Q&A with retiring ATI board members

Two longstanding independent members of the ATI board, Deborah Keith and Michael Harper, attended their last meeting this week.

Deborah’s background is in agriculture, where she ran global R&D operations at Syngenta for some years. Michael came from a diverse industrial career including senior board positions at the Kidde Group, Ricardo and Qinetiq. ATI’s corporate development officer Malcolm Scott caught up with them recently to ask about their time with us.

Deborah Keith and Michael Harper


MS – How did you get involved in the ATI? What attracted you to the organisation?

MH – I was approached to join the board and although I was not aware of the ATI – which was very new – and I had little experience of large scale R&D, I did know the aerospace sector and the idea of the ATI appealed very much. I also liked the chair (Stephen Henwood) and the executive team, so I joined.

DK – I was also approached; there had been difficulties finding a second independent director, but the role sounded very interesting, and I also liked the chair very much. I saw connections between aerospace and agribusiness where I had worked on pesticides and GM crops – both faced similar challenges as heavily regulated sectors with long lead times. Both were also striving to be innovative but from an inward looking starting point. At Syngenta I had looked at new forms of innovation processes and I saw the chance to bring that thinking to aerospace.

MS – What have been your main responsibilities at the ATI?

MH – As a non-executive and independent director it is important to have no link to any industrial company. I saw my role to be a constructive board member in support of the chair. I was also chair of the remuneration committee although this was not very onerous given the small scale of the organisation. One very interesting challenge as an independent was to recognise that the ATI was funded equally by government and industry, and I had to see things from both points of view.

DK – It was very similar for me. I was also on the audit and remuneration committees as well as having general board responsibilities. I was keen to offer independent thought on the board; some industry members themselves recognised that the industry approach to innovation R&D could be inward, which I took it as a green light to support more disruptive ideas somewhat. Away from the board itself, I connected with ATI staff, participating in workshops and team events, sharing my experience and at an ATI evening giving a talk on Open Innovation at Syngenta. This was very rewarding and enjoyable, especially at first when the ATI was new, although regrettably, there were fewer such opportunities latterly.

MS – What have been the high points during your time at the ATI?

MH – The first technology strategy was a tangible success and helped establish the ATI. A lot of work went into it from many quarters such as working groups, the EMT, and industry. It created a common view of the R&D challenge for the sector. Another high point was the big extension of support from 2020 to 2026 by the then chancellor George Osborne. The strategic update in November 2019 (Accelerating Ambition) was notable for shifting the emphasis to sustainability. The ATI conferences have been very successful. The way that the ATI has built on the core business is a tribute to the team.

DK – I agree with all of Michael’s points, and would add a couple of other things. There were many teething problems at the beginning, particularly accessing data on the existing R&D portfolio and resolving the industrial contribution that keeps the ATI going. Overcoming these difficulties and others represented real progress. I enjoyed the Farnborough Airshows, seeing the ATI presence along with the giants of the industry. I applaud the ATI’s thought leadership – the stimulation it has generated through its INSIGHT papers, and addressing important subjects such as high-value design on behalf of the industry. Taking on funding for NATEP was very good; the ATI’s agenda for small and medium-sized enterprises is still developing, but NATEP was a good start. I welcome ATI’s move to supporting more disruptive R&D. Gaining approval for the ATI Boeing accelerator was hard work, but significant benefits can be realised and landing it was an achievement. And now the Fly Zero programme is up and running. I’m very hopeful of what might come out of it; some great people are involved and I enjoyed meeting many of them through being involved in the interview process. Overall I have learnt a great deal about the industry and its importance for the UK during my time on the board and I will be sorry to leave it. 

MS – What are your thoughts about diversity in the aerospace sector?

DK – Aerospace is not the only sector grappling with this – agritech is also not very diverse! There are a few women in senior positions, and a number have been involved in the ATI including Ruth Mallors Ray, and now also with Susan Schofield and Janet Collyer on the board. The lack of diversity reflects the tradition of engineering as a male activity, and therefore the majority of experienced people in the sector currently are male with below ten percent of professional engineers being female. This is not universal however; an east European colleague at Syngenta told me that chemistry was a predominantly female domain in her country. It is changing in the UK, and there is an upcoming cohort of female engineers. It is a complex area, and it is not simply a matter of increasing the numbers coming through the education system that will solve this issue but changes in culture as well, making the workplace welcoming to young women. The numbers of people in aerospace from some ethnic minorities is also too low. We have to keep working at it while ensuring that positions are filled on merit. 

MH – Diversity of views around the board table is important, and we did achieve this at the ATI. Diversity of skills is essential for boards as much as anything else. I agree with Deborah about the historical preponderance of males in engineering in the UK. In my year at university there was only one female out of 35 engineering students. This did not change for some years and therefore it will take some time to correct the current situation. But progress is being made and will continue. 

MS – What message do you have for the ATI as you leave?

MH – You have come a long way. Continue to grow the confidence of the management team and strengthen links with the rest of the system such as Innovate UK and the catapults. Communicate more clearly to the sector and the government that they have created a success – the ATI has proved effective strategically and at creating an R&D portfolio. It has a major role to play in the future success of aerospace and in turn of the national economy; it is essential that it continues. Help people understand the realities of aerospace in the globalised world where we are competing for investment against the US, Germany, France and China. This needs to be recognised. Maintain a steady focus on the core activity, stay aligned with the sector’s needs and with government policy – which the present strategy does, particularly around sustainability. It is also good to support new ways to bring R&D to the sector, including small companies. Spread more awareness of the benefits of R&D in the supply chain. The accelerator and Fly Zero are great opportunities which will further develop a range of activities. I wish the EMT and the new board every success.

DK – The ATI must make its impact clear, and show that it has made the UK a more attractive place for companies to invest. Keep focused on the vital role of aerospace in the UK economy and make the case powerfully for it – keep trying as hard as you can. It is not just about doing a job well but also making sure that the ATI brand is noticed and known about internationally, in government, across industry and academia. I will look forward to seeing the longevity and success of the ATI.


The ATI thanks Deborah and Michael for their contribution to the organisation and wishes them all the best.