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News > Science, Technology & Medicine > Tonbridge's Scientists: Peter Skinner

Tonbridge's Scientists: Peter Skinner

OTs answer: What can I do with my science degree?
2019 has been an extraordinary year for Science at Tonbridge. To mark the opening of the new Barton Science Centre, we asked Old Tonbridgians with a science background to write to us with their story. In the next pages, we hear from 9 OTs, whose experience demonstrate the wide range of job options available to science graduates, and many of whom have exploited the positive characteristics of their science-trained brains in some unexpected sectors. 

Chief Executive, Environment & Ground Engineering, EMIA, AECOM

If you could, you did a Science degree and if you couldn’t you did an Engineering one. That was the conventional wisdom for those doing Mathematics and Sciences in the early eighties. So I was pointed towards engineering! I finished my O Levels thinking I wanted to do Electrical Engineering as that was the, then, exciting area. As I studied my A Levels, that changed to Mechanical Engineering. In the end I kept my options open and studied Engineering Science at Exeter University. There, I became captivated by Geotechnical Engineering, or Soil Mechanics, as it is also called, as it was an engineering subject that was more of an art than the other subjects I was studying. You take some sparse information, such as a few boreholes, and come up with a safe, economical design for the whole site. I found I liked the uncertainty of not knowing and enjoyed the collaboration, discussion and argument of interpretation and refining a design.

I joined a consultancy and for seven years designed large dams across the world, including a year in to do a Master’s Degree at Imperial College. Dams fell out of fashion and so I moved into Environmental Engineering. It is still about controlling water, except now, instead of holding it back in a reservoir, it is about safely moving and treating its contamination. Those aspects of uncertainty I had learnt as a geotechnical engineer now allowed me to progress my career into management. Making predictions and backing my judgement then allowed me to progress to becoming Chief Executive of the largest environmental consultancy team in the UK&I, Continental Europe and Africa; a professional team of over 1,600 consultants. A wit once remarked my team has 'more degrees than a thermometer.'

Above: AECOM project - contamination site in Kuwait

The capability of my team continues to astound me; archaeologists working on Stonehenge; acousticians predicting the noise from HS2; creating ‘hotels’ for translocated water voles; solutions to clean up the contamination over an area the size of Greater London from when Saddam Hussain deliberately polluted Kuwait; to making decisions based on five capitals (financial, manufactured, social, human and natural). 

But I worry that although as a society we can do great things, we don’t. The inability of our society to make long term decisions is concerning. It is not that we don’t know; we do. As Jean-Claude Juncker said: “We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it”. 

Above: AECOM project - Stonehenge

To me, there are two areas where we need to make dramatic changes. Firstly and specifically, we need to tackle climate change. It will make a significant change to the way we live if we don’t. There will be more extreme storms, more flooding, less food production. It will change our society for the worse and we do only have a decade left to do it, or it really will be too late. People will look at us as we look at the late Romans; “why did they let it happen, surely they knew?” 

Secondly and generically, we need to fight future battles instead of replaying the historical ones. For example should we be building new roads and car parks? Autonomous vehicles will change how we move and we won’t be requiring four lane motorways or numerous parking spaces. Cars will not be left unutilised for two weeks as we go on holiday. The income, or more accurately the reduction in costs, will allow for more cocktails on the beach, which will be further inland than it is now!

Our Engineers and Scientists know what to do; we as a society must look to the long term and allow them to use their talents, for good - not just now, not for the next decade, but for the centuries to come.

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