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Why science needs a story

In conversation with academic Emily Shuckburgh

Scientists have been telling us about climate change for 30 years. It feels like it’s taken a long time for anyone to truly listen to them, but we’re finally starting to feel a shift in the conversation. Ever wonder what’s it been like for them?

Emily Shuckburgh has been studying our atmosphere, oceans and climate closely for decades. She’s a scientist born and bred. But importantly, she’s also passionate about communicating this knowledge to the wider public.

We recently spent an hour together on Zoom hearing about her work and the stories she’s lived and been privy to. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as we did.


“I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in nature. Growing up in Hertfordshire, I knew the name of every wildflower. At university, I studied a subject I absolutely loved – mathematics. There’s something beautiful about looking for patterns in nature, and I loved applying that same thinking to the world of numbers.

When I finished my studies, I wanted to bring together my interest in nature and maths to better understand the world. I decided to do a PhD focused on the physics of the atmosphere and the oceans. That’s the great thing about being an academic – the line between your work and your passion is fuzzy.

Initially, the focus of my research was ozone. The ozone hole was the biggest environmental topic at the time. I went on my first polar expedition to study the ozone hole over the Arctic. Winter there is stunning. The sun only just skirts over the horizon for a few hours a day, the northern lights are incredible, and you get these amazing rainbow clouds high up in the sky, called polar stratospheric clouds.

From there I moved to studying the ocean around Antarctica as part of the British Antarctic Survey. It was such a special time in my career. Imagine seeing 100,000-year-old air bubbles escape from the Antarctic ice. Or obtaining ocean measurements from underneath the ice thanks to seals with small tracking devices. I still keep a small bottle of water from the bottom of the Antarctic ocean by my desk.”

“One of the privileges about being an academic is that you get to dedicate your career to what you love.”


“I’ve been lucky to see the absolute beauty of the natural world while profoundly studying its science. I’ll never forget a trip to the Canadian Arctic about a decade ago. By then I’d spent years studying the dramatic changes in the Arctic, particularly in terms of the massive decline in sea ice. I had all the data in front of me. But it’s only when you talk to people who have lived through the changes when it becomes real.

I was in a place called Iqaluit, where the locals have a very close relationship with their climate. One of them said that it felt as if somebody you know well is suddenly acting strangely. They never used to see robins that far north, but now they were singing from the roofs of their homes. Feeling and seeing these changes was really perturbing for them.

As a scientist, I’ve always felt a strong responsibility to communicate that – especially having been to the polar regions, where you can feel the scales of the change most. To be honest, it’s not always been easy. As a community, we’re mostly just keen to relay the findings of our research. But when your work covers climate change, the data you work with fundamentally affects people’s lives. There’s a societal importance of sharing that knowledge.”

“For me, the most powerful combination is the scientific data and the personal testimonies.”


“Throughout my career, I’ve always looked at where I could have the most impact. And right now, my focus is on helping to drive forward the solutions. I’m currently the director of Cambridge Zero, a new initiative which spans the University of Cambridge and focuses on drawing all aspects of our resources and capacity towards the solution.

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with Deloitte on a project called Futures We Want. Commissioned by the UK as their role as COP26 President, we asked people in six regions around the world – the Arabian Peninsula, Brazil, India, Jamaica, Kenya and the UK – to imagine a globally net-zero, climate-resilient future.

Most importantly, they had to be desirable: futures that people actually want to live in. By looking at themes like water, energy, infrastructure and food, we highlighted some of the innovations that could make this future a reality, and explored what science can tell us about the benefits of achieving it.”

“We all know the scale of the problem. The question is: What can we do about it together?”


“It’s becoming increasingly evident, for me at least, that codesigning solutions to climate change is critical. For this project, six teams of academic experts created reports on their own region’s possible futures. Then six groups of citizens shared their hopes and ideas based on those reports.

I particularly appreciated that this was an inclusive collaboration between groups that don’t normally collaborate. We obviously worked closely with the Deloitte team and various academic teams. But crucially, we made sure that we brought in that local knowledge at every stage of the project so we could work together on those solutions.

This project was about much more than just the findings. How we worked together is an equally powerful output for me. I hope it inspires people to engage on this issue in that much broader sense, bringing in the robust evidence base from academia, tapping into local knowledge, and then setting that in a business context.”

“We made sure that the people who were experiencing the changes – and would be experiencing them in the future – were front and centre.”


“For too long, climate change has been thought of as ‘tomorrow’s problem’. I’ve now spent decades studying the problem, and there’s no escaping that it’s a story of doom and gloom. We’re already seeing some indication of its impact in terms of the extreme weather events over the last few years – and it’s just the start. Some days that weighs on me.

That’s why one of the most important aspects of my work is not just studying the facts, but also communicating about them in an engaging way, speaking with a business audience and giving public talks. I also love working with children at schools to help them experience science first-hand and get them get excited about pursuing scientific careers.

The great thing about working in a university context is that you get to see the exciting research that’s happening to generate some great solutions – from new battery technologies to help us move to a more electrified world, to natural construction materials replacing cement and steel, or nature-based solutions with benefits for climate and people.

In some sense, it’s that ‘we can’t fail’ feeling that keeps me going, even in the gloomiest moments. I’ve got two young children and I want them to grow in a stable society, able to enjoy the beauty of the natural world – just like I did as a child.”

Thanks for reading


We hope you enjoyed joining us on an expedition through Emily’s work over the decades. We loved hearing her stories bringing science to life in a very real way. Our biggest takeaway is that if we’re going to create a better world, we’ve got to do it together. Oh, and start today.

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