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Coronavirus Diaries: Ian Walmsley

Ian Walmsley

Ian Walmsley, Imperial College London, U.K.

OPN has been talking with members of the optics and photonics community in a variety of areas to get their perspective on how the COVID-19 crisis has affected their lives and work, and what the pandemic means for photonics. On 1 April, we spoke with 2018 OSA President Ian Walmsley, Provost and professor of experimental physics at Imperial College London, U.K.

I understand that you’ve been managing Imperial’s COVID response. How has that unfolded?

In the U.K., as in many countries, the situation changed very rapidly, requiring us to move at an extraordinary speed from normal operations to complete remote working. This included the rapid shutdown of all but the most essential laboratories and facilities, and arranging for the students, many of whom are now away in their home countries, to learn remotely and take remote examinations. Setting that up and delivering it took an immense amount of effort.

In addition to these logistical difficulties, now that everybody in the U.K. is working remotely, people have different responsibilities. Schools are closed, so children are at home—how do parents get the work done that they would normally do? This introduces a lot of additional stress, so we’ve had to help people manage all of that.

On the on the upside, the college’s work—especially in epidemiology and in the treatments for COVID-19—has really garnered some international attention, and that’s been a helpful profile boost. And we’ve learned very rapidly how to build online communities in a more effective way, which will impact how we teach in the future. We see a lot of opportunity arising from this experience and expertise as we look forward to next year.

What have you learned about building online communities? Do you have any advice?

At the moment, there’s a great deal of experimentation. But certainly, some of the practices that we’ve seen across the campus around building learning communities—which are effective, rather than just delivering lectures online—are techniques that can really add value to teaching.

What we haven’t fully figured out yet is understanding how that works in the long term. What is the importance of the in-person contact in education versus complete remote learning? They’re ongoing experiments, but as with all experiments, the outcome is quite exciting when you don’t know what it is.

What lab work, if any, is still up and running?

What we’ve kept going is work that’s directly related to the virus. And we have made some of our facilities available to the NHS and other government organizations to help deliver new solutions for testing, antibody testing, serology, vaccine-related research, epidemiology functions, etc.

We’ve also utilized some of our other facilities to do small-scale things for the vaccine-related research, such as using 3D manufacturing to build some of the necessary components, and designing personal protective equipment (PPE). We’re harnessing the skills and creativity of our community to help where we can.

For the photonics labs that have been closed or repurposed, how are the researchers and students coping with this?

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The labs that are closed are clearly having to figure out what they can do in this period, and how to work together. It’s been an experience in understanding, What does an online community look like that is fruitful and productive and valuable? How do people stay in touch?

I’ve noticed that since most research groups are quite close knit, communicating hasn’t been as much of a problem. Of course, starting new collaborations is much harder when you’re trying to begin them remotely and you don’t know people. Also, it’s different for Ph.D. students—they’re needing to rethink what their degrees might look like, in light of experiments that may or may not happen. And PIs are thinking about what happens if project deadlines come up and they haven’t completed their research. So we are engaging with funders to understand what that means, and how we can work together to meet the project objectives.

In the lab sphere, we’re also beginning to think about what startup looks like. It’s one thing to turn everything off, but when you turn it back on, it’s never just where you left it—equipment will break when it’s not used, for example. There’s work to do there as well.

How is this affecting you on a personal level, as a decision maker?

All of the effort that we were thinking about—about planning for the future, the big academic strategy, the state investments and the great things we wanted to do—are now on hold. Now we’re retrenching finances for a world where cash flow is important and liquidity is the key thing to keep us going until we know what the other side of this looks like. So it’s a real change of focus from bigger-picture thinking to day-to-day decision making.

The past few weeks have really been about, How do you make the immediate decisions that are needed to get you into a steady-state lockdown? And we’re still mitigating the fallout from that. But in the next few weeks, we’ll have to start thinking about, What does the world look like next year? And what does the world look like the year after that?

If, for example, overseas students decide that they’re just going to stay closer to home because international study is too big of a risk, then that fundamentally changes the face of higher education—not only in the U.K., but globally. Then remote education comes into its own.

Let’s talk about that larger picture. How might this pandemic affect the future of the field?

I think there are numerous impacts. If we think about it from the photonics side, the photonics industry is an important fraction of the U.K. economy. Taken as an industry sector it’s one of the bigger ones. However, photonics is largely made up of small firms, so the question is whether those small firms can weather the current crisis.

On the other hand, if you think about the quantum domain, it’s still largely startup companies. If your startup is in a phase where it has some investment capital, and you weren’t expecting to generate revenue for two years anyway, then you can probably work through it. If you were going out for another funding round now, then that’s a tougher situation. I don’t know what the photonics and quantum sectors will look like on the other side—the U.K. economy may look very different. And some of this will be influenced by whatever our government decides in respect of Brexit after all this.

The world’s going to be different after this pandemic, but my expectation is that those with high-tech skills will end up finding some way to work through it. That we can now talk easily in such distant and remote locations, from our homes, is enabled by photonics. So I think that we have to be thinking about what those opportunities look like for the future. They’re going to be there.

What about Brexit? Is it pretty much on hold?

I think that the opinions that one hears from the media make sense. The commentary is that we’ve got a huge economic shock on our plate right now, and it was always clear that Brexit would provide another economic shock. Why don’t we just postpone that for another year?

Negotiations have stalled at the moment, so the chances that we can get a deal by January are ever more remote. But that’s just the commentary—the government has remained completely silent on the issue.

How is the government responding to this from the point of view of science?

There’s been a significant injection of money into research around coronavirus mitigation, as well as treatment. The NHS has essentially been given a blank check for funding to combat it. And I think it’s reacting, in my view, very well. It’s able to organize effectively around that need.

I think an important point is that in the U.K., compared with, say, the U.S., science has played a front-and-center part of how the government has framed its response. In the daily briefings from the Prime Minister’s office, for example, the speaker is flanked by a top medical officer on one side and by a science advisor on the other side.

Further, I think that has been a very positive boost for science as a whole, having credibility in how you manage these kinds of situations. And if it proves that scientific advice and actions save lives, then I think that really speaks volumes about what science can contribute to the public good.

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