Walk to School week… and travelling for work

This week it is “Walk-to-school” week in the UK. This morning on the way to school my son and I discussed driving to school vs walking to school – which was interesting, although his take on global warming “but then the planet might explode – it’s a good job we’re going on holiday” leaves some room for improvement.

Here is an article I wrote at the same time last year for theWeather magazine of the Royal Meteorological Society.

“This week it is “walk to school week” and “eco-week” at my children’s nursery. So, as well as wearing green and making models out of recycled materials,  we’ve been taking the bus in the mornings and walking home in the evenings (well alright, I’ve been walking, the little ones have been riding in the luxury of their double buggy). They love counting the passengers at each bus stop in the morning, and the opportunity to run across a daisy-filled park on the way home. I am discovering muscles I forgot I had! However, it does at least allow me to temporarily ease my guilt at the carbon footprint I have just by being a climate scientist .

Our success at tackling global scale problems such as climate change relies on meaningful and productive collaborations between institutions across the globe. This leaves many climate scientists with a quandary- how to maximise the usefulness of their research whilst minimising their carbon footprint?  The development of telephone conferencing via the internet which allows presentations to be shared across many desktops is one possible option. However there is no doubt that a face-to-face meeting at a conference or workshop is often the only way to make progress fast and unambiguous. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change holds its work meetings around the globe to allow the inclusion of as many scientists and policy makers from different regions as possible to attend at some point.

However, the transport sectors are responsible for around 20% of the global CO2 emissions, as well as producing various gaseous and particulate emissions which also contribute to air pollution and climate change. Over the past few years the impact of aviation on climate has received much attention – carbon dioxide emissions, contrails and cirrus cloud that develops from contrails contribute to global warming. This has led many organisations with a climate conscience or a public commitment to reduce carbon emissions to discourage the use of air travel. What received less attention in the media at least is the fact that globally, the greenhouse gas emissions from road traffic produces several times the change to the energy balance of the earth (leading to climate change) as global air travel. The energy change due to particles is also substantially larger for road traffic as these aerosols absorb solar radiation and generally warm up the atmosphere. The effects of maritime shipping receives some press in the guise of the “food miles” debate, but its overall effect on global temperature is probably to cool it since high sulphur content fuel results in more sulphate aerosols which scatter solar radiation away from the surface. Reducing the sulphur content in shipping fuel (desirable from an air pollution standpoint) may actually exacerbate global warming slightly.

Some scientists subscribe to carbon offset schemes either privately or more publicly, but the choice of off-set mechanism requires careful thought – not all schemes are equal in effectiveness or scientific value. Additionally, some of my group’s research relies on flying on research aircraft – potentially contributing to the particles that they are measuring (obviously we don’t fly around measuring our own emissions directly!). This has always seemed like something of a contradiction to me (and  many others, see  for example Kevin Andersons blog and this one.. ) . Striking a balance between travel that makes our research more effective, efficient and scientifically sound and minimising our impact on the environment is a considerable challenge, but should be applied to everyday car driving as well as flying). At least I’ll have something to ponder as I push the buggy up the hill towards home.”

Note that references to scientific journals were not included in the original article due to it’s intended audience, but details can be found in the following papers.

Balkanski, Y., Gunnar Myhre, Michael Gauss, G. Rädel, E Highwood and Keith P. Shine, 2010. Direct radiative effect of aerosols emitted by transport: From road, shipping, and aviation. Atmos. Chem. Phys., 10: pp. 4477-4489.

Skeie, Ragnhild Bieltvedt, Jan S. Fuglestvedt, Terje Berntsen, Marianne Tronstad Lund, Gunnar Myhre and Kristin Rypdal, 2009. Global temperature change from the transport sectors: Historical development and future scenarios. Atmospheric Environment, 43 (39): pp. 6260-6270.

Fuglestvedt, Jan S., Terje Berntsen, Gunnar Myhre, Kristin Rypdal and Ragnhild Bieltvedt Skeie, 2008. Climate forcing from the Transport Sectors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), vol 105 (no. 2): pp. 454-458.

Professorial luxuries

I was promoted to full Professor in October 2011. Since then I have been asked on many occasions “how’s life as a Professor?”. The questioners usually fit into one of 3 categories:

  • a senior colleague who is making sure I’m ok (I assume!)
  • a peer who has also been recently promoted, who is  checking that our experiences are similar
  • a more junior colleague who is interested in my response in connection with their own career development.

It’s actually a very hard question to answer because I was asked to be a Head of Department (HoD) very soon after my promotion came into effect, and thus much of the experiences of the past 18 months have incorporated both the promotion to professor and the new responsibilities of Departmental leadership.

The “personal titles” or promotion process at our institution takes a long time and involves several hurdles. I may expound on this process in a different post at a later date, but the point here is that my change of status was made public in May 2011. I started preparing for my HoD role by shadowing the existing incumbent in Jan 2012 so I suppose I had 7 months in which to “just” be a Professor. Here are a few thoughts I had at the start of that time.

  1. Yes! Finally! I have made it to the top, and I must be doing something right after all.
  2. Phew. I’m tired.
  3. Now I don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore, so I can afford myself the luxury of prioritising research and other activities as suits me, and not as I think suits the promotion process.
  4. Err… and what is that exactly?

If I am lucky, I will have around 20 years ahead of me as a professor (allowing for good behaviour and no further tweaking of the retirement age). The traditional image of professors is usually male, 50+ and somewhat absent minded.  Clearly, I don’t meet at least 2 of those criteria (my research group can probably comment on the other), and in my field at least I know many other “young” professors. It is no longer a role that we get for a few years before retirement. It is likely that I will have several “goes” at formal leadership roles, and will need to adjust from ”being in charge” to “not being  in charge” several times during that period.  In the longer term, there are two main routes, stay as a research and teaching based professor – perhaps developing a new area, or move towards University management, via Head of School, Dean etc. As yet, I have no clear ideas on this one, but I also don’t think I need to just yet!

At my first staff development review following my promotion, I was advised to spend some time thinking about what kind of professor I wanted to be. Most definitions of “professor”  are based on  “a scholarly teacher” or similar, but the precise meanings varies by country, and increasingly by university (at least within the UK). Wikipedia describes a professor in the UK as “a highly accomplished and recognized academic, and the title is in most cases awarded only after decades of scholarly work to senior academics”. The first of these definitions explicitly includes a reference to  teaching”, whilst the second doesn’t. In our research intensive Department, we have a lot of Professors, but their roles are diverse. Some are the leaders of national strategic research organisations, and tend not to be involved in lecturing although they do supervise PhD students and contribute substantially to the strategic direction of the Department. Others have specific links to external organisations or other academic institutions. Then there are those with the more conventional roles – a mix of research, teaching and administration duties.  I fit into the latter group, and that is where I have always felt at home – with a mix of roles.  For another view of professorial types, see Athene Donald’s excellent blog (see if you can spot me, you or your own closest professor amongst them – if not, invent a new one to fit!)

So, in answer to those questions, really it has been “business as usual”  since promotion in many ways, the main change is that the level of responsibilty of the administrative role has increased dramatically. I do feel like I can go my own way more – within reason I can decide whether or not to put in that proposal, go to that conference, do that outreach, tweet, or start that blog, without worrying about how it will look on my CV.  It does bring new opportunities for talks, contacts and experiences – not all of these have to be accepted (but those who know me will know that “no” has never been the easiest of words). The title of Professor does not provide immunity to imposter syndrome. It’s a bit like going up to the “big playground”  at school – the games and faces are new and a bit mysterious and you are not entirely sure how everything works but don’t want to ask. Nor does it mean you can stop thinking about your self-development. I also somehow feel more “visible” and therefore have to make sure I am more professional than ever before. Finally, it means a lot to my family, who are very proud of having a Professor amongst them, although some still aren’t sure what I actually do!

As to the luxuries in the title?

  • My professorial contract appears almost identical to the previous one except for a paragraph where I am apparently allowed to claim for 1st class rail travel – I have not yet tested this as I am usually travelling with others and that seems a bit unfriendly. I suspect my funding body doesn’t allow anyway it unless it’s the cheapest way to go.
  • Due to the increase in staff resulting from the University’s Academic Investment Programme, professors in Met no longer automatically get a larger office – I did, but that’s because I moved  to a different building as part of the expansion programme and the rooms over here are all large.
  • I do get a share in a PA –  without whom, the ship would definitely go down.