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Margaret Elizabeth Philbin: oration

Read Professor Rod Scott's oration on Margaret Elizabeth 'Maggie' Philbin for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in December 2015.


Chancellor, it gives me great pleasure to introduce to you and the congregation Ms “Maggie” Philbin.

In 2015, Margaret Elizabeth “Maggie” Philbin was voted the 4th most influential woman in IT by Computer Weekly magazine, shortly after becoming President of the Institution of Engineering Design in 2014 in recognition of her work with TeenTech, an interactive science and engineering initiative that reaches over 5,000 teenagers across the UK every year.

Maggie must therefore be a computer scientist, or an engineer, or perhaps both? Many of you that recognise Maggie from her television career, Tomorrow’s World, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Bang Goes the Theory, already suspect, perhaps even know, that such a straightjacket does not fit her well.

According to that most useful and ubiquitous of all IT tools, Google, the young Maggie did want to be a vet, but this overt courtship of science had apparently run its course by the sixth form at Evington Hall Convent School in Leicester when she chose English, History, French and German A-levels.

Next was English and Drama at the University of Manchester with such illustrious classmates as Adrian Edmondson, Ben Elton and Rik Mayall. After graduating, Maggie joined Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin, and John Craven as a co-presenter on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, which was broadcast on Saturday mornings on BBC One between 1976 and 1982. This programme was ground-breaking in its use of technology – it was live, used the phone-in format extensively for the first time on TV, and featured Swaporama where Keith Chegwin and the outside broadcast unit helped children swap their belongings with others. This undoubtedly presaged one of the giants of the internet revolution, eBay and more latterly Gumtree and the like.

Maggie stepped decisively away from those A-level choices when she joined BBC One's flagship science and technology programme, Tomorrow’s World. This, like Swap Shop, was broadcast live and had that same unpredictability that gives it a special place in the memory of a generation or two of its avid watchers. Since then, she has presented a variety of television and radio programmes, including Hospital Watch, Bodymatters Roadshow, QED, and BBC Two's women's documentary series, The Doll’s House.

In 2012, Maggie returned to mainstream science broadcasting with the BBC One’s update of Tomorrow’s World, Bang Goes the Theory, that set out to “inspire the audience to get hands on with science”. Maggie’s first episode revisited a ‘Tomorrow's World’ feature on phone security after nearly 30 years, investigating how hackers can access your smartphone. Prescient indeed. Hackers, as we now know, cover a very broad spectrum from criminal individuals to States. So, whist we love the smartness that internet technologies give to our phones, TVs, watches, and our kitchen white goods, it is vital that people like Maggie, who showcase these wonders, also educate us that they offer no panacea and can at worst expose us to great risk. Maggie is in a wonderful position to do this; she leads the UK Digital Skills Task Force, which published an interim report in July 2014 and subsequently appeared as a witness before the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee.

Maggie has not been content to reach her audience through television alone. In 2008, Maggie created TeenTech which provides teenagers with hands-on exhibits and challenges run by companies, universities and business organisations, inspiring many to realise careers in science, engineering and technology. In 2010, TeenTech was awarded the Best Engineering Event in National Science and Engineering Week by the British Science Association, and other national and international awards have followed.

Maggie has also championed women in science and technology. In 2009 she featured as a speaker at the London branch of Girl Geek Dinners where she put forward her support and encouragement for women in IT, and is a patron of the Daphne Jackson Trust which helps, mostly women, scientists, engineers and technologists return to work after a career break. In 2012 Princess Anne presented her with the award for Communication and Outreach in the WISE Women of Outstanding Achievement Awards. Earlier this year she also became patron of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing and was given that accolade by Computer Weekly I mentioned earlier.

Finally, returning to early choices. In 1981, Maggie formed the one-hit wonder band Brown Sauce with Noel Edmunds and had a No.15 hit with I Wanna Be A Winner. Maggie you are a winner and an example of how early choices need not dictate your path through working and cultural life, and therefore Chancellor, I present to you Maggie Philbin, who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Professor Rod Scott

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