Q&A with Sir Brian Hoskins

We speak to professor of meteorology at the University of Reading and chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London

June 26, 2014

Source: Anne Katrin/Rex

Sir Brian Hoskins, professor of meteorology at the University of Reading and chair of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, is one of the country’s most eminent academics in the field. This week he was set to be awarded the Buys Ballot Medal, the oldest meteorological honour in the world, by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Bristol on 17 May 1945.

How has this shaped you?
Starting in a proud, self-contained city gave me access to a good school and all the sport and culture it provided. Growing up in the post-war period made me very conscious of not wasting anything – particularly food and energy. This has stayed with me.

What three words would describe your emotions at winning the Buys Ballot Medal?
Surprise, pleasure, inspiration.

Only one other person from the UK has won the medal, and that was almost a century ago. How does that feel?
The UK has a world-leading reputation in weather and climate science and this award supports and promotes this view. I hope it will not be 90 years before a UK scientist is recognised again!

This is one of many academic awards you have received. Do gongs matter?
I am very much aware that most of my scientific research has been done with students and colleagues. I hope that an award to me can be a boost to them and to the wider UK scientific community around us – in this way gongs do matter.

Where do we sit globally as a nation in our concern and work on environmental issues?
In some areas, such as our Climate Change Act, we have been world leading. However, in general, we have tended to let the ball slip in recent years. A lot of our good environmental regulation has come through the European Union and we rather grudgingly follow this. In air pollution matters we even fail to do this. Economic and political concerns have increasingly dominated political and media attention, and the focus has tended to move to “me” and “now”.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Do the work you enjoy doing and do it as well as you can, but remember to keep a good work-life balance.

What’s your most memorable moment in academia?
Getting my first paper published. My father asked how much I was paid for it and was appalled when I said that we had to pay them. He told me I was in the wrong game!

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
There is a real danger that the drive both for high research excellence framework scores and for student numbers is now dominating the life of UK academics, not allowing them the space or time to take a risk and think about their research problems in new ways or to interact with a small number of students in a creative way.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
I feel that I am so lucky to be able to research into such a fascinating, challenging and relevant science. I enjoy telling people about it and interacting with policymakers on it. The worst aspect is the politicisation of climate science. The current evidence suggests that by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere we are performing a very dangerous experiment on our planet. Saying this makes me a target for those who, because of their political or economic background, do not want action on climate change.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I always knew I wanted to pursue maths, but had no particular dream for my career.

What do you do for fun?
I have always enjoyed sport and am hoping to create a bit of room to pick up a cricket bat again! My wife and I enjoy country and long-distance walks, and also tending our garden, particularly growing our own vegetables. We also enjoy music, and I have kept up singing in a choir and playing the piano.

What was your university experience like?
Great! My move to [the University of] Cambridge opened up a wider world for me. The college [Trinity Hall] provided a supportive community and new friends; the cricket, hockey and music were excellent and the maths syllabus stretching. In my third year I met the girl who I later married.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
My wife says I was a goody-goody! I was conscious that there were others who appeared better at maths than me, but they generally did not spend so long on the sports field!

When making polite conversation, do you try to avoid the subject of the weather?
No! If the subject is raised I try to widen or deepen the conversation and communicate some of the fascination and importance of what is happening over our heads.

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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