Hydrological Sciences

YHS interview Thorsten Wagener: being the head of a research group is “a bit like being a football coach”

In its “Hallway Conversations” series, the Young Hydrologic Society has recently published an interview with Thorsten Wagener, who is currently professor and the head of the Water and Environmental Engineering research group at the University of Bristol, UK. The interview was conducted by Wouter Knoben, a PhD student at the University of Bristol. With their agreement, we reproduce below some short extracts of the interview. For the full interview, visit the YHS Blog (here).

What’s an unusual place where you find inspiration for yourself or the work you do?

Football! Playing (in the past), watching and reading about it. [Points at bookshelf] that’s my football bookshelf. My current role, as Professor and Head of a research group that includes 9 academic staff and many more students and postdocs, is – at least in my head – a bit like being a football coach. Your team is a group of highly talented individuals who have all self-selected to be here as top people in their own right (like a professional football team). The role of the coach is to get them all to somehow work together or at least benefit from each other, without losing the chance to shine individually. So, I have a whole bunch of books written by or about football coaches on my shelf. Including “My Turn” by Johan Cruyff, “Quiet Leadership” by Carlo Ancelotti and “Leading” by Sir Alex Ferguson. Teams follow coaches because they believe that the direction the coach suggests will bring them success. There is a need to be convincing, genuine as well as caring – otherwise players will not believe that you want them to succeed, but that maybe you are only looking for short-term success for yourself. That’s more the Mourinho strategy, which always fails after a couple of years when players get disillusioned. I try not to do that here but try for everybody to benefit from the group.

Could you share any insights on how you approach creativity? Do you think that creativity and success are correlated?

Creativity is a bit under-appreciated in research, I think. I like learning about how creativity is approached in other fields. There is an excellent book called “Creativity Inc.” by the former President of Pixar, Ed Catmull. He discusses how they spend decades trying to optimise their creative process. They decided that everybody should share ideas early, so that bad ideas would fail quickly and not waste time, and that they needed to create continuous opportunities for feedback and involvement of everybody. We, in science, often see creativity as a by-product when it really is the essence of research. We often see it as a gift that one has or does not have, rather than something that can be significantly improved and nurtured. I think that in research, success and creativity are closely related and that everybody can improve their ability to be creative. I think that the most influential hydrologists are also the most creative. People who I admire for their creativity include (but are of course not limited to) Hoshin Gupta, Keith Beven, Chris Duffy or Brian McGlynn. Very different personalities, all of them (apart from maybe Chris Duffy) not the best students during their undergraduate degrees, but very creative people who can think outside the box and in a different direction than the rest. I think the distinction between short-term and long-lasting scientific contributions is often due to differences in creativity, but I should stress that it is not just that. Others succeed through their energy, through their persistence or depth of knowledge.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for hydrologists in the next 10 years or so?

One big challenge is that we need to not lose track of the large societal questions. Hydrologic understanding was and is the foundation for our survival and for sustainable development. Without water, there is no energy, no food, no clothing. The spreading of many infectious diseases is closely coupled to the water cycle. We cannot understand most local climate change impacts without understanding hydrology. There are many opportunities for hydrologic knowledge to contribute to society.
However, hydrology is also complicated because the closer you look at our environment, the more complex it becomes. So, as hydrologists we have long focused on understanding this complexity. Now, we need to start tackling the big problems and clearly separate the work on technical details (regardless of whether this is related to models or measurements) and focus on big societal questions. We are very good on tackling the former; we have historically been rather poor in identifying the latter (including the role of hydrology in understanding them). People like Tom Gleeson or Mark Bierkens have shown that we – as hydrologists – can identify big scale problems and provide answers – though they might be more approximate than what we can say about specific catchments. Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we focus only on this, but that we simply have to do significantly more of this type of work. Here is where we need to be more creative: in identifying interesting and relevant problems and questions – as well as solutions.

Read the full interview in the YHS Blog (here).

Edited by Matthias Sprenger

This guest post was contributed by a scientist, student or a professional in the Earth, planetary or space sciences. The EGU blogs welcome guest contributions, so if you've got a great idea for a post or fancy trying your hand at science communication, please contact the blog editor or the EGU Communications Officer to pitch your idea.

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