Development & Alumni Relations Office 



MEET PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON, FRSE  Professor Chris Johnson, Faculty PVC in EPS at NASA controls

27 November 2020

Professor Chris Johnson, who replaced Professor Mark Price as the Faculty Pro Vice-Chancellor for Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS), joined Queen’s at the start of the summer from the University of Glasgow, where he was Head of the School of Computing. 

As Faculty Pro Vice-Chancellor, Professor Johnson will have strategic responsibility for EPS, providing leadership, innovation and direction and overseeing the Faculty’s development of strategic partnerships with national and international peer institutions. It’s a role that has its challenges.

“My role is evolving all the time, especially as people get to know me and hopefully trust me more,” said Professor Johnson.  

“There is a lot to do – the new University strategy is being developed and our aspirations to be world leading require fundamental change in many areas.

“Within Engineering and Physical Sciences, we need to ensure that our courses reflect the highest academic standards and also align well with student expectations.”

Working at the interface between safety-critical systems and cyber security Professor Johnson was already aware of Professor Máire O’Neill’s group in ECIT – one of the reasons he decided to move to Queen’s – but after 20+ years in Glasgow he was also keen for a change.  

“I was ready to take on the next step in my career; when I came across to visit, there was a strong intersection between my personal values and those at Queen’s in terms of supporting the local community through international excellence in education and research.

“On a personal level, I was also tired of being teased every time one of the Scottish teams lost to Ulster at rugby!” 

From History to Computing

Christopher W Johnson, FRSE, FRAeS, FBCS, is one of the UK’s leading researchers in cyber security for safety critical computing systems. He became Professor of Computing Science at Glasgow in 1996 and served as Head of its School of Computing for six years.

A two-times graduate of the University of York – MSc Information Technology (1988) and a DPhil Computing Science (1992) – where he lectured from 1991-94, he first graduated with an MA in History (1987) from Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, not perhaps the most obvious starting point for a career in cyber security.

“My school had one computer that was delivered to class rooms on a trolley – I was never quick enough in the queue to get to use it!

“When I went to university, DOS was becoming more widespread and for the first time I could see a small fraction of the possibilities that we see today. At the end of my undergrad degree, I had to make a choice between a PhD in History, working for a US-based Management Consultancy or learning more about Computing. I chose the third option and did a conversion Master’s.”  

Given his academic pathway, Chris couldn’t apply for PhD funding until he had passed the first exams, which again meant he was last in the queue.

“The topic that nobody else wanted was on mathematical models to understand the failure of early digital telecoms protocols. This was unpopular because in the late 1980s many people were trying to emulate Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. 

“About six months into my PhD, I had an email from NASA Langley asking me to work on their space related software systems and that changed my life.”   

National and international experience  

Now a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Aeronautical Society and of the British Computing Society, his research focuses on the boundary between safety and security and in particular on the resilience of safety-critical systems such as those responsible for thousands of aircraft which, for example, cannot be switched off when under a cyber-attack.

With expertise in the space and defence sectors, Professor Johnson has fellowships from NASA (Langley Research Centre and Johnson Space Centre) and the US Air Force. He also supports safety and cyber security in the US Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration and helped write the United Nations’ guidance on the cyber security of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear facilities.

In addition he has worked on safety and security related projects for a range of organisations closer to home, including UK government (DfT, BEIS, FCO), the European Commission, European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA), the European Space Agency, European Air Traffic Control Organisation (EUROCONTROL), and NATS, the main air navigation service provider in the UK, formerly known as the National Air Traffic Control Services. He has also carried out accident investigation work for the European Railway Agency.

He is also a software specialist and chair of the SESAR Scientific Advisory Board – Single European Sky ATM Research – a collaborative project comparable to the US NextGen programme, which is aimed at completely overhauling European airspace and advising the European Commission on the future of air traffic management.

Since 2014, Professor Johnson has been a member of the Scottish Government's Public Sector Cyber Resilience group and led the Scottish Universities Computing Science Alliance (SICSA) in cyber security. In 2016, he was elected to the UK Computing Research Committee and appointed to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Strategic Advisory Team.

Chris has chaired funding panels, reviewed proposals for Canada's WorkSafeBC, Cyprus Research Promotion Foundation, Danish Councils for Independent Research, Dutch NWO- US Department of Homeland Security-Cyber Security Programme, European Commission (H2020 evaluator, FP7 assessor, SJU, REA), Hong Kong Research Grants Council, Enterprise Ireland, the Latvian Council of Science, New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Research Council of Norway and the Foundation for Polish Science.

He has worked on projects for GCHQ (the UK Government Communications Headquarters), the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council (part of UK Research and Innovation) as well as the US National Science Foundation, The Carnegie Trust, L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science and the Royal Society. He has also been a judge for the UK Distinguished Dissertations in Computing Science.

Personal and family life

Born in April 1965, Chris was educated at Verulam School, a former state secondary for boys now with academy status, located in St Albans, Hertfordshire, in the south of England.

While his kids are scattered across the UK at university or starting teacher training and weren’t part of his move to Belfast, Chris is hoping to get them all over to Northern Ireland for a weekend where “we won’t need to check what is open or the maximum size of a ‘bubble’”

In his spare time, not that there is likely to be much of that, he is an enthusiastic runner.

Challenges and collaboration

Five months into the new job what has impressed him most about Queen’s and, more importantly, what does he see as the main challenges ahead? On the former, there is only one answer.

“The people – across all areas staff (professional services and academic) as well as the students. There is an (almost) universal willingness to listen with a sense of respect, a sense of humour and usually a willingness to tell you where you are wrong!”

And of the challenges?

“The pace of change across many disciplines has increased and old styles of management need to be challenged – especially so that we can have the flexibility and dynamism to out-perform competitor institutions from around the globe.  

“One aspect of this is a need to bury competition between the Faculties; if we work together we can address challenges that require collaboration in everything from sustainable development through the design of innovative urban environments, to mass public health and precision medicine.”

Advice for alumni

What is Faculty Pro Vice-Chancellor Johnson’s message for Queen’s Engineering and Physical Sciences graduates?

“Never lose sight of the things you are passionate about – some of my fellow PhD students were involved in the start-up of one of the UK’s leading software firms and retired in their 30s.

“I don't regret the choices I made because I am pretty sure I have had experiences and worked on projects that they will have missed, as they tour the beaches of the world!”

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit items of graduate news, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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