Voyage to the top of the sea

March 20, 1998

Why do British scientists succeed in Europe? We look at careers, funding and the expatriate life. Oceanographer Jacqueline McGlade is riding on the crest of a wave. She tells Martin Ince how international experience has fired her career

Jacqueline McGlade is living proof of the power of an international research career. After having read ocean science at Bangor in the 1970s, she left the country until 1992. This year she became director of the Natural Environment Research Council's Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences, making her one of Britain's top environmental scientists, in charge of laboratories in Plymouth, Birkenhead and Dunstaffnage in Scotland.

McGlade is an oceanographer whose long-standing enthusiasms for molecular biology and big computer models were a rarity when she first took them up. She went to Canada to do her PhD, but found herself working mainly in the United States in labs where molecular biology was more highly developed. She then went to work for the Canadian government, and in her 20s was the principal scientist on the Canadian side of a large international argument with the US over fishing rights in Maine Bay. "This gave me a lot of responsibility at a far younger age than would have happened in a university," she says.

After this experience, McGlade began secondments at US labs where she developed the first fisheries models to incorporate human behaviour, an innovation that became very popular. She also pursued her computing enthusiasms at the Xerox Parc centre in Palo Alto, California.

One return to the UK took McGlade to Cambridge to work on the zoological papers of Charles Darwin, but while there she was tempted to Maastricht to set up a coastal zone monitoring project for the International Federation of Institutes of Advanced Study. Then she worked for the German government, running the Institute of Theoretical Ecology at Julich, a well-funded group with which she was happy until the fall of the Berlin Wall. At that point, she was asked to participate in a new centre being set up in Leipzig. The stress of this task and the inflexibility of the German system - which funds people well but, for example, did not allow her to do any fisheries work - prompted her to look elsewhere.

McGlade decided to do her next big thing in the British university system."I wanted to solve world food shortages, which are not global but local, arising out of market dynamics and systems. Restricting my own role to fisheries analysis, I and a colleague circulated a proposal for a new institution, and it ended up at Warwick. Warwick was attractive because of its open structure: and it had good mathematicians."

The institution, the Ecosystem Analysis and Management Group, grew in size until it had more than 60 staff. Since her departure for the NERC's Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences, however, its nature has changed and it has a growing emphasis on epidemiology. She says: "People do not appreciate how hard it is to maintain research in a university setting. The students are not the problem - they are marvellous. But it is difficult to maintain the infrastructure, for example a high-quality computing environment and the people you need even when you have a wide variety of sources of funding."

McGlade thinks that the setup at CCMS, where she is introducing sweeping changes to develop a coherent set of programmes, is far kinder to long-term stability, partly because of the Prior Options reforms that allow directors a lot of freedom with budgets. But she does not want to become a science manager, despite travelling between the three laboratories and her home near Warwick.

"I would rather be a scientist in a strong management team, since being a scientist opens doors for me and the CCMS," she says. She is in demand from politicians and policy-makers, and one of her main research products, an expert system for coastal management, is on policy-makers' desks across the world. She is also interested in artificial ecologies and in intellectual property aspects of food insecurity. She still thinks fisheries can help solve world food shortages - but she warns that gross inefficiencies in the practices of many make this much harder to accomplish.

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