Meet the Norwich scientist at the heart of global climate change research

Professor Robert Nicholls, director of the Tyndall Centre at UEA

Professor Robert Nicholls is director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA - Credit: Tegan Nicholls

Professor Robert Nicholls is director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA on Norwich Research Park. Find out more about his vital work ahead of next week’s UN COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.  

Prof Robert Nicholls on Pembrokeshire coast

Robert fell in love with science when he was a child visiting the Pembrokeshire coast - Credit: Tegan Nicholls

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here

Tell us about the Tyndall Centre.  

The Tyndall Centre was the first centre in the world set up to investigate what we should do about climate change, including mitigation and adaptation. It was originally funded by the UK Research Council for 10 years, but we’ve just passed our 21st birthday sustained by the Centre’s ability to win funds and remain relevant! 

The Tyndall Centre is a coalition of partners that has evolved over time. The current membership includes the University of East Anglia (UEA), the University of Manchester, Newcastle University and Cardiff University, as well as affiliated members. I have been a member of the Tyndall Centre since it was founded and was appointed director in October 2019.  

What does your role entail? 

My director role is a 50/50 split – half of my job is research and the other half is concerned with sustaining the Tyndall Centre by providing leadership, managing annual assemblies and promoting our four themes. 

The first theme is about achieving net-zero in accordance with the Paris Agreement. The second theme involves enhancing resilience and adaptation to climate hazards. The third theme is concerned with accelerating social transitions – how we encourage changes in behaviour that underpin net-zero. Our fourth theme explores how development and poverty reduction can proceed in a climate-friendly way that also achieves sustainable development goals.  

I work with our theme leaders to ensure grant opportunities are supported, seminar programmes are organised and ideas are exchanged – all the activity that's needed to give the Centre a heart, a soul and a brain.  

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Why did you decide to pursue a career in science? 

I fell in love with the coast when I was a child. My grandparents lived a short walk from a beach called Freshwater East in Pembrokeshire. I spent every holiday there until I was 17, when my grandmother died. I just loved watching the waves, the tides and the beach during a storm. I was always fascinated by how and why the beach was changing. 

I did a degree in geology at the University of Southampton then a PhD in coastal engineering studying coastal erosion. After my postdoc at the University of Plymouth I went to the United States in 1990 as an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland.  

I returned to the University of Southampton, which was one of the founding members in the original consortium of the Tyndall Centre. I worked with people at UEA on a coastal simulator, a project looking at the coastal evolution of North Norfolk, from Blakeney to Winterton Ness. The models of coastal change that we developed back then still support the coastal management approaches that are being followed today.  

Why is research vital for dealing with climate change? 

I’m from the generation of NASA’s Apollo space programme. During my childhood there was great optimism about science – it felt like you were contributing to a better future. Nowadays there is a sense of pessimism.  

But to deal with the problems we're facing today, we need more scientists. We need blue sky science, to understand and to wonder about the world and the universe, as well as applied science and engineering, to devise practical solutions for climate change. That includes addressing waste and pollution, creating a circular economy and zero-carbon energy. There's a huge demand for science and there is so much potential, which is very exciting. 

What do you get up to when you’re not working? 

I like walking, cycling and gardening. Norwich is a wonderful city with beautiful architecture and I really enjoy it as a place to work. I love socialising and being with my family.  

I also enjoy watching films. My wife Lynda and I recently visited Pembrokeshire and stopped in Brecon, where I lived as a kid, on the way. The cinema where I paid sixpence to see Doctor No and From Russia With Love when I was seven years old was still there. We were tempted to see the new Bond film, No Time To Die, but decided against it as we were on holiday! Still, it took me right back to my childhood. 

Professor Robert Nicholls is director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at UEA on Norwich Research Park. You can follow on Twitter @TyndallCentre 

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