Saturday, March 16, 2013

Interview with Julia Hargreaves

The following interview with Julia Hargreaves was done be Hans von Storch for the Newsletter of the Atmospheric Science Section of the American Geophysical Union. Julia (Jules) Hargreaves took physics at Oxford University, where she received her BA in 1991; her PhD was in Astronomy and Astrophysics, 1995, from Cambridge University. From 1995-2001 she studied spectral wave modelling at the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, UK. In 2001 she started research in climate change, in Yokohama Japan. Since then her lab has gone through several changes in identity; initially it was Frontier Research System for Global Change, and now it is the Research Institute for Global Change.

This interview is the latest in series of interesting personalities from atmospheric and climatic sciences, for a list refer to this web-page.

What would you consider the most two significant achievements in your career? 

Scientifically, I think the thing that’s most significant is my work towards using paleoclimate simulations for quantitative evaluation of climate models and for predicting climate change. This is something I’ve been working on for a few years now and there’s no one specific paper that stands out for me, but it’s still very much an ongoing and active area of research. The aim is to move beyond merely saying “the models look reasonably good” and to produce more specific and scientifically defensible assessments of how good (or bad!) they really are, and how much this impinges on future climate change predictions. Something that I hope may have more of a cultural impact is the establishment of the journal Geoscientific Model Development (GMD), a revolutionary journal (at least in the eyes of the doting Executive editors) which focusses on publishing and documenting computer models in the geosciences. In the world before GMD existed, authors were struggling to publish detailed descriptions of models, with the consequence that the most fundamental tools of our trade were left largely undocumented and thus unreproducible. It was also apparent to me that such a journal was even more of a requirement in the climate sciences where non-publication of models leaves the science potentially exposed in this highly politicised field. It wasn't long until Dan Lunt had the same idea, and brought his large array of contacts into play, including Rolf Sander, and the two of them have really done most of the work. I have always found the EGU very forward thinking, and hoped that the journal could join their stable, and in the end that's exactly what happened. The revolution continues apace.

You are presently working as senior scientist in the paleoclimate group, in the Research Institute for Global Change (RIGC) in Yokohama, Japan. How is it for you to live and work in a country with a rather different culture, in terms of everyday life and in terms of scientific practice? 

I find that Japan is so upside-down that it causes me to continually question my assumptions about the world, and I think that has had the most positive influence on my work. Daily life is easy. We have never been short of funds for equipment or travel. In fact we tend to have too much. Our research has been funded by large consortium grants and thus our administrative overhead is really quite slight. The Japanese approach to climate science is very different to that in the UK. I think this is because the Japanese are less questioning of authority, and therefore tend not to ask “why” so readily. However, they are quite happy with asking “how?”, and team-working skills are also strong. In some respects, the inefficiency of Japanese science is striking. On the other hand, when we worked in the UK we were so driven towards so-called efficiency that there was little time for any creative thought. Those Japanese who we collaborate most effectively with tend to be those who have spent time abroad, which may not be entirely coincidental.

Nanne Weber
I do have a communication problem with the Japanese, as my language abilities are rather poor, and fluency in English is rare among the Japanese. This lack of people to talk to has had a positive effect of encouraging the development of strong working relations with scientists in Europe and the USA, who I physically meet only very rarely. One of your previous interviewees, Nanne Weber had a particularly strong influence on me. Her regular emails, full of wisdom and sanity, were a kind of life-support, and despite the fact I met her physically only a handful of times, she left quite a hole in my life when she passed away.

Your husband is another British climate scientist – does this mean that scientific issues are a permanent presence in your personal lives? 

When I was a teenager I decided that it would be a good idea to find a scientific husband to work with. But I was very lucky. I had no idea I'd find one with such a blazing-fast CPU as James [Annan]! As for science invading my personal life, I find that climate science is one of those professions where one is always on duty. As soon as I tell people what I do, I get the 3rd degree. I find this much more of an intrusion to my personal life than the fun of discussing a scientific problem with James on a Sunday lunchtime.

There are more couples, with both partners being climate scientists. What would you suggest to such couples – should they strive to work in related fields or is distance of research fields beneficial? You publish most papers together with your husband – does it happen that people find it difficult to properly attribute your, or his, contribution to the work? 

The way our situation has evolved is an adaption to circumstances so I wouldn't want to offer advice, other than to be adaptable and to try to let ego take a second place to science. That we work quite so closely together is probably a consequence of being stuck in Japan with no one else to talk to for the first few years we were here! However, with similar interests but different skills, I think that James and I together make a very capable scientist. I’m a physicist and he a mathematician. I tend to push collaborations and have lots of ideas. James is incredibly “realistic” about the bad ideas, but takes the good ones and makes them into better ones. You might be amused to know that over the last few years I was James' line manager. While I doubt this would be tolerated in most places, there seems to be no rule about it in Japan, and it worked surprisingly well. Coupled with the fact that he writes most of the words on our blog [James'Empty Blog], he definitely gets a lot of the credit, but also takes the blame, which seems a fair swap to me.

Do you notice a gender bias in perception of achievements, in Japan or in Great Britain? 

This is very difficult to answer in a short interview. While acknowledging that there are huge differences in the societal roles adopted by men and women in Japan, speaking personally I have been treated with very little gender bias. The reason is that my cultural identity is “foreigner in Japan”, and within this identity, gender is an irrelevance. Although being always treated as a foreigner gets tiresome in some ways, in others it is a big advantage. It was certainly a unnerving experience when I first arrived in Japan, and people started taking notice, and acting on what I said. “Is this what life is normally like for men?”, I wondered. It changed my behaviour. When I found that people started to act on my advice I had to start to think much more carefully before opening my mouth.

The relative number of females is very skewed in atmospheric and related sciences. Should this be overcome, and which measures would you suggest? 

I think that gender ratios are not the main problem holding back scientific progress. The old-boy network is a much more dangerous thing. People seem to like forming little cliques of people much like themselves. I thought that the study by Nature recently into the gender bias of their male and female editors was very illuminating. We all need to be aware of our biases and make a point of inviting people that we don’t know well to join our groups - whether that’s asking people to review papers, inviting people to conferences, or job interviews. For the best cross-fertilisation of ideas we need to invite young people without famous supervisors who work in institutes we haven’t heard of. The same is true when it comes to evaluating the science of others. When James and I moved into climate, we came from other fields so we had no big name mentors to put on our papers. A decade later it is noticeably easier to get our papers accepted. I find this disturbing as it ought to be possible to assess the science without considering the person, or the reputation of their workplace. I think we too often ignore the ideas of younger scientists, and too often fail to argue with the well-established.

When you look back in time, what where the most significant, exciting or surprising developments in atmospheric science? 

I recently met someone who had the Lisieki & Raymo benthic stack permanently tattooed on their forearm. While I wouldn't want to go that far, I think that these kinds of detailed paleoclimate records, such as the ice cores from Antarctica are the most entrancing developments in climate science in recent years.

Is there a politicization of atmospheric science? Is this different in Japan than in your home country, Great Britain? 

Climate science is certainly very political. Since I do all my science in English, I am, however, only really aware of the English-language politics. We are quite well protected from it here, but it seems that in such an environment it can be difficult to be rational and realistic about climate change. In order to publish in high impact journals the numbers must keep getting bigger and the outcomes more scary.

What constitutes “good” science? Is this the same in Japan as in in Great Britain?

I'm looking for the third way. The British are all about flashy big-picture ideas. On the other hand the Japanese prefer to disappear down into the obscurity of minutiae. The UK is riddled with assessment, requiring every little step forward to be hyped and sent to Nature, whereas in Japan, promotion can more surely be gained by doing everything your boss asks you to, with publications playing a rather minor role.

What is the subjective element in scientific practice? What is the role of instinct?

I think that “gut feeling” is merely the way our brains inform us about the aggregation of our experiences. As we gain more scientific experience our gut instincts are honed, and we can more efficiently solve problems. On the flip-side, while science ever advances, as we age and our minds become more rigid and less able to absorb new information, until eventually our gut feelings become too inaccurate to be useful. Then we definitely ought to retire!  


Hans von Storch said...

Over there, on Jules (and James') blog a crowd of males has jumped on Jules for her frankly voiced opinions. The comments are worth to be read, being a good case of how determined males deal with a dissenting female, who in the end reacts with "ok, I will no longer disturb you boys in your playing in your kindergarden".

An interesting detail, unrelated to the gender issue, is that someone claims "One of the biggest offenders of propagating such bullshit at the expense of legitimate criticism is Von Storch. His latest Lüdecke turd left at the doorstep of CP speaks for itself.". Unfortunately I have no idea what this person is referring to. Can anybody help?

ob said...

well, I guess, this paper by Lüdecke et al is the reason. However, I don't understand how they got you involved there. Well I can speculate, but I don't want to, because that would lower my opinion of some commenters.

eduardo said...

That paper linked by ob might be the reason. I was the handling editor in Climate of the Past, and probably they confused Hans with me.

This paper has been also commented in Georg Hoffman's blog

Werner Krauss said...

When reading the bossy comments on Julia Heargrave's blog, a previous interview of HvStorch with Gabriele Hegerl came to my mind:

"Integrating family and children is, of course, not the only problem women face. I believe (...) that on average, women express themselves differently, and prefer collaborative to competitive situations more than men. This is
sometimes interpreted as weakness. I have sometimes felt ignored with suggestions only to hear a male’s identical suggestion enthusiastically welcomed. That experience seems not to be unique to me. There also sometimes seems to be a prejudice of what makes excellent science – the lone author paper challenging prior beliefs is still valued particularly high in some circles. I find collaborative papers, maybe with an interdisciplinary authorship, that address an interesting problem as completely as possible, at least as useful type of science, and one that I enjoy more."

It's interesting how Ms Hegerl relates male dominance also to different forms of scientific text production. In "Die Klimafalle", we discuss those different facets of gendering in science and ask "How male is the climate debate?":

"Von einzelnen Gesprächen wissen wir, dass manche unserer Kolleginnen vor dem schulterklopfenden, oft sexistisch unterlegten Umgangston ihrer männlichen Kollegen zurückschrecken und davon absehen, an den Blogs teilzunehmen. Daran ändern auch nichts Ausnahmen wie Judith Curry in der Blogosphäre oder Gabriele Hegerl in der Klimawissenschaft, die sich nicht wegen des Fehlens solcher Mechanismen, sondern eben trotz dieser durchgesetzt haben" (HvStorch, Krauß: Klimafalle, 152).