Dr Philip Campbell

Doctor of Science

17 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Mike Benton

Madam Chancellor, Philip Campbell

I would like to present a former graduate of this University who has done particularly well in the world of science. To some he is the most powerful man in the world; to others he is an object of fear.

Among scientific researchers worldwide, the journal Nature holds the pre-eminent position. Founded in 1869 as a means to ‘place before the general public the grand results of scientific work and scientific discovery’ Nature today is the number one scientific journal in the world, and leading scientists compete intensely to publish their research in its hallowed pages.

It is no wonder then that the Director of the Nature Publishing Group is both revered and feared, and yet reverence is the proper emotion, I would argue. Philip Campbell is that man, one-time junior in the London office of Nature, then Physical Sciences Editor from 1981 to 1988, then founding editor of Physics World, the international magazine of the Institute of Physics (whose publishing house by the way is located in Bristol), and finally Editor-in-Chief of Nature since 1995, and Director of the Nature Publishing Group since 1997.

Philip Campbell was born in 1951, and he realised his career would be in science when, at the age of seven he received a book about the stars. He has stated:

‘After reading this book I saw – and understood – Earthshine on the crescent Moon. I also recognised the constellations. That moment switched me onto nature.’ [that is, Nature with a small ‘n’].

This is a fine example that demonstrates the power of books and other events in early life to set a child on course for a successful career in one or other of the professions.

Today, Philip Campbell’s scope has to be broader than just astronomy. As Chief Editor of Nature, he has to encompass all the physical and biological sciences. Another early memory of his:

‘I hated biology at school mainly because of all the slimy things you had to cut up. It’s only since working at Nature that I’ve become fully inspired by the sciences of living organisms.’

After attending school at Shrewsbury School (perhaps following in the footsteps of a rather earlier old boy, Charles Darwin), Philip Campbell chose to study aeronautical engineering at Bristol. He chose Bristol because, as he says:

‘It had a good reputation and I liked the feel of the place. I chose to study aeronautical engineering because I was keen on flying.’

Indeed, Philip held a private pilot’s licence at the time, but has since given it up because of the expense and lack of time. Bristol introduced him to his other great passion, which is music. He played in the orchestra here, sang in a choir, and conducted the Bristol University Music Society Choir.

After finishing his BSc degree in 1972, Philip Campbell decided that engineering was not for him, and so he went to Queen Mary College in London where he obtained an MSc in astrophysics, and then on to Leicester University where he completed a PhD in astrophysics. In Leicester he continued his interest in music. He recalls:

‘In Leicester, I was conducting a piece of experimental avant garde music. I got fed up with it halfway through, and walked out, but the orchestra carried on playing. I then wrote a damning critique of the piece for the student newspaper.’

Philip prefers not to remember music reviews such as these that were published in the Leicester University student newspaper. However, this early introduction to journalistic writing helped him decide his future career. He had to decide whether to continue as a researcher, or to switch over to writing and editing. A junior editorial position was available at Nature, and he took it in 1979 and, as they say, he hasn’t looked back since.

Nature was a good place for an aspiring science writer and editor to begin work. It had already published what was arguably the most important single scientific contribution of the twentieth century, a 2-page paper by two bright young graduate students from Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick, announcing the double helix structure of DNA. This paper is generally seen as the founding document in the field of molecular biology, now a huge enterprise that represents about half the scientific endeavour in the world, and encompasses the human genome project, cloning and GM crops, human evolution, and the tree of life.

In his time as Editor-in-Chief, Nature has published memorable high-impact papers on the draft human genome, the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the nature and structure of fullerenes (carbon-60 structures), supernovae and dark energy, the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole (widely credited with re-educating Margaret Thatcher about the importance of funding British research and universities), the discovery of Homo floresiensis, a new hobbit-sized human species from Indonesia, and in my field, dinosaurs with feathers, evidence, if evidence were needed, that birds evolved from dinosaurs – and so that there are such things as transitional fossils, despite the views of the powerful creationist lobby in the United States.

Scientific publishing has evolved enormously in the past 15 years. The switch from print media to the internet is still an experiment in progress, and commercial publishers such as the Nature Publishing Group, as well as scientific societies, have to adjust rapidly. If they do not adjust, they could go under. Where once a scientific publisher or society relied on income from subscriptions to their journal, and Nature sold some 60 or 70 thousand copies per week, suddenly millions of people can access the material through the internet. Controlling the income streams and maintaining the highest standards is a tough balancing act.

Nature is British. The Nature Publishing Group is also British, a part of the Macmillan Group. When Philip Campbell began in a junior editorial position in 1979, the Nature Publishing Group produced one journal – Nature – running to some 5000 pages each year. Nature is still the flagship journal, now producing over 6000 pages per year, but, following acquisitions and new launches, Nature is now one of a substantial stable of 54 journals, totalling some 30,000 pages per year. The latest addition is Nature-Geoscience, launched in January 2008, representing my field of geology and the environmental earth sciences. Doubtless this will further cement the dominant position of these journals in the world.

Commentators might be surprised that a British company produces the leading international scientific journals. After all, half the research in the world is done in the United States, so why would leading American scientists wish to publish their work in a British journal?

The key is credibility; if the credibility goes because of some poor decisions, then the reputation and standing of a journal can slip. It is a credit to Philip Campbell that he has maintained and improved the standing of Nature in the world. And in doing so, he leads a highly successful element of Britain’s knowledge economy – in most fields British journals are world-leading, far in advance of the size of our nation or its economy, or of the volume of research work that we produce, and second only to the United States, and substantially ahead of any other European country. The French, Germans, and Italians can only look on in amazement.

As Director of the Nature Publishing Group, Philip Campbell has to look ahead, and predict where the field will move. The growth in interest in using impact factors (and other statistical measures of the frequency with which articles in a particular journal are cited by others) as a basis for assessing the quality of research outputs bodes well for journals at the forefront of their fields. But this increases pressure on scientists to publish in such leading organs, and there are risks involved. Philip Campbell frequently writes trenchant editorials in Nature about the need for the highest ethical standards in science, and his words are taken seriously as scientists adapt to the changing world of publication.

Philip Campbell is a Visiting Scholar at the Rockefeller University in New York, home to six Nobel Prize-winners, including its President, Sir Paul Nurse, where he is exploring areas of the social sciences that feed into science. Philip has also taken up music again, with a view to re-establishing his interests there for his retirement – we can probably assume that will still be a few years in the future.

Madam Chancellor, for his achievements to date, and the pivotal role he has played, always in an extremely modest manner, I present to you Dr Philip Campbell, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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