Meet the academic: Prof Nigel Gilbert
Tell us about your career at Surrey
I joined Surrey in 1976, coming to what was then a very new Department of Sociology. The University was different then, with only about 3,500 students and 300 staff. Over time, through some lucky breaks (including obtaining the largest by value research grant the University had then ever received) I got promoted to a Chair, Head of Department and eventually Pro-Vice-Chancellor with responsibility for staff development. After eight years as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I decided to return to research and now lead a research centre, the Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS), as well as being Director of the ESRC Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN), and of the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS).
How did you get interested in your field of research?
My first job, aged 16, was as a computer operator, feeding paper tape into a computer the size of a large room, and this experience got me hooked on computers and especially programming them. But, computer science degrees didn’t exist in those days, so I did a general engineering degree instead, and ever since then, I’ve tried to combine programming with whatever I am doing.
I went on to study for a PhD on the sociology of scientific knowledge – trying to find out how scientists actually do their science, rather how they are supposed to do it, and then worked on a series of projects that in some way combined social science with computer science. I developed one of the very first programs that could help benefit claimants calculate how much they were entitled to, which got picked up in the national press. I worked on a project to develop a speech understanding system, 20 years before Alexa and Siri. I used computer simulation to model societies and pioneered the application of agent-based modelling in the social sciences, just because I wanted to tinker with artificial intelligence.
What have you and your team have been working on recently?
A lot of what we do now involves working closely with civil servants in the big home departments like Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Transport (DfT), which raises some fascinating issues and problems. We have been developing a method for ‘Participatory System Mapping’, in which a group of stakeholders work together to identify the factors that affect a policy area. The result is a ‘system map’ that plots the factors as the nodes and the causal relationships, as the links in a network. Often participants discover new connections that they had not realised are influential. One area where we have been doing this recently is the effects of policies on air quality in a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded project called ANTICIPATE.
CRESS also contributes to projects on dams and irrigation in the global south (FutureDAMS), while here in the UK, we are examining the links between Local Economic Partnership (LEP) board members and company boards of directors using social network analysis. We are also looking at ethical issues of consent and surveillance in ‘smart homes’, and methods of project management that take into account sustainability – all-in-all, a wide spectrum of projects!
A lot of your work spans multiple institutions and countries. How are you and your teams adapting to the ‘new normal’?
When Covid-19 struck, we had to move our system mapping work, which used to be done face-to-face, online and we have developed software that runs in a web browser to make this easier. Almost all of my projects are inter-disciplinary and include collaborators from other universities in the UK or abroad. Now that collaborations are likely to continue to be online, I am beginning to get interested in how and what software might be used to help with virtual research workshops beyond just using Teams or Zoom, such as online whiteboards, online ‘post-it boards’, and online modelling, as well as our own online system mapping software.