Weather report: exclusive interview with Met Office chief executive Penelope Endersby

Written by Richard Johnstone on 3 May 2019 in Interview
Interview

An explosives expert and the first woman to lead the Met Office, Penelope Endersby’s arrival at the much-loved weather service was a breath of fresh air. She tells Beckie Smith about being a mentor, climate change, and stepping out of the shadows

Photos: Met Office

Penelope Endersby says she has had more photos taken of her in the last few weeks than in the rest of the 27 years since her wedding day. After more than two decades in the highly-sensitive fields of explosives, armour and information systems, in December Endersby – a physicist – became the public face of one of the government’s most well-known and trusted institutions.

Overnight, people across the country wanted to know who she was. And suddenly they could, from the biographies hastily spun together by news outlets keen to announce the Met Office’s first female chief executive.

That wasn’t all. “The day after my appointment was announced, I went into work and someone told me I had a Wikipedia page. I thought they were kidding,” Endersby says. She suspects the credit goes to a group of editors working to increase the number of professional women on the site.

“Given there was very little about me in the public domain, they’d done a really good job on scrambling through every conference I’d ever presented at, reading the bio and putting together something that was quite accurate – but it took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t mentally prepped for that in the way I was for being a leader of a large organisation.”

Not that Endersby seems to be someone who prefers life in the shadows. Before the interview is over, she’s shared that it’s her birthday and that she has just spent a few days tramping over Dartmoor to celebrate. Her perfect day off, she says, “is to put a flask of coffee and a piece of cake in a rucksack and go and walk around a nature reserve on my own”. She documents her walks on Twitter – where she refers to herself as an “actual living scientist” – with photos and joyful descriptions of local fauna.

The same enthusiasm tumbles out when she talks about her new workplace. Even before the Met Office’s in-house photographer has finished steering Endersby into position for her pre-interview photos, she is extolling its virtues.

Guiding CSW through the airy lobby of the weather service’s Exeter headquarters, she points out the water feature she loves that runs through the building. Later she’ll say: “One of the joys of being here is I can actually talk about our achievements.”

That’s quite a contrast from her last post at the Ministry of Defence, where she wasn’t encouraged to give many interviews. “My crowning technical achievements [there] are probably not things that you’ll hear about,” she says.

Endersby began her career researching fuel cells for British Gas, before spending 10 years – in her words – “blowing things up” as a researcher for what was then the MoD’s Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment.

There she stayed throughout RARDE’s metamorphosis into the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, becoming a world expert in electric armour before getting her first taste of leadership when she took on her own research team. “I had this epiphany moment where I realised that I could achieve more leading people than I could on my own, and I really enjoyed it – and I was good at it,” she says.

In 2012 she became head of DSTL’s information management department, and then, in 2015, head of cyber and information systems. During her final few months there she was also its acting chief technical officer.

“You don’t get any choice about being a role model. If there aren’t many people to look at, then you are whether you want to be or not”

Endersby’s background meant her arrival at the Met Office marked a departure from her last permanent predecessor’s tenure in more ways than one. Rob Varley – a chartered meteorologist whose more than 30-year career at the Met Office was brought to an abrupt end in March 2018 – was its first homegrown chief exec.

How does Endersby think her own credentials have affected how her staff see her? “Although I’m not a met expert, they know that I can understand what their working life is like and they know what my values are.

“Those 10 years early on [at the MoD] stood me in very good stead to be credible, having walked a mile in those people’s shoes – doing government research with a very defined purpose that ultimately saves lives. That has been warmly welcomed by the community here.”

Endersby says she has never thought more than one job ahead, but that when she was thinking about leaving DSTL she wanted her next job to be a board position. She became a trustee of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, giving her the board experience she knew she’d need to step up.

When the Met Office job opened up, she saw it would allow her to combine the two career tracks she’d been developing – science and leadership – in a field she cared about. “It had absolutely everything I wanted,” she says, later adding: “I’d have been a bit disappointed not to be shortlisted. I could see I was a pretty solid fit.”

She had to go through a “pretty in-depth and strenuous” recruitment process – a written application, interviews, a staff engagement exercise and psychometric testing – while at the same time applying to make her acting CTO role at DSTL permanent, which would have been “plan B”.

The details of Varley’s swift exit are somewhat murky, but it is understood that he was asked to stand down by Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy permanent secretary Alex Chisholm amid concerns over how parts of the organisation were being managed.

“You’re right that there were some governance issues that needed sorting out, in one area of the organisation in particular, and one of the first things I did when I came in was to satisfy myself that those were resolved,” Endersby says when asked about it.

She is keen to highlight the “long interregnum” of nine months in which Nick Jobling, the Met Office’s deputy chief executive, took on the top job. It was he who was tasked with addressing what had gone on before in a way that would satisfy the organisation’s owners, BEIS.

The hangover from Varley’s departure was compounded by a round of redundancies that followed several years of funding constraints – the organisation’s headcount fell by about 8% between 2016 and 2018. “That’s never the jolliest time for any organisation and that affects all the staff, whether they stay or whether they go,” Endersby says.

“It has been quite a wearing period, particularly on my leadership team, and I’m conscious that some of them are quite tired. I’m full of energy and raring to go, but I need to be conscious of their wellbeing.”

What were the governance issues during that period? “I think probably it’s time we moved on from those now,” she says. “Everybody’s ready for a fresh start.”

She has plenty to move on to. Endersby has just begun work on refreshing the Met Office’s strategy after what she calls a “period of exploration”. This time next year, she says, “I would like us to have a clear set of priorities that all our staff can understand, because we have quite a complicated organisation with a lot of competing things we could do. Sometimes we try to do them all when we don’t quite have the resource.”

She will need to make the case for funding in the upcoming Spending Review and beyond. Among other things, she is working to secure the capital spending to replace the Met Office’s supercomputer, which will reach the end of its life around 2021.

The agency must also deal with the so-called death of Moore’s Law – which states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years while the costs are halved, and has historically meant that with every replacement, its supercomputers have become 10 times as powerful in the same amount of space. After half a century as the electronics industry’s golden rule, Moore’s Law is no longer reliable. “That’s a really interesting technological shift for us to get to grips with: how else are we going to build our accuracy? Will it be through artificial intelligence, or some other means?”

Meanwhile, the amount of available climate data is growing, so meteorologists will need to be strategic about deciding what to use. The Met Office’s analysis is used not only to inform public weather reporting, but to help other services and government agencies. When there’s a risk of frost, it tells Highways England where it should grit roads; when fog is approaching, it lets airports know. Scientific modelling might not always show whether frost will form, as half a degree can make the difference, but Endersby explains: “We can articulate that risk in a way that is useful for people so they can still make decisions – whereas shrugging your shoulders and going, ‘It’s there or thereabouts’ is not helpful.”

Ensuring the Met Office has the skills to make its forecasting ever more accurate will therefore be a core priority in the forthcoming strategy. “In a high-tech organisation, you live or die by your ability to do innovative things and to stay at the leading edge – and as with many organisations, we probably aren’t drawing on the full talent base that we could,” Endersby says.

She’s talking about diversity. Women account for around a third of Met Office staff. That’s “not bad at all” for a physical sciences organisation, she notes, but she adds that it could be better – especially in senior and technical roles, where the proportion is lower.

And progress has been slower on other areas of diversity. “I was a bit startled by what a white organisation it was, especially given many ethnic minority students favour technical degrees, so there isn’t the same excuse as there is with women, namely that the pipeline isn’t there.” She says BAME staff reported being happier and more engaged than their white colleagues in the agency’s last internal survey, but that recruitment needs to be wider.

“In a high-tech organisation, you live or die by your ability to do innovative things and to stay at the leading edge”

One reason she suggests for the Met Office’s low level of BAME representation is that its science, technology, engineering and maths outreach programme has been focused locally – around 93% of Exeter’s population is white. Recently the programme has moved into more diverse areas.

Endersby has worked in male-dominated fields for her entire career. In the early years, she “just took things as they were”. But she adds: “I have realised long since that you don’t get any choice about being a role model. If there aren’t many people [who look like you] to look at, then you are [a role model] whether you want to be or not.”

Since then, she has mentored female scientists she hopes will follow her up the career ladder. One of her proudest achievements at DSTL was her work on gender equality, particularly on encouraging women into senior technical posts through a structured mentoring programme. Her team was shortlisted for the diversity and inclusion award in the 2016 Civil Service Awards.

Endersby says she’ll push for a diverse workforce at the Met Office, encompassing a range of protected characteristics, social backgrounds and thinking styles. She believes this commitment, and her track record, helped her secure her current role.

She hadn’t realised when she took the job that she was the first woman to do so. With the meteorologist Dame Julia Slingo having been the Met Office’s chief scientist until 2016, she says, “I hadn’t particularly thought of it as an area where there weren’t senior women.”

If Endersby’s own forecasting skills are up to snuff, the Met Office will take on a more public-facing role on climate issues over the next few years as people become more concerned about global warming. Last November, it published the UK Climate Projections 2018, looking at potential changes to sea levels, temperatures and weather patterns. The first major update to the UK’s national climate change projections for nearly a decade, it quickly gained traction in the media and continues to be cited often.

Launching the report, environment secretary Michael Gove said it would “equip government, business and other interested parties to assess the challenges and opportunities we face from our changing climate”. The Met Office is now conducting outreach events to help businesses prepare for the climate-related challenges ahead – challenges including the projection that every area of the UK will be warmer by the end of the century.

But there are questions it can’t yet answer. “People want more certainty than we can give, both on how much the world is going to warm and what difference it will make,” Endersby says. “And when there’s a drought or a flood, they want us to put a finger on it and go, that was definitely a changing climate. At the moment, we can we say things like last summer’s heat wave was 30 times more likely to happen than it would have been in a pre-industrial climates. But we can’t tell you that that particular heat wave definitely couldn’t have happened in 1900.”

Is it frustrating, when faced with people who are so certain that climate change doesn’t exist, not to be able to be more definitive? She answers carefully. “As a responsible scientist, never mind a responsible scientific civil servant, you have to make sure that you are grounded in fact.”

She adds: “When I was an armourer, our military clients wanted us to answer questions like ‘Can I definitely drive that tank through there and know that I’m safe?’” But those weren’t simple questions to answer. Instead, she would explain with percentages, caveats and conditions.

It is this commitment to scientific rigour that makes the Met Office such a trusted institution, Endersby says – 82% of the public trust the weather service, according to its website. She intends to keep it that way.

About the author

Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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