An interview with Dr. Harriet Thomson

Published in Social Sciences
An interview with Dr. Harriet Thomson

Dr Harriet Thomson is an award winning interdisciplinary researcher, who has been a Lecturer in Global Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Birmingham (UK) since September 2017. She is Project Manager of the European Commission funded EU Energy Poverty Observatory, and leads Working Group 2 of the international project ‘European Energy Poverty: Agenda Co-Creation and Knowledge Innovation’. 

Please tell us about your research interests.

A key focus of my work to date has been the issue of energy poverty (also known as fuel poverty) across the European Union and globally. This brings together a number of my research interests, such as the role of public policy and policymaking processes, and the ways in which housing and access to clean and reliable forms of energy are unevenly distributed. It also means looking at issues like income poverty, climate change, and the effects of privatisation of essential services. My work draws on concepts from a range of frameworks, including energy justice, relative and consensual poverty, energy vulnerability, and new institutionalism.


What has your journey been to this point?

My career path has been quite linear: I went to university straight after school, and studied my undergraduate, masters, and PhD degrees in succession. I first started working in the field of energy poverty almost 10 years ago, during a summer internship towards the end of my undergraduate degree, where I was project managing a government grant scheme that provided low-income households with free renewable energy systems. In the first week of my internship, I visited one of the success stories of the project, Betty. She was an elderly woman who had received a combined ground source heat pump and solar PV system, alongside new loft insulation. This meant that her heating and hot water was almost free to run, and her electricity bills were significantly reduced. Betty spoke so enthusiastically about the difference this had made to her quality of life; she felt happier, was more comfortable, no longer felt ashamed to have visitors in her home, and above all, the burden of worry about high energy costs and getting her next bill in the post was removed. It was remarkable to me how much of a difference energy could make in a person’s life, and how energy can be an important means for achieving a better way of life. All that change in Betty’s life came for what was, from a public policy perspective, a relatively small investment by the government.

Following this internship, I started researching the issue of energy poverty on a pan-European scale, to understand if this issue was pervasive across European Union countries, and what was being done to tackle it. This was the topic of both my masters and PhD programmes in Social Policy at the University of York. I took a mixed-methods approach, conducting extensive analysis of policy documents from Member States and EU institutions, as well as statistical analyses of national and pan-European datasets to attempt to quantify the problem.

However, during my masters degree I encountered difficulties in connecting with people researching energy poverty in different countries, as the research community at that time was small and fragmented. To overcome this challenge, I established the EU Fuel Poverty Network (EUFPN) in 2011, which grew to become one of the leading online portals for energy poverty. Then in 2018, EUFPN became the basis for a new European Commission initiative that I lead in conjunction with Professor Stefan Bouzarovski, the EU Energy Poverty Observatory (EPOV). EPOV is an ambitious project that now not only connects stakeholders, produces content and forms networks, but also exists to support national policy makers in implementing new energy poverty policies as part of the recently concluded Clean Energy for All Europeans legislative package.

Conducting policy-relevant research, and actively contributing to the development and framing of new policy approaches to addressing energy poverty, is an important aspect of my professional career, and is something that has been recognised by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, who awarded me a Celebrating Impact Prize in 2017. The money from this award has in turn given me the opportunity to travel to places beyond Europe, engage in new dialogues, and explore the potential to transfer elements of EPOV to other contexts. A key focus post-award was developing and holding participatory workshops across Mexico and the UK during the summer of 2018, in conjunction with Karla Ricalde (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and other supporting researchers (Karla Cedano, Nydia Delhi Mata, Keith Baker and Scott Restrick). The workshops were designed to experiment with applying a capabilities approach to energy poverty to see whether it can address some of the flaws that exist with current measurement approaches. It has been a fun experience branching out from my comfort zone to work with new concepts and people, and is something that might not have been funded through traditional means.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with many of my academic heroes, starting with Dr Carolyn Snell, who was my supervisor across most of my time at York, and Dr Brenda Boardman who was the external examiner of my PhD – a tough but incredibly useful experience! Prior to my current role, I spent time working across multiple new disciplines as a researcher in the research groups of Professor Christine Liddell (University of Ulster), a psychologist by background, and Professor Stefan Bouzarovski, a human geographer at the University of Manchester. These experiences have been instrumental in shaping my interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching in the present day. I also spent two years (2016-18) as Associate Editor of the international journal Energy Research & Social Science, led by Professor Benjamin Sovacool, which was an incredible opportunity. Aside from exposing me to a wide range of research that sits outside my direct research interests, it also helped me gain a new appreciation of what is required to communicate ideas well.


Can you speak to any challenges that you had to overcome?

Many of the challenges that I have faced in academia relate to my identities, in terms of how I and others conceive of them, and how I have experienced and responded to failure. I am a young, queer woman, who grew up in a very rural and conservative part of the UK.  I had an outwardly privileged and middle class upbringing, but my family life was less than stable. Over time these various, intersecting identities have been both sources of privilege, and factors for disadvantage. Much of our academic identity is unavoidably shaped by our personal lives and previous experiences and knowledge. We all hold multiple layers of identities, some of which may be immediately recognisable, whilst others are held more deeply – in this regard, the onion metaphor is quite useful. 

During my PhD, I was often invited to speak at events where all the senior speaking slots were occupied by men, and I was the only woman in a panel, which sometimes felt like tokenism. However, through the efforts of senior academics like Christine Liddell and Brenda Boardman, who have been fierce advocates of young female scholars in fuel poverty research, I think we have seen a shift in recent years from tokenism to genuine participation, where female voices are now heard and respected. I do not recall experiencing one defining moment where I was explicitly discriminated against for being LGBT in academia, but it is clear that over the years I have felt the need to generally be guarded; playing the gender pronoun game for partners, or not sharing details of my personal life with colleagues. There are emotional labour and mental wellbeing cost associated with this, which are difficult to articulate, or to even recognise. Since starting at the University of Birmingham, and being in a Department with openly LGBT staff, however, I have felt an unexpected sense of relief, which comes from the safe environment that is created through the normalisation of being open at work. It is as if before I was always holding my breath, but now I can relax.

I try to be mindful of the privileges that arise from being middle class, white, and British, and the space that I occupy within different contexts. When I am invited to events and projects, I reflect on whether there are other people who would be better for those opportunities, in terms of the expertise and exposure that they bring, and the groups they represent. However, it is a fine balance between thinking that someone else is better suited for an opportunity because they have more appropriate experience than you, and thinking someone would be better because you are under-selling yourself.   

At various points in my career, I have experienced imposter syndrome, and will probably continue to do so. This term was first identified by Clance and Imes in 1978 in relation to high achieving women and internalised feelings of ‘intellectual phoniness’, and it is perhaps no surprise that imposter syndrome is rife in academia given the culture of individuality we exist within, which tends to celebrate big names and big impacts. However, I am fortunate to have several trusted mentors who I can turn to for straightforward advice on my abilities, and whether I am under/over-selling myself on applications, which has been immensely helpful in responding to, but not altogether resolving, this issue.

Last year (2018) was the first year since my PhD in which I did not secure any external grant funding, despite leading on or supporting five applications. This lack of funding success certainly does not tell the whole story about who I am as an academic. It ignores the significant achievements and progress made within my research projects, my teaching, tutoring, and academic leadership. Nevertheless, it was quite a tough fact to reflect on in December, but after discussing it with senior colleagues I realised it is not unusual.

Rejection and failure are core elements of academia, but it is something that we are not necessarily trained in responding to. At face value, my grant capture is very healthy for someone of my career stage (ca. £1.3 million covering two large-scale international projects, and various smaller projects). However, upon further reflection I realise that this partly arises from the personal economic challenges I faced early on during my academic career. The invaluable experience I gained from having to apply for various grant schemes during my masters and PhD years, to self-fund my masters studies and supplement my PhD scholarship, has been vital in navigating academic funding later on. These early successes have made this last year harder by comparison, but they also obscure the fact I have had countless grants rejected. Indeed, Stefan Bouzarovski and I submitted a European Cooperation in Science & Technology (COST) Action bid three times before it was successful, which already had history of being turned down twice when proposed by a team led by Professors Brenda Boardman, Christine Liddell and Sharon Turner. At the kick-off meeting in Brussels for the ENGAGER project, our COST Scientific Officer matter-of-factly told us this was normal for that particular funding scheme…

Not securing any external funding has actually been a useful experience for forcing me to reflect on my 2018, and the broader contexts that may have contributed to these failed applications. Firstly, I was in the first year of a new lectureship, and had gone from a job with 100% research time to just 33%, with a host of new responsibilities, such as teaching and academic leadership. My mentors told me in advance to just write off the first year and accept I would not get much done, but I had not fully internalised this. Secondly, many of my applications related to new collaborations with researchers in Mexico and Chile, which in itself presented fresh challenges of getting to grips with difference spaces, cultures, and the particularities of new funders who have different institutional languages to that of EU funders who I am familiar with. This is a result of me opening up my research to a new set of challenges, so in the end it is a price worth paying. 


What advice would you give your younger self?

There are probably three key pieces of advice I would give to my younger self who is embarking on an academic career: collaboration not competition; take pride in small impacts; prioritise your mental health.

In the early stages of postgraduate study, I approached research in a very private and competitive manner. This is a reflection of both my own background, and institutional guidance to build an independent research profile. However, it is not very healthy to see people just through the lens of competition. Ultimately, a good researcher cares about resolving their chosen issue, in my case energy poverty, and to achieve this it is better to see people as part of a broader community with a shared goal - so I would tell myself to be more trusting and open to collaboration. The ENGAGER COST Action that I mentioned earlier has been a huge success since launching in December 2017. The format of this scheme is quite unusual in that it only funds collaborative activities - such as training schools, short term scientific exchange visits, and conferences – but no primary research. ENGAGER now includes 193 members from 38 countries, and the diversity of this active membership has resulted in outputs that are pushing forward our understanding of energy poverty, and paving the way for exciting new projects that would not have been possible before.

I have always been very driven and self-motivated, and as a teenager, I was active in local politics, running campaigns and standing for local election. However, after going to university and existing within an environment that is focused on achieving high profile ‘impact’ on a large scale, my expectations for the future, and conceptions of my own achievements shifted. It can be easy to overlook small impacts at the local level, and not see them as being just as valuable as international transformations. Furthermore, it is easy to forget that policymaking in most institutional configurations is inherently incremental, and windows of opportunity for systemic change are quite rare. Even when those golden windows of opportunity for large-scale change do present themselves, the outcomes are not always what we hope for – as the recently concluded EU Clean Energy Package negotiations has demonstrated, in which we have seen attempts by Member States to water down, rather than strengthen, existing energy poverty legislation. It is good to keep a dose of naïve optimism about changing the world in the face of this context. However, it is also important to recognise that achieving change is always a process of bargaining, with winners and losers. In most cases, governments will only provide resources to help a small proportion of the overall population, thus there has to be a process of constructing who is the neediest, whether implicit or explicit. 

Lastly, I would say to my younger self that you need to give higher priority to your free time, and the importance of mental health to avoid burnout later on. As for many, finding the balance between work and personal life is difficult, particularly as academia often glorifies unhealthy working practices. It is something that I am still navigating, but I think I am getting better at saying no to opportunities, and reclaiming personal time.


What advice would you give to other early-career researchers?

Beyond the three points mentioned earlier, around avoiding burnout, being open to collaboration, and taking pride in achieving small impacts, I think it is also important to talk about networking, communication, and mentors.

Although we are constantly told about the importance of networking, I do not think the benefits can be overstated. Building contacts, across all stakeholders group not just within academia, has been one of the most useful activities that I have undertaken in terms of building name recognition and providing opportunities to participate in events, collaborate on publications, and for employment, even if the benefits have not always been immediate. Initially I found networking quite daunting, but after a little while you find your own style, be that through social media, and/or face-to-face interactions at conferences.

Sometimes hierarchical structures dictate who can start particular conversations or initiatives, which in my opinion are nonsense. Yes, there is certainly a power gradient associated with different seniority levels in academia, but that should not be a barrier to early career academics starting new initiatives, or contacting people for fear of being too junior. It is about addressing gaps (within your network or work, or your field as a whole), identifying who can help you, and relationship building. Having a strong network that extends beyond your own institution is also important within the context of increasingly casualised employment in British academia, with some academic institutions showing little to no loyalty towards early career researchers on fixed term, temporary contracts.

A related point is the need for good quality communication of your research, especially so that non-specialists in your subject can engage. Scientific publications and presentations at academic conferences are certainly important, and have their place in academia, but expensive conferences, and journal articles in publications owned by private publishers, such as Elsevier or Taylor & Francis, can be inaccessible to researchers in lower income universities, as well as to policymakers and people from voluntary organisations. I would argue that it is perhaps more important to make your research accessible in other ways, such as via social media, blog posts, policy briefs, or podcasts, which can reach a broader audience and spark conversations and actions in other spaces.

Beyond that, I would stress the importance of mentors who can advise you on research and broader career issues. This can be current/former supervisors, as well as senior figures within your field. Since the early days of my PhD, I have always had two or three mentors, who are people that know me on a personal level, and whose work and experience I admire and in some cases, want to emulate. My mentors provide a holistic look at my personal and professional development, and act as an informal sounding board for ideas and concerns.


What are your predictions for your field in the near future?

As a whole our understanding of energy, and the role it plays in underpinning human life, is becoming ever more complex due to the availability of new forms of data, and the use of more sophisticated research approaches and this will only continue to expand. In this regard, I think data from smart technologies will play an important role in the near future in contributing to new understandings of energy vulnerability, particularly in terms of the temporality of the phenomenon.

We are starting to see greater levels of nuance on the energy situations in countries traditionally classified as ‘developing’, with debates moving beyond simply considering how to provide ‘basic’ levels of energy access, and with it greater recognition that knowledge exchange should be bi-directional – and this is something that I hope continues to evolve in the future. I recently co-edited a book with my former colleagues at Manchester, which attempted to move beyond the Global South-North dichotomy by taking a global perspective on energy poverty. The empirical evidence presented by a range of international authors in this book challenges the notion that infrastructural access to modern energy is primarily an issue faced by people of the Global South, while households in the Global North only struggle with the interaction of high prices and low incomes. The body of work as a whole demonstrates that there are numerous commonalities in the underpinning drivers of energy poverty across the globe. However, it also points to the importance of recognising the role of households’ particular needs and everyday practices in determining how energy poverty emerges and is experienced. This latter points provides a range of opportunities for researchers in my field to move beyond an often reductionist drive to capture energy poverty in one or two indicators, and instead embrace bottom-up research approaches, which are embedded in local communities and reflect more truthfully their complexity and diversity.

You can follow Harriet on Twitter at @harrimus 

Photo credit: Karla Ricalde 

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