Why did you become an environment/sustainability professional?
I was born in Sheffield. In the 19th century, the social reformer and pioneering environmentalist John Ruskin described it as an ‘ugly picture set in a golden frame’. It was still an apt description of the city in the 1970s and 1980s. As I was growing up, the steel industry was in a steep death spiral; I vividly remember striking miners collecting money from passersby in the city centre. But my parents would often take me to the Peak District national park – an important part of Ruskin’s ‘golden frame’. It made me appreciate the importance of nature and – in time – the politics and policy that are required to keep it natural.
What was your first job in this field?
I was a researcher at the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) at UEA.
How did you get your first role?
The old-fashioned way. I was unemployed for a brief period after completing my first degree, so in an act of mild desperation I wrote unsolicited letters to academics whose work I really admired. To my great surprise, one invited me to an interview and I got the job.
What does your current role involve?
I research and teach environmental policy and politics, and try to use what I learn to advise policymakers.
How has your role changed/progressed over the years?
Brexit has completely transformed my work. Together with two colleagues, I created a new network – Brexit&Environment – which draws upon decades of academic research on EU-UK policy to inform some of the most urgent policy questions. Brexit has also transformed my research; before 2016, there was a widespread feeling amongst many scholars that the most difficult research questions had been answered. Not any more.
What’s the best part of your work?
Working with PhD students. Often they have the freshest research ideas and (crucially) the time to collect and analyse new data.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Managing the many conflicting demands on my time.
What was the last development event you attended?
An online course on addressing unconscious bias in staff recruitment.
What did you bring back to your job?
It made realise that biases may also be at work in many other situations – in promoting staff, in evaluating students, and more.
What are the most important skill(s) for your job?
Curiousity, determination and (increasingly) entrepreneurial flair.
Where do you see the profession going?
The demand for dedicated environmental professionals will continue to grow, particularly in the rapidly industrialising countries. Decades of social scientific research tells us that, as people grow richer, they demand more, not less, environmental quality.
Where would you like to be in five years’ time?
I have written that Brexit presents the biggest challenge to UK environmental policy in the last 40 years. But it may also present opportunities, too. I’d like to think that I can use my skills and understanding to help the country strike the right balance between the two.
What advice would you give to someone entering the profession?
Trust in yourself: follow your instincts and do what you are most passionate about.
If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?
Very. Tall. Indeed.
What motivates you?
A deep desire to understand the changing world around me.
What would be your personal motto?
My grandmother always said that I should always try my best but not take myself too seriously. Her advice has served me well.
Greatest risk you have ever taken?
At the start of my career – and after a period of unemployment – I turned down the offer of a (relatively) well paid consultancy job in London to commence a research career at UEA. It was the best decision I ever made. I’m very proud to say that UEA has the oldest and most fully accomplished interdisciplinary environmental science department in the world.
If you could go back in history, who would you like to meet?
Benny Rothman – one of the original mass trespassers. Their direct action in the 1930s eventually led to the Peak District being designated as the UK’s first national park. I’d love to write an article on what motivated them to act, ideally after a long walk on Kinder Scout.