What's past is prologue

Alan Thorpe and John Lawton

27 October 2015

Two former chief executives tell us what they valued most about their time at NERC and how they've seen the environmental science landscape change.

Professor Alan Thorpe was NERC's chief executive from 2005 to 2011 following a career in atmospheric science research as a professor of meteorology, mostly at the University of Reading. He is currently director-general of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

Like probably all of NERC's chief executives, my abiding memory of my time at NERC is the breadth and depth of the exciting environmental science it carries out and funds. Being a chief executive brings with it involvement in a diversity of interesting spheres - research centres, grants and programmes, ships, planes and computers, and Antarctic bases; not to mention our sister research councils, government ministers and the civil service. I could go on. Procuring a research vessel to be built and commissioned to carry out the innovative deep-sea marine research that NERC is famous for worldwide was a highlight; abseiling down a crevasse in Antarctica has to be another!

Environmental science is a cooperative venture; I think collaboration is in the DNA of all environmental scientists. I am particularly proud that my time at NERC saw the creation of Living With Environmental Change, a unique partnership that saw 22 organisations join with NERC to strengthen the pipeline between basic research and its use in new policies or products. It is multidisciplinary environmental science writ large, and being part of it was really exciting.

Of course, not everything was plain sailing. In economically challenging times, it is hard to have to reprioritise research from one area of still exciting science to another - in fact it can be heart-breaking. Restructuring the organisation to achieve long-term goals can be unpopular and painful too. And persuading the government that scientific research is worth funding, and that environmental science brings important benefits to our economy can be an uphill battle at times.

But the opportunities in my role far outweighed those challenges. Take atmospheric science, which has had an interesting journey within NERC. At the start it was thought not to need much attention because of the strength of atmospheric research in the Met Office.

But over the years the critical interactions between the atmosphere and the rest of the Earth system, the significance of climate change as a scientific problem, and the increasing importance of regional and global modelling, meant it grew in significance within NERC's portfolio.

In 2001 I was the founding director of NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS); it has been a source of pleasure and pride in the years since to see NCAS grow as a research organisation and to see that today NERC partners the Met Office (and ECMWF) in many research ventures.

I recently attended the inaugural NERC Impact Awards event and, aside from the pleasure of meeting many ex-colleagues, it was a reminder that NERC-supported research is not only extremely high quality but that it also has hugely significant economic and societal impact.

From ozone hole research to flood forecasting to bumblebee and butterfly ecology, the critical importance of this effort for life on Earth is astonishing.

Happy birthday NERC - I look back on my time as chief executive with pride and satisfaction. Above all, the highlight was working with so many talented people, in NERC itself and across the wider environmental scientific community.

Professor Sir John Lawton was NERC chief executive between 1999 and 2005. He has a particular interest in population dynamics and biodiversity, and in 1989 founded NERC's Centre for Population Biology. Sir John is currently vice president of the RSPB and president of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

Planet Earth was first published in the summer of 2002, about half way through my stint as chief executive. It replaced the internally-focused NERC News, with the specific intention of including more science. Its target audience was "the public whose money we spend", and the name was the outcome of a competition won by a Mrs C Raymond.

I have a complete run of Planet Earth and looking back over the earlier editions many of the news and research topics reported are hard to distinguish, just from their titles, from those in the most recent editions. My first editorial was about a hole in NERC finances. There are articles about the role of clouds in climate change (still called global warming back then), the exotic biology of flying squids, fossil fish, soil carbon, insect viruses, meteorites and Earth observation; and announcements about major new NERC science initiatives. It all has a surprisingly familiar ring.

But that does not mean the science has not moved on. The broad, exciting and difficult range of topics researched by NERC-funded scientists have remained relatively unchanged - which is hardly surprising because the major components of the Earth system we need to understand, predict and manage (its soils and geology, freshwater and marine environments, the atmosphere and biodiversity) haven't changed either.

What has changed is the depth of knowledge, information and understanding we now have about virtually all the components of the Earth system, and the tools we can use to study them. Our ability to handle vast quantities of information ('big data') - the products of remote sensing, autonomous marine vehicles or biodiversity surveys - is mind-boggling and was unthinkable even 13 years ago when Planet Earth was first published.

Earth observation systems themselves and rapid gene-sequencing allow us to do ever more amazing things; so does tapping into the power of citizen science (itself made possible by huge increases in computer power and social networks). It is the changes in how NERC does its science, even in the short time since I was chief executive, that stand out for me.

And yet, and yet. Despite all the evidence generated by environmental scientists all over the world about what a wonderful, fragile and precious place planet Earth is, human beings seem hell-bent on wrecking it at an ever-increasing rate.

Climate change continues apace; biodiversity loss is getting worse, not better; pollution of the oceans is increasing alarmingly; large parts of the planet look like running out of fresh water; many soils are degrading. The catalogue seems as endless as it is depressing. There are glimmers of hope, and we mustn't throw in the towel. It simply means that NERC's role in finding sustainable solutions to our planetary woes becomes ever-more important.

Read all about it in Planet Earth, and happy 50th birthday NERC.