Professor Chris Rapley CBE
Doctor of Science
18 February 2009 – Orator: Professor Kathy Sykes
It is with particular pleasure that I present Professor Christopher Graham Rapley (CBE) to receive an honorary degree this afternoon. He has achieved great distinction as a scientist, as a courageous leader of organisations and as a forthright, eloquent spokesman on the issue of climate change. He was speaking publicly, and forcefully, about climate change well before it became fashionable to do so. Indeed, when the man who might well have become the President of the United States of America, but instead went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Al Gore, came to the UK to present, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, Professor Chris Rapley was his science advisor.
Chris grew up in Bath. From an early age he had a keen interest in machines and regularly took apart and re-assembled bikes, then motorbikes… at times, quite unnecessarily, he confesses. The occasion when he spilled hundreds of ball bearings from the intriguing derailleur gears of his brand new bicycle across the garage floor may well seem, in retrospect, one of the unnecessary times. His father and grandfather presumably just looked proudly on, both being electronic engineers and rather prone to taking machines apart themselves.
Chris was a polymath at school. At the age of 11, his English teacher introduced him to Conan Doyle. Chris loved Sherlock Holmes stories, loved the deduction required, the creative problem-solving, and particularly loved the ‘aha’ moment when your brain made a leap and worked out the ‘answer’.
Chris’ school, King Edward’s, in Bath, was remarkable. In the heart of a post-war, austere, small city where people could afford little, he had a set of lively young teachers, whom he describes as ‘unconventional, irrepressible, and at times, utterly wild’. They had, and imbued, a feeling that ‘the world is our oyster’, and ‘anything is possible’, and arranged visits to anywhere that sounded interesting, setting alight a whole army training area in Aldershot with the Cadet Corps, and embarking on Geography tours to the Arctic in Sweden in a clapped-out van.
This left Chris with a healthy sense that there were no limits in life; that many interesting things emerged from the unplanned and the unexpected, and that, with or without money, there was always a way to have a great time. It also meant that he grew up familiar with being given creative freedom and being treated, even in childhood, as an adult.
He also worked out from an early age that there was no point in being number two. If he couldn’t beat people ‘head on’, for example, because his talents were not in rugby or football, he could beat them in other sports instead. He started the school’s cycling team, where he had greater natural talent, thanks perhaps to a daily long bike ride to school (with or without ball bearings). He also did well at shooting. This ability to find ‘other ways’ to be the number one has remained a constant principle.
Chris was interested in science, and in leading people, from an early age. But his love of deduction, creative problem-solving and that ‘aha’ moment is partly what has carried him on his career in science. He studied Physics at Jesus College, Oxford. He actually found many of the courses dull, and busied himself with other activities. While he was Captain, the University’s .22 Rifle Team beat Cambridge for the first time in years; an important achievement. He was photo-journalist of the University’s newspaper, Cherwell, thus being allowed free access to a dark-room, its facilities and materials too, so that he could fully enjoy his talent as a photographer.
Not long after leaving Oxford, Chris found himself at Jodrell Bank, frustrated, doing his Masters. Now, as an adult, he was being treated as a child: told what projects to do, and how to do them, and not being given the creative freedom he had grown up with. He left. He still believes that if what you’re doing is not fun, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. And that we should not expect our careers to be linear... but that zig-zagging around, taking opportunities when they arise (and when they look as if they may be fun) is a wise way to exist. Certainly, Chris’ zig-zags have taken him to astonishing places which he could not have planned. Nevertheless, it was still quite brave to leave Jodrell Bank, without knowing what might come up next.
The following year, Chris managed to get a place to study for a PhD at UCL at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. When he turned up that October, and reminded them who he was, an academic said, “You see that rocket payload in the corner… it needs launching next year. Get on with it… we’ll help if you need it”. This suited Chris much better.
The Laboratory Director, Robert Boyd, became a key mentor. His attitude was simple: ‘if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not working at the edge… if you’re not working at the edge, you shouldn’t be here’.
Boyd’s philosophy was thoroughly tested a year or so later when Chris’ first rocket payload failed. Chris went to see him, in abject misery. Boyd lived by his word, and asked. ‘Has the world ended?’. Chris felt it had, but had to observe, as a scientist, that it did, indeed, still exist. ‘I wanted you to push the limits, and that means taking risks. I’ll find you more money to keep studying… But go sit on a hill, and ask yourself… ‘Is there anything I could have done that would have prevented this?’.
This was a crucial lesson for Chris. On that hill, he realised that he had had some concerns about features of the payload. But ‘experts’ had assured him it was OK, and that he need not trouble himself. He realised then that he should never again allow himself to be brow-beaten by anyone, and that he should always listen to that small, quiet inner voice that sometimes niggles you, and says you need to attend to something which may be going wrong.
Chris has, I imagine, never been ‘brow-beaten’ again! He is known for his courage in speaking out when he feels something is wrong. This has shaped his whole leadership approach, where he has repeatedly taken on whole organisations, has had an honest, hard collective look at what is not working, has tackled with courage the difficult areas, and has restored them to success.
But first, let it be clear that Chris went on to have remarkable successes in science, after these crucial lessons close to the start of his career. He built new kinds of instruments, like the ‘bent crystal x-ray spectrometer’, which, put onto a satellite, would capture a whole bounty of new insights; things no-one could have possibly seen before. There is always more than one way of making an instrument, and Chris’ deep understanding of how the instrument worked, meant he could squeeze more information out of them, often opening up whole new windows into say, what the solar corona was up to. Those wonderful, ‘aha’ moments, that he had loved in the Sherlock Holmes stories, he experienced again and again, as he solved a mathematical problem, or saw a new way of doing things.
Chris quickly became lecturer, reader, professor, and then Associate Director of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. During his time he has published over 150 scientific papers and reports. He then went on to lead the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in Stockholm, then to direct the British Antarctic Survey for 10 years, which included launching the hugely successful ‘International Polar Year’ in 2007-2008. Now he is Director of the Science Museum in London.
To be a good leader, Chris says, you just need to work out the answers to a few simple questions. What are we here for (as an organisation)? Where do we want to be? Where is our niche – so that we can be the best? (And, remember, it may be for cycling, not football.) How do we get from A to B? And then, he says, you have to communicate that simply to the people you are working with, and never give up. On arrival as a new director, there are usually some serious issues that people are in denial about. Chris has repeatedly taken on new organisations, has been brave about revealing and tackling the hard stuff, and, with incredible drive and determination, has turned them around.
What he looks for in managers are people with integrity, courage and selflessness. They will give priority to the organisation and its team over their own personal inclinations. But he also enjoys rebelliousness. He quotes Stella Rimington ‘look for your next set of leaders in your most rebellious young staff – they have the intelligence to see for themselves what’s wrong, the courage to raise it, and the passion and commitment to do something about it’.
Chris Rapley’s career is a record of the extraordinary places to which a curious, courageous and rebellious mind can take you. From space rockets to the Antarctic; from being a young man, feeling the world has ended, pondering on a hill, to the hugely successful International Polar Year, involving over 65 countries. And now to the Science Museum, where he continues to show a remarkable devotion to science and its use, and thoughtful, creative, determined leadership to fight to save the planet.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Christopher Rapley, CBE, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.