Lancaster’s new interdisciplinary professor

Professor David Tyfield in China © Background image, Yoshi Canopus (CC BY-SA 3.0)

David Tyfield studied biochemistry and philosophy, practising as a corporate lawyer before turning to research: he now specialises in the rise of China and new approaches to finding just solutions to climate change.

Professor David Tyfield has had an unusual career. The common thread running through it, he believes, is an enduring interest in improving how knowledge and science can contribute to creating flourishing, just societies and help tackle the big challenges facing the world.

David’s global outlook and passion for social justice was forged as a child. His father’s Jewish parents left South Africa with their family when apartheid started, and his Canadian mother was a second generation immigrant. Politics and ethics were part of everyday life in his childhood.

Both David’s parents were scientists, so if wasn’t surprising he ended up studying biochemistry at Oxford University. Unsure of what to do afterwards, he took a law conversion course and got a training contract with a City law firm. He persuaded his employers to let him take a year out to do a masters at the LSE in the Philosophy of Social Sciences.

‘That was a key step for me, I was doing what I really wanted to do for first time, reading stuff I found really exciting, broadening my horizons,’ says David, who recently became Lancaster University’s first Professor of Sustainable Transitions and Political Economy.

David then spent two years qualifying as a solicitor, based in London and Brussels, specialising in intellectual property and EU competition law.

‘I got to see up close how the economy works, not just theorising about it. I also discovered a way of life I did not want to live myself.’

He was longing to get back to research. He decided to self-fund an inter-disciplinary PhD around the commercialisation of bioscience, drawing together the threads of his experience. He focussed on the strict IP regulations for bio-technology in the World Trade Organisation’s new TRIPS agreement, which ‘disproportionately favoured rich countries and high-tech organisations.

‘I was trying to understand whether there is such a thing as an abstract body of science or is scientific knowledge much more political and contextual than that.

‘My income took a massive hit, and yet my happiness went up by a similar amount.’

He now knew he wanted to stay in academia. He was becoming interested in the rise of China and was learning Chinese when he saw the opportunity to join a research project at Lancaster University, based in the Sociology Department.

‘I had noticed that many of the people I cited in my research were from Lancaster, so I applied.’

He got the job. The project was exploring how scientific collaborations on climate change between the UK and China altered the opinions and approaches of those involved. It built on the work of sociologist Ulrich Beck, who had developed the concept of cosmopolitanism – the idea that, with globalisation, social questions and major challenges can no longer be approached within the boundaries of the nation state.

‘Climate change is an issue at a scale that largely eludes meaningful intervention at a national level and yet society hasn’t caught up with that: how do we become citizens of the world so we can deal with problems of that scale. It demands a major transformation in the way we approach social questions’

More projects followed. David led a 5-year research study into low-carbon innovation in China, a collaboration which included the Chinese Academy of Sciences, covering transport, food production and energy. His research compared the adoption of electric cars and electric two wheelers in China, with interesting results. Despite the Chinese government putting its influence and finance behind electric cars, it was the two-wheeler that took off.

‘The lower tech, bottom-up approach was proving extremely effective, while the high tech, official approach was not doing so well.’

In 2014, David joined the Lancaster Environment Centre to take on a new role: setting up and leading the International Research and Innovation Centre for the Environment (I-RICE), a China-based research institute run jointly by the Lancaster Environment Centre and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He moved, with his family, to live in Guangzhou, the biggest city in Southern China.

‘While there were already many years of productive bilateral collaborations between the British and Chinese, these were hitting something of a ceiling in terms of building up the cultural norms needed to work across geographical, political and cultural differences. The missing piece was the institutions needed to support these collaborations, particularly for more junior scientists. The Institute’s role was to provide a base for working together to tackle big environmental problems. It was unique at the time for a British university to be doing this.’

He stayed in China for two years, gaining funding for a cohort of PhD students to focus on issues of the ‘Food-water-environment nexus’, and developing I-RICE into the Joint Institute for Environmental Research and Education with offices and a shared laboratory at the South China Agricultural University.

Returning to the UK in 2016, David took a sabbatical to write a book, Liberalism 2.0 and Rise of China: Global crisis, innovation and urban mobility, which he discussed on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.

The book called for a new scientific approach in a fast-changing world where the future is becoming increasingly unpredictable.

‘We don’t know the effect the rise of China will have on climate change, but we can be pretty sure it will defy our conceptual expectations. The book searches for a form of grounded speculation, a middle way between seeing what we are used to and fantasising about the future.’

David discussed these ideas with colleagues in the Lancaster Environment Centre which, like David himself, combines expertise in both the natural and social sciences. He argued that the way academics carry out their research needs to change if we are going to tackle complex problems like climate change, biodiversity loss and managing natural resources in a just way. His ideas helped formulate one of the Environment Centre’s Research Challenges, Science for the Anthropocene, based on learning by doing and involving communities and stakeholders from the start.

‘It is about contributing not just to the diagnosis of the problem but to reconstruction and finding just solutions. It demands continually coming up with new interventions, learning from these and adjusting our understanding. There is no endpoint or specifiable goal, but we can move in the right direction and learn as we go.’

He is still fascinated with China, in particular how its growing economic investment and influence in the rest of the world impacts on tackling climate change. At the same time, he is getting involved in climate action locally: he’s currently working on a project looking at the role of local government in driving forward climate action through the ESRC’s Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN).

‘It’s an interesting conjunction. At the macro level, the rising superpower is the paradigm for centralised, autocratic, technocratic approaches to these challenges. Yet on the other hand, there’s an emerging sense that bottom-up development is also necessary. If we are really going to deal with climate change, re-energising democracy is not just nice to have, it is essential.’

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