UCL News


Spotlight on Brian Collins

28 August 2013

This week the spotlight is on Professor Brian Collins, Head of the Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy.


What is your role and what does it involve?

I am Head of a new Department at UCL, Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) housed in the Engineering Faculty and supported by the Faculty of Maths & Physical Sciences (MAPS) and the UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. I am also Professor of Engineering Policy. 

STEaPP is being set up to provide a unique capability to link science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with public policy through masters level education, executive education and research. 

The target audience is public servants at all levels, both national and international, as well as executives in commercial and NGO organisations. We are also developing a set of Master's courses aimed at postgraduate students who want to understand and operate at the interface between STEM and public policy.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL in the summer of 2011. Prior to that, I was on secondment from Cranfield University, where I was Professor of Information Systems.

During that secondment, I held the role of Chief Scientific Adviser in both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

While in the DfT, I helped to generate a much better understanding by policymakers of how policies about the design and engineering of transport systems and services were affected by human behaviour.

This is now embedded in how policies are created. The resultant business cases, although more complex, are now more realistic in their evidential underpinning. 

In BIS, I helped to get the growth agenda underway by working with policymakers to improve their understanding of the critical role STEM plays in achieving not only GDP growth but improvements in other 'quality of life' factors characteristic of a modern developed society.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

Setting up a new Department is consuming a lot of my time, but I am also starting a new £3.5 million EPSRC Research grant, International Centre for Infrastructure Futures (ICIF), which involves a consortium of six universities led by UCL.

It will investigate how national infrastructure business models for energy, transport, waste water and ICT can be improved to take account of climate change, resilience to extreme events, adaptability to changing needs, and to incorporate technological and engineering innovation. 

This work is very visible to a range of UK government departments, including the Treasury, and internationally, where we are collaborating with universities in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

I am also a Chief Investigator on a £10 million Liveable Cities Programme Grant run out of Birmingham University, responsible for looking at how policy frameworks might develop for cities in the next 50 years or so, in order that they can be engineered to be fit for purpose over that period.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Favourite album is The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Favourite film is Some Like it Hot

Favourite novel is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

(Although, really, I don't do favourites - the concept in my view limits the imagination and ability to be curious about the new ideas that are critical to intellectual survival.)

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

How do you hide an elephant? 

Paint the soles of its feet yellow and float it upside down in a bowl of custard.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

Peter Ustinov, Brian Cox, Stephen Fry, Diana Rigg, Hilary Clinton and Sophia Loren.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Grab every opportunity as it comes your way - and learn from your experiences.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

My first postdoc position was running a solar observatory at 10,000 feet in the Alps in Switzerland.

What is your favourite place?

The New Forest (or Royal Festival Hall)…!