An old mansion with a manicured lawn

Your author recently returned (albeit virtually) to his former college to interview Iain McCulloch, Professor of Polymer Chemistry at the University of Oxford. Our wide-ranging discussion took in everything from climate change to the world’s ageing population via what scientists can learn from successful Glaswegian football managers. Throughout, Iain’s message was clear: give people inspiring projects, get them to collaborate, but also learn when to move on – and the planet’s problems can begin to get solved.

Professor McCulloch can certainly boast an impressive CV, having worked in both academia and industry on several continents. His research output extends to around 400 peer-reviewed papers and over 60 patents filed. Despite such an enviable career (and perhaps since he was speaking to a liberal arts graduate), Iain was remarkably down to earth. Applied chemistry, he highlighted, had always been his passion since it has “practical relevance.”

Most of Iain’s focus has been within the fields of healthcare and energy. Begin with the former and science clearly needs to respond to the challenge of a growing and ageing population. Practically, this means bringing more affordable healthcare solutions to market more efficiently. An increasing emphasis needs to be placed on “thinking beyond medicine”, primarily around (pre-emptive) diagnostics, per Iain. This was a theme we first discussed in our own work over a decade ago.

When it comes to climate change, “we’re really in trouble”, according to Iain. Politicians need to move beyond “posturing” to tangible actions. From a practical perspective, this means thinking more about how to accelerate the switch away from carbon dioxide-emitting energy sources to better solutions. These would include solar, hydrogen and superior energy storage. Improving technology and falling costs are helping accelerate the rate of innovation, particularly on the boundaries of what solar panels can do. Our original work on the case for solar can be found here, and on hydrogen here.

Professor McCulloch did sound an optimistic note on the future. Climate change is at “the forefront of thinking” among younger people, in his view, while the recent pandemic clearly demonstrated that science can deliver “practical solutions” to problems. However, it is important to show “no sentimentality” when doing novel research, an approach Iain described, that was also successfully pursued by fellow Glaswegian, Sir Alex Ferguson, in his time as Manchester United’s most successful manager. When things change or simply don’t work, then move on. We are sympathetic to such a stance. It is also consistent with Darwin’s famous dictum – and touchstone for how we consider the future – that the species (or businesses) which survive will be neither those that are the strongest nor the most intelligent; rather, those that are most responsive to change.

22 November 2022​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The above does not constitute investment advice and is the sole opinion of the author at the time of publication. Past performance is no guide to future performance and the value of investments and income from them can fall as well as rise.

Separately, and in case you missed it, interested readers can now view our 2023 Outlook piece, which was released last week.

Alex Gunz, Fund Manager


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