Meet David MacKay

Article Date 24/11/2013

L-R Ian Ellerington and David MacKay discussing something innovative

David MacKay was appointed our Chief Scientific Advisor in October 2009, after the publication of his highly acclaimed book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air' - which he dedicates to those who will not have the benefit of two billion years accumulated energy reserves.

Following our recent organisational restructure we caught up with him to find out how joining up of the functions will affect his role...

Why did you want to work for DECC?

I'd written a book about energy arithmetic Sustainable Energy - without the hot air with the goal of enhancing the public discussion of energy options. DECC was created (a fantastic innovation by government!) at the same time that my book came out, and working for DECC seemed a great opportunity to make use of what I'd learned in writing the book; my goal was to try to help government make the best possible policies for energy security and climate change action, rooted in the laws of physics and the realities of engineering.

How do you think the new structure will change your role?

It's crucial for DECC to have a single joined-up science and engineering function, so I'm expecting that the new structure won't significantly change our day-to-day working: I will still aim to work hand in hand with the Science and Innovation Directorate, helping to ensure every part of DECC has the technical analysis, evidence, and quality assurance it needs. I may spend a little more of my time on external communications and external influencing.

DECC is a department with a massive mission: to power the country and protect the planet - do you think we can do it?

I think one of my main roles here is to ensure we understand the scale of action required. I do think it is technically possible to deliver our targets, and (at least up until four weeks ago!) the political will seemed to be there too, with cross-party support for The Climate Act and The Carbon Plan.

I think that success will depend on ensuring people understand how the numbers add up, and which are the options that can really make a big contribution to a sustainable solution.

What do you think the major challenges will be?

One difficult challenge is the way in which economic activity and growth currently is coupled to buying lots of stuff and then throwing it away. When a fridge, clothes-washer, or microwave develops a fault we throw it away instead of repairing it. Car manufacturers love us to buy a new car every few years.

The whole system could use significantly less energy if we designed things to last, if we only bought things we need to use, if we used them for their full life, repairing them when necessary, and then disassembled them carefully so that components could be re-used. How can we get there from here?

If you could change one thing about working in the civil service what would it be?

I'd like us to use knowledge management properly - I'd like it to be easy to see our past working, to follow chains of reasoning and evidence, to know what we know, to re-use work that we have done before, and to have shared authorship and live, up-to-date access to all this information instead of using emails to circulate 100s of copies of word documents to people, and losing almost everything when key people move on to new roles.

Are you a blogger...can we expect to see regular updates from you on the intranet?

I used to blog a lot - I wrote an enormous website full of stuff in Cambridge - but at DECC I've been keeping a lower profile, since anything I say is quite likely to be misrepresented by journalists and others. Nevertheless I do post every month or two on my blog: withouthotair

What should people know about your style of working?

I like work to be fun, I like to chat over a nice cup of tea. And I don't care about hierarchy or rank - what matters to me is rigorous thinking and clear communication.

A piece of wisdom you would pass on...

I've got two: Read your meters! Know about actual energy consumption; and more generally know about the real world... reading my meters changed my life, and it might change yours too!

Use units in all calculations. This is a bit of a geeky technical point, but I think it is very important to generalists as well as scientists: most calculators and spreadsheets simply represent quantities by plain numbers, omitting the units (such as pounds, people, or kWh).

I think a lot of time can be saved and errors avoided by being strict with units at every step - then you'll never mix up apples and oranges. For example "is that carbon saving you reported a lifetime saving (in tonnes of CO2) or is it a saving rate (in tonnes of CO2 per year)?"

Work life balance - what leisure activity you enjoy the most...

I love playing ultimate Frisbee, but sadly my current work-life balance doesn't leave much time for that. So my favourite leisure activity at present is watching Peppa Pig and Ivor the Engine with my two-year old son.

And finally what's your favourite book and why?

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, because "everything is connected".

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