Professor Joanna D. Haigh on women in science & her fight against climate change

March 7, 2017


Professor Joanna Haigh co-directs the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, and is a Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College London, where she also previously served as Head of the Physics Department. She is Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), a Fellow of the Royal Society, and former president of the Royal Meteorological Society. In this interview, she shares her personal story as a woman in science, why there is a gender divide in the sciences, and what she feels about collaboratively mitigating climate change.


“You should always have the strength to change, if you need to. The world is your oyster.”


Why should people study sciences? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science? Will bringing young children in contact with science in a playful way help?


It is essential for everyone to understand basic science because it is a vital part of the environment and community we live in, and indispensable to everyday life.


Children love science when they are given the opportunity to play, experiment and have fun with it. They eagerly engage with it at primary school, with the problem stemming a little bit later when it is taught as a formal discipline. At this point, many lose interest, finding it a bit dull or boring because it is not presented in a way which sustains their enthusiasm.


There are more men than women in science. What do you think causes that and how can we attract more women to science? If there are obstacles, how can those be overcome?


My personal experience as a mother is that it is peer pressure. It is particularly difficult for girls to move outside of what their friends say is the ‘in’ thing to do.  

At a young age – well before puberty, there is a terrible gender divide where girls somehow get put off physical sciences. A few carry on into the life sciences as they are more relatable. But parents, society and the media often seem to say physical sciences and mathematics is not for girls, which is extremely unfortunate.

Having said that, peer groups aren’t always a bad thing: finding friends having the same interests make children collaborate and do science related activities together, strengthening their drive. Greater media coverage and promoting women scientists as role models would probably help break down these stereotypes.


What is the role of high school teachers in making science fun?


While they are quite influential, those at primary and middle school are even more so. Only the latter can ignite the spark of curiosity and cultivate interest in science, as the age of fifteen or sixteen it is often too late. Good high school teachers may help students decide what science discipline they would like to study, but cannot motivate those who have already decided against the idea.


You studied physics as an undergraduate student. How did that come about? What fascinated you about physics and were your parents in science as well?


I was good at mathematics and science at school. My high school physics teacher was exceptional, leading me to read physics as an undergraduate at Oxford. Since my father was a general practitioner and my mother was a nurse, my parents would have liked me to go into medicine but I didn’t want to and they didn’t force me.


What are you currently working on and how does it benefit humanity?


I am an atmospheric physicist, applying physical laws and principles to study climate. When I get a chance to do science, which is increasingly less the case, owing to all my various roles, I study the effect of radiative transfer on climate change. Our group develops theoretical models to examine how infra-red and solar radiation are absorbed in the atmosphere, resulting in temperature changes. We also examine how changes in gas composition influence the greenhouse effect.


After your physics degree, you studied meteorology and finally atmospheric physics. What led you to do so?


Even when I was a schoolgirl, I enjoyed meteorology and made my own weather station to record rainfall, clouds and the temperature!

My undergraduate degree in physics was rather dull and I took a gap year upon graduation to accompany my boyfriend (now my husband), a historian, to archaeological digs in Turkey and the Middle East.

During that time I was fascinated by the amazing weather events, such as huge thunderstorms and sunsets in the desert in Morocco and wanted to study them further. To learn more about the physics driving these phenomena, I did a Master’s degree in meteorology at Imperial College. It was a fantastic experience, and I returned to Oxford to undertake a doctorate in atmospheric physics. Though it was dry and theoretical, keeping the bigger picture in my mind made it fun and kept me motivated.


Are your children also attracted towards science? Is your husband also a researcher?


My husband is a medieval historian, and an academic. Not all my children are in science. My son is 30, and is an academic in Plant Sciences in the USA. I also have two daughters; the older one studied Modern Languages and is a librarian, specialising in medical libraries, while the younger one is a designer working for a high-spec furniture design company.


What have been your experiences as a woman in science? Has it been an uphill battle?


Yes it has been a difficult path. A couple of examples come to mind. A few years ago, I led a European Project, with a group comprising entirely of female scientists which was quite unusual at the time. There was one female researcher each from France, Germany and Greece along with two from Britain. I was thrilled it got funded but heard rumours that we were not awarded the project on the merit of our work, but because we were women. That was quite hurtful.

Another incident was when I first got onto one of the committees at the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). I felt proud that my work was being recognised. After one of the meetings there was a dinner, where the wife of one of the male committee members came up to me and said, “Oh! So you’re the woman they’ve got on!” I didn’t take it to heart and preferred to let my work speak for myself.

Other women may have had a tougher time and could have been discouraged easily. That being said, I feel things are a lot better today than they were a few years ago.


Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?


I have had a lot of help along the way and have been very lucky – in a professional as well as a personal sense. I joined Imperial College as a young lecturer, but things weren’t going too well for reasons beyond my control. A professor in the department gave me some advice, which I followed, and moved research groups. It made a world of a difference and I never looked back. You always should have the strength to change, if you need to. The world is your oyster.


What is special about the Grantham Institute compared to the other think tanks in that area?


We act as a hub for interdisciplinary science and policy, engaging in ideation and dialogues with many people from diverse backgrounds to bring about climate change awareness. These activities help people introduce themselves to each other and think about how to collaborate. Bringing different people and ideas in contact with each other to do things they might have not thought of otherwise is more effective than doing science in silos. There is evidence that this approach is very successful.

Climate change is a huge area of research and I don’t feel competitive about it at all. In fact, I admire all other institutes and centres doing similar things. Science, engineering, business, and medicine all have stakes associated with climate change, which makes it increasingly more important.

Academia is a competitive environment where people try to get results and ideas out before anyone else does, but that shouldn’t extend to all aspects of our activities. We have a strong relationship with the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics (LSE) and work together on projects concerning the relationships between climate change and businesses. We always invite academics from other universities and institutes to our events since the sharing of knowledge is beneficial for everyone.


Do you think research projects should lead to entrepreneurial ventures?


When people do have wonderful ideas, they should have the chance to commercialise them. Unfortunately, however, research work is beginning to be construed as a failure if it is not being monetised. This is not correct and we really need people who work on fundamental research where there isn’t necessarily any financial gain. In my area of research, it is difficult to pursue entrepreneurial ventures, though we have developed radiation codes used by the meteorological department for weather forecasting. We didn’t get any money out of it, but the research did have commercial value.


What should be done to improve the understanding, excitement and appreciation for scientific research in our society? Should researchers engage with the general public through outreach activities (e.g. twitter, facebook or podcasts like the one you did with BBC)?


Disseminating your research ideas suggests a sort of advocacy. Doing so, especially in climate change research might be seen as pushing our ideas on the unwilling public. Instead, we should try to engage with people on a personal level and explain the importance of our work, as opposed to telling people what to do. We often talk at science festivals and schools and children really like it.

Nowadays, university science communication offices engage with the public. They specialise in science outreach and keep an eye out for topics gathering traction and ask relevant researchers for their scientific opinion, which is then disseminated to the public.


As someone who deals with government and policy, what have your experiences been? Do you think there is sufficient representation of scientists in policy or does more work need to be done?


Climate change is clearly a topic of interest to policy and the Grantham Institute publishes briefing papers, which are understandable by the general public and policy-makers.

I have done some work with MPs (through the Green Alliance), to brief them on aspects of climate change. Some of these representatives were actually quite well informed and were taking action on the recommendations.

There are many civil servants with a strong grasp of scientific issues; I am particularly aware of those in the former department of environment and climate change. We do need more politicians with an appreciation for science and I regret that not more scientists get into politics.


Does your research influence your personal lifestyle? Did it make you more aware of what you can do to reduce your footprint?


Yes, it does. I drive a very small electric car which is not exactly zero carbon, but is better than conventional cars. I gave up eating beef, as my own little way to reduce my carbon footprint. I try choosing the train over the plane, when possible. If I travel to Scotland, France or Ireland I take the train and/or ferry. I still fly, but think twice before doing so. One of my colleagues has given up flying completely and avoids conferences outside Europe!


Is raising this awareness something that politicians have to do or society?


Politicians cannot tell people to do something differently but they can invest or subsidise what is good, whilst taxing what is bad.


Considering the world order as it is today, with climate change deniers in pivotal positions of power, what is your outlook towards the future?


Before the American election, President Trump was a climate change denier, as were the people he has appointed to his cabinet. The Secretary of State once headed ExxonMobil, which was covering up its knowledge about climate change whilst funding climate change deniers at the same time.

The head of the Department of Energy said previously that he was going to close it down! However, the Administration hasn’t, yet, been quite as strident about climate change after the election than before it. Now, both the President and the Secretary of State admit there might be some global warming partially attributable to human activity, but claim it is not as serious as scientists claim.

This is the ‘lukewarm approach’, which is also taken by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, led by Nigel Lawson. It is quite a clever tactic, since one cannot be branded as a climate change denier, whilst being able to avoid acting upon it. The Trump administration has also compiled a list of all people working on climate change related research, much to the concern of my colleagues in the United States. Furthermore, the current administration proposes to shut down all earth related research at NASA, claiming their focus should be only on space.

It is encouraging that USA hasn’t yet withdrawn from the Paris agreement, despite threatening to do so. However, if they formally stay in but do not fulfil their determined contributions, it might prompt other countries to follow suit, which could cause the entire plan to unravel.


Do you think developing countries such as India and China are doing their bit to combat climate change?


China is trying to curb its emissions faster than it agreed to. The emissions from coal have already peaked and they are developing renewables at an incredible rate. They see it as an opportunity to develop new technology, create jobs, and make money while going green. Unfortunately, this is not how everybody sees it. However, they are centrally controlled economy, making it easier to enforce rules. India, on the other hand, is a large democracy with several very poor people desirous of better living standards, which are accompanied by higher greenhouse gas emissions. Though somewhat indecisive before the COP21 (Paris agreement), it seems to be more serious about climate change mitigation. The government is making large investments in solar power and smart-grids. With a bit of an impetus from richer countries they might do better than initially anticipated.


Have recent changes in global leadership increased tensions between decision makers, media and scientists? Has it become difficult for researchers in your field to think freely?


In the US, that is definitely the case and my colleagues are concerned. In the UK it is less serious, but it seems the recent rise of populist movements has given traction to climate change deniers, such as those of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

At the same time, most businesses, barring a few in the fossil fuel sector, realise the world is changing and are trying to adapt. They see the advantages in making things greener and cleaner. The Grantham Institute has recently set-up a new Masters course in Climate Change Management & Finance in collaboration with the Imperial College Business School. The cohort consists of students from a numerate background, who want to work in business, and want learn about what they would need to do to successfully adapt businesses to a changing world. The large number of very good applicants demonstrates the interest corporations have in this area.

Besides businesses, the military in the US and UK appreciate the problems of climate change and believe it to be a major factor affecting national security. This really challenges the right-wing politicians who are traditionally closer to the armed forces. Recently, a senior member of the Pentagon along with the former head of Marine Forces of the UK gave a speech in Parliament stressing the importance of climate change mitigation, leaving climate change denying MPs baffled. Only businesses and the military seem to be able to influence President Trump and I hope they do.


What do you think is the next big breakthrough/idea in science?


In environmental and energy sciences, promising research is being done in harnessing solar energy in different ways. Energy storage strategies, new types of batteries, smart grids and complex data analysis to forecast energy production and storage are all areas of research where breakthroughs will create a huge impact.


How do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?


I don’t, and need to remedy it! Many years ago my husband took up a position at the University of Manchester, so he is there from Monday to Friday. That leaves me at home without my kids or husband and I work all the time. It is bad for my health, so I should seek advice!


Policy consultancy and academia - how do those work environments differ and which one is more exhausting?


I spend a lot of my time going to meetings and talking to people-either about policy or just climate change, which I enjoy. Some of my time is spent talking to the media. Unfortunately, I have increasingly less time to do any science and I do miss it.


What keeps you motivated?


I would have never thought that I would be doing all those interesting things when I was younger. Though I miss the science, I hope my work now contributes towards the well-being of society, in a small way, which is big driver for me – I enjoy the feeling of having produced something useful.


More information on Professor Haigh and her work can be found here.

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