. Dame Julia had assumed this was uncontroversial chemistry, so she was surprised when other researchers started worrying about a public backlash. Only then did she begin to think about the toxic possibilities of unleashing tiny particles into the environment. Dame Julia realised that scientists must think about potential problems well before someone else raises them.

She is the daughter of a civil servant and a teacher and grew up in southwest London. She was the first in her family to go to university, studying physics at Somerville College, Oxford.

Dame Julia, who began her research career in 1968, is now professor of polymer science in the department of chemical engineering and chemical technology at Imperial College London. She was made a dame in 2001 for services to science.

She is chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and works on projects to make careers in science more attractive to women.

Dame Julia is renowned for being outspoken yet retaining the voice of reason, and is well respected in the science community. She is a vice-president and foreign secretary of the Royal Society - only the second woman to be elected an officer in the history of the 344-year-old society.

If the most prestigious, male-dominated academy in Britain turned its back on centuries of tradition, Dame Julia would be many people's choice as its next president.

She is phlegmatic. "I'm not queuing up," she said. "But I wouldn't say no."

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