Extraordinary People – Joyce Tait

Reading time: 5 minutes
Throughout 2022, Edinburgh Innovations (EI), the University’s commercialisation service, will be championing the innovation projects they’ve supported University staff through in a new project called Extraordinary People.

This month, the EI team spoke to Professor Joyce Tait about her unconventional journey through academia and how her multidisciplinary research allowed her to examine problems from a different perspective:

No one is more surprised by her success than Professor Tait herself. Despite being a self-confessed disruptor Joyce’s CV includes an array of impressive, and conventional, successes.

Founding Director of the Innogen Institute, UK Government science and technology advisor, highly respected across academia for her responsible innovation regulation framework; by any measure Joyce has a truly impressive career. What makes it extraordinary is that she has achieved this despite an unconventional approach, a lifetime of crossing boundaries and a lack of conventional academic mindset. For a rolling stone she has gathered quite a lot of moss.

She is, however, a gleeful workaholic, driven by a love of her job (and a hatred of being bored). Indeed, when reminded of her achievements, her visible enjoyment of her work, her continued productivity, she chuckles and confides that she would like her epitaph to be: “I hadn’t finished yet.”

Indeed, Joyce continues to play a role in the Innogen Institute that she co-founded in 2002 as a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the Open University. The Institute produces high quality research and supports the delivery of innovation that is profitable, safe and societally useful.

The very definition of multidisciplinary, Innogen researchers work nationally and internationally, on fundamental and applied research in science, agriculture, medicine, engineering and social science, in partnership with a range of organisations – the fitting culmination of a career spent crossing boundaries and refusing to conform.

While at school, Joyce was as interested in the overlaps between different branches of science and maths and other subjects as in the subjects themselves. A good student in class, her confidence and resilience were also honed by walking and cycling around Scotland and spending summers with a friend as wardens of an isolated youth-hostel where supplies were dropped a four-mile walk away. For many this would have been extremely daunting – two 17 year old girls in charge of a remote youth-hostel in the north-west Highlands but Joyce evidently coped and enjoyed it.

The first in her family to go to University, Joyce attended the University of Glasgow, where she gained a first class degree in Pharmacy/Pharmaceutical Chemistry. In those days, this degree was taught mainly at the Royal College of Science and Technology (now Strathclyde University) and she found herself studying alongside, and clearly drawn to, the industry-focused engineers and chemists – the practical side of academia.

Modestly, Joyce puts a lot of her career success down to serendipity and this would be the first instance. Rubbing shoulders with academics who ‘did more than just writing lots of journal articles’, opened her eyes to possibility. Joyce, too, wanted to make a difference, have an impact, break down some barriers.

So, having received her first class BSc degree, specialising in pharmaceutical chemistry, becoming a dispensing pharmacist was not an attractive option and she started a PhD in land economy. With freedom to decide her topic, she chose to study regulation of pesticide production and use.

Seems a jump? Not to Joyce – to her pesticides and pharmaceuticals had similar properties; one used to kill, another to cure.

This lead to another change of discipline, to post-doctoral research on social psychology, stimulated by interesting PhD discussions about attitudes to the risks of using pesticides. However, her potential juggernaut of a career was being brought to a shuddering halt.

In the eyes of academia, Joyce was considered to be too interdisciplinary to be employed in an academic department and her grant proposals were passed from one funding body to another, each one declaring that it didn’t fit their remit.

When asked if her setbacks made her more determined, more resolute, she answers disarmingly: “No, not at first – it’s very hard to take and you feel utterly deflated.” The repeated rejection stung, and one particular experience still smarts. A panel of male academics rejected her job application but kindly suggested that, as her husband already had a job and she was looked after surely she could just carry out her research in her own time.

But then, on reflection, she regroups and works out how she can get around the issue: “I definitely didn’t agree with them and set about proving them wrong.”

After a series of such frustrations, an attractive opportunity arose in the form of a Systems Analysis teaching position, advertised at the Open University. Joyce wasn’t in a position to move to Milton Keynes and was about to let the opportunity pass when a chance conversation at the photocopier changed her mind. A colleague revealed that he was about to move to the Open University while continuing to live in Cambridge and Joyce realised that this could also be feasible for her.

Here was salvation, an interdisciplinary intellectual home – but no picnic. It was hard work and long hours and Joyce loved it. Open University distance-taught courses were developed to strict deadlines and all the course materials were rigorously and unapologetically reviewed and commented on by the academic and editorial staff.

Then after twelve years at the Open University, it was time to return to Scotland. She worked as a professor at Strathclyde Graduate Business School for two years, and then for four years at Scottish Natural Heritage where she was involved in advising the government about nature conservation in Scotland. Her next move, over twenty years ago, was to the University of Edinburgh.

Unconventional, inter-disciplinary Joyce was employed by the traditional, academically excellent, research orientated, University of Edinburgh.

And this is where Joyce has had her most successful years. Initially, Joyce secured £400,000 from SHEFC (the current Scottish Funding Council) to direct the Scottish Universities Policy Research and Advice (SUPRA) Network. This then led to major funding for the Innogen Centre (jointly, £7 million from ESRC over 12 years, complemented by an additional £14 m from other sources).

Innogen’s research led to her membership of a wide range of advisory bodies (more than 30) including most recently: the Governing Boards of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre and of the Roslin Foundation; the Synthetic Biology/Engineering Biology Leadership Council; the UK Government Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology; and the Regulatory Horizons Council for the UK Government Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Joyce’s output is remarkable in quantity and diversity. She has worked on the agrochemical, pharmaceutical and life science industries; strategic planning for innovation, governance and regulation, and stakeholder attitudes and influences, synthetic biology, genetic databases, regenerative medicine, GM crops, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and translational medicine, continually connecting science and innovation in Scotland, the UK and internationally .

Joyce’s views on the University of Edinburgh’s innovation output are typical of someone so high achieving: “Enormous potential and could do so much more.”

Not least, her views on encouraging innovation are unvarnished – academics pursuing innovation beyond academic boundaries should be equally encouraged and rewarded, compared to excellent researchers.

Joyce is brilliant, original, curious and tenacious; all characteristics that have facilitated her astonishing impact, and her success, at this University. Joyce truly is an extraordinary part of the University of Edinburgh.

And she hasn’t finished yet.


Each month, EI will be sharing a new story. Inspired by Joyce’s story? You can find out more about Extraordinary People on the EI website.

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Photography: Maverick Photo Agency