Q&A with Hugh Hunt

We talk to the University of Cambridge academic who brings engineering to life

August 13, 2015
Hugh Hunt, University of Cambridge

Hugh Hunt is reader in mechanical engineering at the University of Cambridge. He is a regular contributor on the BBC radio show Naked Scientists and, in 2011, collected the Royal Television Society award for best history programme for the two-hour long Channel 4 production Dambusters: Building the Bouncing Bomb, which was watched by an estimated 5 million people in the UK. In June, Dr Hunt was awarded the 2015 Royal Academy of Engineering’s Rooke Award for his outstanding contribution to the public promotion of engineering.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1961 in Melbourne, Australia, into a very musical family.

How has this shaped you?
The music has been very important. At school I sang in the choir, which ultimately drew me to Cambridge because of its choral heritage. Two teachers at my school (Melbourne Grammar School) were really inspiring. I went on to the University of Melbourne to study engineering, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

How important is public engagement for academics, professionally and socially?
Sadly, for many, it’s unimportant. Most academics can get away without doing it, and the current promotion structure includes very little requirement for public engagement. But for me it’s like a drug – I can’t do without it. Until now public engagement has been a distraction, preventing me from focusing on writing grant proposals and papers. This is why winning the Rooke Award was so important to me. I’ve met so many interesting and illuminating people through my extracurricular work.

Does it help dispel the ‘ivory towers’ image of the academic?
Yes, of course it does. Just last week I gave a public lecture about “Bouncing Bombs and Boomerangs”. Afterwards someone said, “I should have come to Cambridge – my lectures were never as fun as that”. The only reason my lectures are fun is because I’ve spent 20 years on the circuit, picking up ideas from great speakers, watching them perform. Public engagement is a performance, unlike the ivory tower, which is a very static privilege.

What one thing would you recommend academics do to improve their public engagement?
Start at the coalface. Offer to give talks at schools, Rotary Clubs, Women’s Institutes – take up every invitation. Don’t expect to get paid – that comes much later.

Do you think public engagement is key in all academic disciplines or is it more of a priority in STEM subjects?
Public engagement is about good storytelling and good acting. Humans are naturally good storytellers, and the best ones end up on stage. That’s why we have such great TV series about classical civilisations and life on earth. Public engagement for science, technology, engineering and mathematics is no different, but the actors need to get out a bit more. So, yes, STEM has dropped behind in public engagement – or perhaps STEM [research] is moving ahead so quickly that we have to work a lot harder to keep up.

What’s it like to know that any one of your TV programmes is being watched by a global audience of more than 5 million?
Fantastic! I don’t expect people to come up to me in the street – that has never happened. But to know that people are watching is heart-warming. I especially like it when families watch together. I had a lovely letter from a chap who said “Loved Dambusters. It’s the first time that the three generations of our family have sat down to watch the same show.”

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I think it’s a very difficult situation. It has changed the nature of university – expectations are high, in order to ensure that somehow a university education will be “value for money”. But it is a very important phase of life, moving from being a child to an adult, and to do it in a structured environment – I wouldn’t miss it for anything. 

What keeps you awake at night?
Sums.

What do you do for fun?
Sums. 

Have you ever had a eureka moment?
Yes, often. They come from doing sums. What happens is that you get caught up in detail and then you see the light – something simple just drops out.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A tram driver.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I’m lucky that I can sneak out and do films and give public lectures – clearly the best part. I also love teaching. Students are a great mirror. The worst part is writing endless grant applications and journal papers. It is part of the game we have to play but it doesn’t light my fire.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what policy would you implement?
I’d ensure that public engagement and outreach were counted as “impact” in all aspects of higher education. It has been hard for me to accept that a global audience of 20 million for my documentaries does not count as impact in the research excellence framework. Nor does it count much towards promotion.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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