Ri Trustees appoint Professor Sarah Harper as Director

The Trustees of the Royal Institution (Ri) have appointed Professor Sarah Harper to lead the organisation as its Director.

Tim Mitchell


Sarah Harper, MA Girton College, Cambridge; DPhil, St Catherine’s College, Oxford.

Sarah is Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing which she founded in 1997 with funding from the US National Institute of Aging.

Sarah has a background in anthropology, population geography, and population studies and her early research focused on migration and the social implications of demographic change. After her undergraduate studies at Cambridge, and her doctoral work at Oxford, Sarah trained with the BBC as a News and Current Affairs Reporter and Producer, working in both TV and Radio for BBC News and BBC Newsnight. After leaving the BBC she took up a lectureship at the University of London, and subsequently moved to the USA where she was professor in public policy at the University of Chicago. Her current research on demographic change addresses the global and regional impact of falling fertility and increasing longevity, with a particular interest in Asia and Africa. Recent research has focused on women’s education and empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa, and the impact of this on falling fertility rates.  Her latest book is How Population Change will Transform our World, (Oxford University Press 2016) and she is working on her next book for Cambridge University Press on the interaction of population, environmental and technological change.

Throughout her academic career, Sarah has combined academic research with external professional commitments.  Sarah was appointed in 2014 to the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology, which advises the Prime Minister on the scientific evidence for strategic policies and frameworks.   She chaired the UK government’s Foresight Review on Ageing Populations, and the European Ageing Index Panel for the UNECE Population Unit. She is a Governor of the Pensions Policy Institute. Sarah was the first holder of the International Chair in Old Age Financial Security, at the University of Malaya (2009/10) and her research was recognised by the 2011 Royal Society for Public Health: Arts and Health Research Award. She is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropology Institute and of the Royal Society of Arts.

Internationally, Sarah represented the UK on the European Science Academies’ Demographic Change in Europe Panel, serves on the Council of Advisors of Population Europe and on the Advisory Board of the World Demographic Association. Sarah represents Oxford on the Ageing and Demography Collaboration of the International Association of Research Universities.  She served on the Royal Society’s Working Group on People and the Planet, the Wellcome Trust Health Consequences of Population Change Panel and on the World Economic Forum, Global Agenda Council on Ageing Societies. Sarah served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Natural England and is on the Advisory Board for the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). Sarah also serves on the Editorial Advisory Panel of Nature Sustainability.

Sarah is a frequent speaker at literary and scientific festivals, including World Economic Forums, TED talks, Hay, Cheltenham and Edinburgh Festivals.

Announcing the appointment, Ri Chair Sir Richard Sykes FRS said: “Forging deep connections between science and the public has been the Royal Institution’s core purpose for over two centuries. In today’s political and economic climate, the need for open and critical public debate on the practical, ethical and moral aspects of science is more pressing than ever before.

“As an internationally recognised and respected researcher, communicator, and policy advisor, Sarah is the right person to take this legacy forward as the charity embarks on an exciting new vision and strategy.

Professor Harper said: “Science is key to solving many of the significant challenges the world now faces, such as climate change, disease and demographic change, but scientists cannot work alone. I believe it is essential that the wider public are encouraged and supported to participate fully in evidence-based debates and discussions.

“With its ability to connect science, culture and society at all levels, from primary education to advanced study and cutting-edge research, the Royal Institution has a global role to play in creating such a dynamic forum.

“I am honoured to have the opportunity to lead this ambitious team and I look forward to being part of its dedicated community of staff, members, supporters and volunteers."

A passionate communicator, Professor Harper trained with the BBC as a News and Current Affairs Reporter and Producer and is an expert commentator on demographic change and its social and economic implications. Her public engagement record is extensive including giving speeches at World Economic Forums in China and Australia, presenting TED and TED linked talks for a global online audience, contributing to museum outreach programmes and literary and science festivals, such as Hay, Cheltenham, Oxford and Edinburgh, and appearing on radio and TV programmes, and panels for popular public events.

Professor Harper will take up her new position as Director of the Royal Institution on 1 May 2017. 


The Trustees of the Royal Institution of Great Britain (Ri), which has been at the forefront of public engagement with science since 1799, have appointed Professor Sarah Harper to lead the organisation as its Director.

Professor Harper is Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford and founder of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, having previously held senior academic positions at universities across USA and Asia. She has worked extensively with the Government Office for Science, serving on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and contributing to UK government and European-wide strategies on issues such as ageing, population change and education.