Q&A with Carolyn Roberts

We speak to the Frank Jackson Foundation professor of the environment, Gresham College

July 31, 2014

Source: Alys Tomlinson

Carolyn Roberts is a senior scientist at the UK’s new Knowledge Transfer Network, which links businesses and universities to promote technological research and innovation, including in environmental technologies. She was formerly director of the Environmental Sustainability KTN at the University of Oxford. In June, she was announced as the Frank Jackson Foundation professor of the environment at Gresham College; this chair is only the second created at Gresham in more than 400 years.

Where and when were you born?
In Leicester, a baby boomer.

How does it feel to be the recipient of only the second new Gresham chair in four centuries?
I’m really excited about the chance to draw on my own research and consultancy work on water management and to bring some fresh perspectives on environmental science, and on innovation, to wider audiences. But following Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, who held chairs at Gresham College in the early years, is also pretty daunting.

Do you think the university enterprise zones being established by the government offer a good approach to university-business engagement?
Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool are the first four, but the innovation landscape is increasingly complicated, expertise is widespread, and businesses can find this confusing. Personally, I’d prefer fewer, more stable initiatives, each with a lot more resources.

Does the UK higher education system have good knowledge transfer to industry compared with other countries?
I am definitely a UK fan, but researchers and businesses in Germany, Scandinavia and Israel are more likely to share a common language. Knowledge transfer networks and other organisations such as professional bodies and learned societies can assist, though.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
After an erratic start (suddenly released from the constraints of a girls’ grammar school into the wild delights of 1970s London!), I exploited the freedom, the lectures, libraries and field trips that were on offer. I was a voracious reader, but squeezed a fair amount of study around a hectic social life.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
To my utter astonishment I received a prize after my second-year exams, which galvanised my efforts. But satisfying my curiosity always came before exam results, I am afraid.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
None – young people with passion and commitment shouldn’t take advice from oldies.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The pace is faster and faster, for students and staff. Although the teaching may be getting better (discuss), the time for thinking is reduced commensurately, which is not good.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 fees, would you still go or go straight into work?
University is a wonderful privilege, and we also need those people who can benefit to go. However, I had a grant. University would not otherwise have been contemplated in my family, so the deterrent effect of debt today is very concerning. My mother thought I should be a secretary, which would have been a disaster for any potential boss.

What keeps you awake at night?
Insomnia and guilt, but I have a discreetly lit Kindle, and am remarkably well informed on international affairs through an earplug and the BBC World Service.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I’m still waiting to grow up – and it doesn’t look likely to happen any time soon.

What do you do for fun?
Singing in the Oxford Harmonic Choir with all sorts of people, all wanting to give the conductor their best, is fantastic. The satisfaction from a cracking good public performance (we did Mozart’s Requiem and Solemn Vespers in late June) is almost unbeatable. I like travelling too, so no doubt the insomnia is partly related to guilt about carbon emissions.

What’s your biggest regret?
Too many from which to choose.


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