27 January 2017

The world’s most cited hydrologist offers advice to young hydrologists in a tribute issue of the high impact journal he helps to edit

A special issue of the highly rated Hydrological Processes journal has been published to honour Emeritus Professor Keith Beven, praising his “pathbreaking research”. and ‘unparalleled contributions’ to the field of hydrology.

The Issue’s introduction explains Keith’s continuing influence on hydrology: “Many of us in catchment hydrology instruct new graduate students and post docs to prepare for a research career in catchment hydrology by reading Keith's papers.”

“It is a great honour: there have not been many cases of such special issues in hydrological journals,” said Keith, a world expert in hydrological modelling, in particular in quantifying the uncertainties involved in using environmental models to predict future risks.

Keith’s work has been cited more often in international research journals than the work of any other hydrologist.

His fellow editors on the journal’s Editorial Board kept the special issue idea a secret from Keith, agreeing it while he was out of the room.

I am very grateful indeed to all those from many countries who contributed either opinion pieces or research papers to the issue,” said Keith, who retains close links to the Lancaster Environment Centre following his recent retirement, after nearly 30 years at Lancaster University.

One of the contributors is Keith himself, who wrote a commentary, ‘Advice to a young hydrologist’ , emphasising the vital role of hydrology, but noting its limitations as well.

“Hydrology is important both to human activities and as a driver for many other environmental processes. Hydrology will increasing act as a constraint on our activities and will become an ever more important political issue,” Keith writes.

“Hydrology is also, however, one of the inexact sciences, and given the limitations of what we can know about subsurface water pathways, it is likely to remain so. Thus, the most important piece of advice I can give is to be honest about those limitations, to yourself and to those who might be users of your research or your advice or your model outputs.”

In particular he recommends that, while it is important for hydrologists to inform policy development, it is crucial that they do not succumb to policy makers’ desire for certainty when none is present.

Keith, who has published ten books and over 350 journal articles, also confesses that he has had many papers rejected during his career, including  the paper that introduced one of his most famous developments, the ground-breaking Topmodel, a computer model of flood runoff generation (Bevan and Kirkby 1979). It was later accepted for publication and became his most highly cited  paper. So he encourages young researchers to persist and use rejection as an opportunity to improve their work. 

In February Keith's key role in hydrology was recognised by the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE), which elected him a foreign member “for contributions to the understanding of hydrological processes and development of the foundations of modern hydrological modeling.”