Q&A with Nick Wright

We speak to the pro vice‑chancellor for research and innovation at Newcastle University

January 23, 2014

In December, Nick Wright, pro vice‑chancellor for research and innovation at Newcastle University, was announced as chair of the executive management group for the N8 Research Partnership of universities in the north of England

Where and when were you born?
Colchester, Essex in 1965.

How has this shaped you?
Not sure to be truthful, but I admire the Essex spirit of independence and free thinking.

Have you had a eureka moment?    
I was lucky enough to do my PhD at the Daresbury synchrotron and to experience first-hand the thrill of finding out something fundamental. It was [amazing] to walk home in the early hours of the morning after a long experiment knowing that you were one of the few people alive who knew about a particular property of important materials such as silicon.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
The physicist Paul Dirac, author of the most elegant book on physics ever written (The Principles of Quantum Mechanics).

What do you consider to be the N8’s role?
To collaborate for more impact primarily. I am passionate about collaboration, both between academics and also with industry and the third sector. The UK still leads the world in ideas but [by working together we can] accelerate their impact.

Does the rise of other similar research networks make its mission harder?
Well it’s a compliment of course, but competition is always good – keeps us all honest.

What are your short/long-term aims for the role?
In the short term, the N8 will continue with its successful industry forum events and leading on important initiatives such as equipment sharing. In the longer term, there is a lot to do.

Is the N8 being put on hold during the research excellence framework season?
Not really – for example, we have still been holding some great events with industry.

Do you foresee the N8 collaborating over the REF one day?
Personally, I can’t; but anything is possible I guess.

Should Joe Bloggs care about your work?
I hope so. Nobody owes the UK a living, and we have to compete using our best ideas. Collaboration is essential for that, to my mind, and eight great universities working together is just as important as eight great technologies.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best is undoubtedly meeting the most fantastic people, but I struggle with internal university meetings (even though I know that they are mostly necessary).

What advice would you give to your younger self?
To trust my own instinct more and to not be afraid to spend time researching things in which no one else is interested.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
Academic life is more complex and more pressured, but it’s still a wonderful job with astonishing freedom.

What keeps you awake at night?
The feeling that I have forgotten to write down something important.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Well, I mostly dreamed of playing for Spurs, but apart from that I wanted to be an explorer.

Tell us about a book, show, film or play that you love.
Lord of the Rings has always been a favourite, and it is great to see my own children enjoy it as well.

What do you do for fun?
I play football increasingly badly and walk my children to school [which produces] marvellous, strange conversations.

What’s your biggest regret?
I would have liked to have undertaken a decent sabbatical overseas, but somehow never managed to pull it off – mainly due to my own inability to get it all quite lined up. Still time of course…

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
For me it was a wonderful experience (University of Edinburgh, physics) that really changed my life. Like many people, going to university wasn’t common in my family until recently, and the experience exposed me to things that I doubt I would have encountered otherwise. I believe that this is still true for many students today and that the full experience at a good university is unbeatable.

To what, or whom, do you feel most allegiance?
Family and friends, of course.

Who from history would you have most liked to meet?
Tricky to pick one, but if pressed it would have to be the great republican Oliver Cromwell.


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