David Viner

Principal Advisor, Climate Change, Mott MacDonald
Former research staff in the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, UK.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths.

Research staff experience

I worked at the University of East Anglia (UEA) Climatic Research Unit for 17 years.

David VinerIn September 1991, after completing my PhD, I moved from the urban north west of England to take up a postdoctoral contract at UEA in Norwich. I had no idea that my new research unit would become hugely influential, or that Norfolk (a largely rural county completely unknown to me) would become my long-term home. In 1992 my Director said that if I wished to stay on I needed to write the follow-on proposals. At 27, I became Principal Investigator of a large project at the hub of the international research action on climate change.

I was working on a UK government-funded project to provide climate data to the scientific community. This was in the early days of government focus on climate change. When the work expanded from national to international level, I reported to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on climate change (IPCC). I was contributing author and Co-manager of the IPCC Data Distribution Centre.

By sheer luck, I had landed in a good place at a good time. I gained a huge amount of experience very quickly: giving major presentations to IPCC members and undertaking a lot of media work for the Unit and UEA, including many live TV and radio interviews. I presented Inside Out for BBC1 and have had profile pieces written about me in Sunday newspapers.

This media presence raised my profile beyond the academic sphere. For example, I was approached by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) who wanted to investigate the impacts of climate change on tourism. This opened up a whole new research area that had previously attracted little attention. I was then successful in putting together bids for research funding for multi-disciplinary projects that brought together climate change scientists, social scientists and policy makers. By the early 2000s I’d led multiple projects as principal investigator.

My eventual decision to leave academia has its roots in this period, when I was asked to take over the running of the Climate Change master’s course. When I developed it from six enrolments a year to 25-plus, the University wanted me to do more teaching, leaving insufficient time to do research as I wanted. But at the same time I was not getting recognition: I was still in a non-tenured post.

My goal had been to become a professor by the time I was 40, but this was clearly not going to happen at UEA. I was offered a Chair by another university but it would have meant moving my family and we did not want to relocate to a different part of the country. I started looking beyond academia for jobs within commuting distance. The experiences I’d had working with various external organisations had made me positive about the idea of moving into a different sector.

Transition to new career

Through a headhunter, I successfully applied for a newly-created post at Natural England – a new government agency – and became their lead advisor on climate change.

At one level the prospect of leaving the University unnerved me. I’d done the same commute to work to the same office for 17 years. My office was my own bit of personal space that I’d been able to design as I wanted. My new role would bring a complete change of working environment. It involved travelling all over England, I’d be ‘hotdesking’ and only based in Norwich one day a week. I was expecting the change to be highly stressful.

But actually the transition was seamless. I didn’t miss my old environment at all: I was too busy enjoying working for my new employer.  There were several reasons for this. Natural England had well defined aims and I much enjoyed helping make policy impact on practice. Furthermore, I was working with thought leaders in various academic disciplines in a very collaborative way. For example, in my convening role I had to bring together two experts in biodiversity who had polarised views, but ways were found so that they worked together for the common good. In academia, competition is systemic and this is both a strength and a weakness. In recent years I’d experienced more of the negative aspects of competition than positive ones and I thrived in the change of environment.

Further career shifts

I’d been at Natural England for just over a year when I was approached by headhunters again, about a vacancy at the British Council – a senior role, to design and operationalise a global programme on climate change. Although this was a fixed-term post (unlike my post at Natural England), it had two big draws for me: higher salary and the opportunity to work internationally again. I joined the global leadership team at the British Council reporting to the executive board. Working in over 70 countries I established a hugely successful project that was described by the UK Foreign Office as ‘a national asset’.

I felt less comfortable in the British Council culture and at the end of my contract was ready for something new. I took a four-month career break then started working as a self-employed consultant.  From this I was offered a job on a large international development project. It came with a very large salary but I was working mostly abroad, in an inaccessible location (unsuitable for my family to relocate to). I felt this was unfeasible in the longer term so returned to the UK, where I joined my current employer.

Current job

Since late 2012 I’ve been Principal Advisor, Climate Change for Mott MacDonald (a global engineering, management and development consultancy). Mott MacDonald is one of the largest employee-owned companies in the world, with 16,000 working in over 140 countries. My sources of job satisfaction are very similar to those I enjoyed at Natural England: collaborating with fellow professionals and seeing people from different subject backgrounds working well together.

The climate resilience aspects of sustainability have become increasingly important in all sorts of projects. My role involves me in a wide range of activities – bid writing, business development, thought leadership (speaking at conferences, writing papers). I developed a business case for Mott MacDonald to develop its services in Climate Resilience and the company is now investing its own money to do so. An important part of my role is to build capacity within the company and raise our profile internationally.

I’m involved in a huge variety of projects, from feasibility studies for hydropower schemes to risk assessments for buildings projects, to education projects overseas. For example, we are mainstreaming climate resilience into a major education programme in Nigeria (ESSPIN) aimed at strengthening education infrastructure, curriculum and teacher training. I’m even managing to publish still – in autumn 2014 I had an article in Nature Climate Change.

Mott MacDonald provides me with an excellent working environment and plenty of opportunities. There is a Group-wide commitment to providing work of the highest quality that provides value to our clients.

Competencies old and new

All the knowledge and skills I use today are rooted in what I learned at UEA: research skills – how to apply climate change data into major projects; writing skills; programme management; project management, and communication. Most of these were self-taught and developed on the job. The only formal training I had at UEA was a two-day media training course and a PADI Open Water Diving course. Mott MacDonald has provided me with real- world applicable training and a more robust professional development pathway.

The communication skills I developed at UEA have been well used: speaking to large audiences; doing media work; being able to a handle a wide range of people (having learnt how to deal with everyone from students to senior academics).

Finally, my consultancy skills started life when I was in higher education research. All the external projects I worked on – even the short ones – were useful in building up my experience and often gave me international experience too. My role at Mott MacDonald has brought the best out of my skills, more so than in academia and with the British Council.

Reflecting on my career path

When I finished my PhD in hydrology at the University of Salford I had no clear career ambition – I went to UEA by chance. Like a lot of young people I thought only one step ahead. It was only when I was a postdoctoral researcher that I learned the importance of driving your own career path.

Having worked in different settings I’ve learned that I’m best surrounded by other people working towards a shared goal. I love working on a variety of projects and bouncing ideas around with colleagues. Lone consultancy did not suit me. I value working in organisations like my current one where knowledge and evidence is listened to and acted upon, to effect change for the better.

Suggestions and advice

Don’t be afraid to leave academic research. Whether you’ve been a researcher for one year or (as in my case) 17, leaving academia can be a very positive move. Don’t assume you’re going to find change difficult – see it rather as an opportunity to leave behind the negative aspects of higher education culture.

If you decide to leave academia you need to show potential employers that you have breadth of experience, including outside the world of higher education. If your research doesn’t give you suitable opportunities, make your own – go and talk in schools, in the community (I gave talks to all manner of local organisations), get involved in university or other external committees and journal editorial boards.

If you want to use your research to provide evidence to influence policy or practice, there are all sorts of opportunities out there. There are jobs for people who just want to get on with their specialism and have other people broadcast that evidence, and there are jobs for people who’d like a higher profile, and work in more strategic roles.

Try not to make assumptions about different sectors. For example, the private sector is not necessarily the place where you’ll get the highest salary. Many interesting, worthwhile jobs are no better paid than senior jobs in academia. Find out what opportunities really entail; look past the stereotypes.