We are scientists
PUBLISHED: 05:18 30 March 2015
From saving human lives to saving humankind, science at the heart of modern life is being developed in Norfolk. Rowan Mantell reports.
A Norwich professor, honoured as inspirational by the United Nations, is one of the world’s key climate change scientists. Sir Bob Watson has chaired the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He worked as a scientist for the US and UK governments and the World Bank, and has had the impressive job title of “chief scientist for the office of mission to planet earth” at NASA. He was also named as one of 25 movers and shakers for the environment by Rolling Stone magazine.
Sir Bob was knighted in 2012, holds the Blue Planet Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and has testified to the US Congress numerous times on global environmental issues.
Then, last year, Sir Bob won the UN’s highest environmental accolade, the Champions of the Earth Award, which was presented by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon. Previous winners of a prize, which recognises visionaries and leaders, include Al Gore and Mikhail Gorbachev. The professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia was honoured for his work promoting the science behind ozone depletion, climate change and the impacts of biodiversity loss.
UEA vice-chancellor Prof David Richardson says: “Bob has made, and continues to make, an enormous contribution to climate science, bringing evidence from research to the heart of policy in the UK and internationally.”
Sir Bob grew up in Essex, and his mother was from Norwich and has now returned to live in the city. “I spent most summer vacations and Christmas holidays in Norwich,” says Sir Bob. “I vividly remember when Hemsby was a small, quiet seaside resort, and there were livestock markets and fairs in the centre of Norwich.”
He currently lives in Washington DC but regularly returns to Norwich.
“Norwich is a great little city, the Broads and seaside resorts are close at hand,” he says. “I had a great penthouse apartment in Norwich, off the Newmarket Road.”
Sir Bob’s passion for science was ignited during his East Anglian childhood and he says parents and teachers can encourage children’s interest in science by talking to them about the wonders of nature and showing how it produces our food, water, energy and many medicines. “Show how climate change affects our future with sea level rise impacting on Norfolk’s coasts and how wind power, solar energy and electric cars are the technologies of the future,” suggests Sir Bob, “And show how advances in computers and mobile phones have changed our lives.”
Sir Bob started out as an atmospheric scientist, studying how human activities were depleting ozone high above the planet, leading to more cases of skin cancer in light-skinned people. It led to an interest in whether humans could change climate, what the consequences might be and how it could be prevented.
Career highlights so far have included working in the White House. Sir Bob testified before Al Gore in the US Senate on ozone depletion and climate change as well as more general science and technology issues. “When he became Vice-President, he approved my position as the associate director for environment in the White House,” says Sir Bob. “After I left the White House, I joined the World Bank as a technical advisor, and later became the chief scientist.”
He is still frustrated that governments and businesses are failing to address climate change and biodiversity loss, but adds: “I am an optimist by nature, and therefore I remain optimistic that the issues of climate change and biodiversity, as well as the larger issues of poverty, inequity and racial and gender biases, will be addressed before it is too late.”
The power of three
Three things Sir Bob suggests everyone can do to help limit climate change:
• Buy energy efficient appliances and turn off the lights when leaving a room.
• Walk, bike or use public transport rather than a personal car whenever possible.
• Lobby local and national government to act on climate change.
Three aspects of his work Sir Bob most enjoys:
• Giving guest lectures to UEA students.
• Working with the best scientists in the world.
• Communicating current scientific knowledge to decision-makers.
Three things which keep Sir Bob awake at night:
• The fact that vested interests want to maintain the inequitable and unsustainable practices of today.
• That governments fail to take a long-term perspective.
• That there is little trust between and among developed and developing countries.
Three reasons he suggests scientists with a worldwide reputation do not enjoy the same recognition as actors, artists or writers.
“Because most scientists come across as nerds, are poor communicators, and their work is so specialised that it is hard to excite the general public, who while intelligent few have a deep scientific education.”
Honour for Colin
Another UEA professor to win an international scientific honour is microbiologist Colin Murrell.
He is the founding director of the Earth and Life Systems Alliance (Elsa) which links soil, ocean, plant and climate scientists across the Norwich Research Path. This year he was awarded the prestigious President’s International Fellowship for Distinguished Scientists in 2015, by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. His research has helped determine how microbes work and his students have gone on to careers in environmental microbiology around the world.
The Distinguished Scientists award from the Chinese Academy of Scientists used to called the Einstein Professorship, and is internationally regarded as a big honour.
Corinne Le Quere is director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and one of the scientists who works out worldwide carbon emissions every year. She is a professor of climate change science and policy at UEA and for the past decade has been the joint leader of an international team which publishes updates of annual global carbon emissions. The information is vital to climate change research and policy.
She says she “drifted” into a career in science but loves the excitement of research. “I enjoy working at the frontier of knowledge, discovering new things, trying new approaches. I also enjoy working on hard problems that have practical implications for society – and it doesn’t get much harder than finding solutions to deal with climate change!”
Corinne is originally from Canada and worked in Canada, France and Germany and before coming to Norfolk to work at UEA and the British Antarctic Survey.
“Becoming director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA in 2011 was a great step for me. Suddenly I could do big science with big teams. Across universities, across countries, across disciplines. I enjoy this. We aim high. I work much harder than I used to, but I feel we’re making progress in a bigger and more useful way for society.”
And she is a big convert to the joys of Norwich and Norfolk – and not just for its internationally renowned scientific research
“The work environment here is stimulating and Norfolk is a great place to live and raise children. I think many mid-career researchers come here with young families and then never leave.”
Corinne lives in Norwich’s Golden Triangle, and says: “I like Norfolk; people call me ‘love’! The quality of life is very high here. It’s easy to walk and cycle everywhere, there is a music festival, many markets, friendly seals, good fish and chips, and a commuter train to London. Above all though, I love the weather! Seriously – mild winters and cool summers is totally my cup of tea.”
She has a 20-year-old daughter, and lives with her doctor partner Paolo, who also teaches at the UEA medical school and was partner in the Fakenham medical practice for 25 years.
Her own fascination with science was fostered by an inspirational physics teacher and she says parents can encourage their own children by finding out what captures their imagination “be it big animals, microscopic bugs, the weather, the sea, stars, volcanoes, clouds, rocks, computers, buildings and mechanics – science is special”.
Her international awards include the first Copernicus medal, in 2013/2014, for research into carbon measurements and the carbon cycle, and effective communication to political and industrial leaders.
“The nice thing about working in science is that I feel I can make a contribution to how the future will unfold. In a way it’s not about how positive or negative we fell about the future that matters, but it’s about how much we are prepared to do to make it look the way we want to see it.”