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Prof Dame Julia King: Facing up to the global challenge

Julia King

11 Oct 2012

Prof Dame Julia King, a member of the Committee on Climate Change, delivered our Public Evening Lecture on 10 Oct on 'The Future of Transport: Sustainable, Affordable and Effective'. Here she tells us about her work and involvement in SCI.

Did you have an interest in engineering from childhood?
As a child I was always very interested in constructing things. At school I studied the Nuffield science syllabus in both physics and chemistry and they were very new and experimental approaches to problem-based learning, which I found very inspiring. That helped encourage me to read natural sciences at university, and then a PhD in fracture mechanics.

What do your current positions involve?
I'm vice-chancellor of Aston University, which is very focused on industry and contemporary sciences. I get to promote both the teaching and the research of this wonderful institution and it's exciting to support people who are developing new science, technologies, and research advances, and seeing young people develop professionally. I am also a member of the Committee on Climate Change, where I oversee work on transport in particular and I advise the government on the UK's carbon budget. In addition, we have a formal statutory role to monitor the UK's progress against achieving those budgets.

I'm a non-executive director of Angel Trains, which is part of our complex regulated rail system. We're a rolling stock operating company, which means essentially we own the trains, and lease them to the train-operating companies. I'm a member of the board of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, where I'm particularly interested in how we win business and the university and research sectors.

And I'm also the UK's Low Carbon Business Ambassador, originally appointed by Gordon Brown, and then reappointed by David Cameron. So I work with UK trade and investments to promote UK capabilities overseas, particularly in areas like aerospace transport and low carbon energy, supporting exports and inward investment.

In 2007 you were appointed by Gordon Brown to lead what then became the King Review. How did this come about, and what effect has the review had on subsequent policy?
It's not uncommon, before a budget, for a government to look at policies and what announcements they want to make and, consequently, certain people are telephoned and asked if they will lead reviews or activities. A special advisor from the Treasury called me urgently to ask if I would lead this review, which was going to be announced in the budget.

The year before, Lord Stern had published the very impressive Stern Review, looking at the economics of climate change, saying the developed world needed to deliver a 60-80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, and that it was feasible that we could do this at less than 2% of GDP. It's worth hanging on to that, because by comparison, the economic crisis has had an impact of around 4% of our GDP. So, addressing climate change issues, compared to the cost of the financial crisis, is pretty cheap! Following on from that, Gordon Brown's Treasury team felt we should be asking what the major areas are that contribute to CO2 emissions, and what are the possibilities of reducing them. The King Review was to look at reducing CO2 emissions from transport, particularly from cars.

You've had a number of high profile positions and received multiple awards and honours: what would you say have been the significant milestones in your career, and which are you most proud of?
The things I'm most proud of are all to do with people: I had many PhD students at Cambridge, and some excellent postdocs in my research group, and it's great to see them going on to fantastic things. For example, one has been running one of Shell's platforms; a number are now very senior academics; one is a professor at Oxford who's organising major international fracture conferences, as well as doing his own research on key structural materials; and one is the chief engineer at Atkins. So, it's great to see how they've developed, and the impact they're making.

I was delighted to be involved in setting up the Rolls-Royce University Technology Centre for nickel-based alloy research at Cambridge, while I was in the materials department there as an academic. And it was wonderful to be involved in projects at Rolls Royce, for example, the development of the MT30 marine gas turbine, which has now been bought by a US combat ship programme.

All of those are very exciting things to have done, and I look back on them having learnt a lot from them, and particularly those involving people: you can celebrate their successes, and bask in their reflective glory!

Having worked in both industry and academia, what are the key attributes a young person would need to excel in either arena, and how do they differ?
I'm a great believer in making your own luck: people who work hard and with real commitment are people who tend to be lucky in work. For both, you need persistence, to be motivated and, most important, you need to be very keen not on discussing problems, but solving problems. Particularly in industry people are needed who come with solutions. And if you really enjoy problem solving and delivering solutions, then you will be a success.

When you're a senior manager in industry what you want is for people to come into your office and say 'this is what's going on, I recommend we do this, and this is how we take it forward.' Lots of people coming in with solutions is great: lots of people coming in with monkeys on their shoulders that they want to leave in your office is not great. Be a solutions person.

The difference in academia is that you can be in a position where you design your own problems: you're able think about the type of problems you want to work on. In industry, the problems will more typically be defined by what your company does, the product it makes, or the clients themselves.

The other thing you have to remember in academia is that you also need to want to teach: it's hugely important that we have academics that are very good at research, but that they're also very interested in and committed to their teaching.

How did you first become involved with SCI and what has that involvement meant for you?
Well, because I've worked in materials, I suppose I've been involved with SCI on and off at various times throughout my career. And it's led to some terrific networking and numerous interesting meetings over the years.

Your talk at SCI on 10 Oct was entitled 'The Future of Transport: Sustainable, Affordable and Effective'. How, exactly?
I am focussed on solutions. My talk was about the scale of the global challenge and the fact that transport is the second largest contributor to that challenge in terms of generating CO2 emissions. I have a very positive message: that this is a problem we can solve and do so whilst giving huge additional numbers of people access to personal mobility. And it's that personal mobility that enables them to become stronger economic players, and, in many parts of the world, is vital to improving quality of life and the amount of money they can earn, and therefore key to economic and social development.

There's a lot of new technology, there's a lot we can achieve with behaviour change, and it's not behaviour change that needs to have a negative impact on our lives, or our comfort, or the ease with which we can do things, or indeed our personal mobility. So, although it looks like a huge challenge, there are a lot of solutions out there. We can do it!

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