'The higher the risk of failure, the more exciting the potential result'

July 27, 2007

outhampton's new head of electronics and computer science has an adventurous streak in and out of work

When fire devastated Southampton University's School of Electronics and Computer Science in 2005, Harvey Rutt was determined to turn the disaster to the school's advantage. "The damage was immense: the clean-block was totally destroyed," said Professor Rutt, who takes over as head of the school on August 1. He used the fire, which was probably caused by an electrical fault, as an opportunity to reinvent the school.

"We made some radical changes," he said. He abandoned more traditional working techniques in favour of higher-risk new ways of developing smaller, more powerful devices. "There is a tendency in research to veer towards the secure. But the higher the risk of failure, the more exciting the potential result."

While he was "towards one end of the spectrum" in terms of enthusiasm for the change, he said, nobody wanted to return to doing exactly the same as before the fire.

Professor Rutt finds academe's indecisiveness and its ambivalence about taking risks in research frustrating. A keen mountaineer, aviator and diver, he once found himself swinging upside down above a 2,000ft drop after a fellow climber fell off the mountainside they were scaling. Following procedures he had been taught, he managed to climb back up. "If you have problems 40 metres under water or halfway up a mountain, you don't delay in making a decision because you might die. It might be an idea to adopt a similar approach to our academic life."

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