Sarah Sharples

‘You can absolutely think of transport as an enabler’: Sarah Sharples, chief scientific adviser, Department for Transport

Image credit: Nick Smith

Department for Transport chief scientific adviser, Professor Sarah Sharples admits that her constant questioning of how she could design things better drives her family nuts, but she will find it useful in guiding the UK government to deliver a more environmentally friendly transport policy.

When it comes to the UK’s transport system, “we’ve got some really big and important decisions to make”, says Professor Sarah Sharples. “Some of those decisions might be about which of the number of alternative solutions that are out there are the best to help us on the path to decarbonisation – a path I think we are all aware that we need to progress through.”

Sharples, who is chief scientific adviser (CSA) for the UK’s Department for Transport, is referring to the recently published plan for transport decarbonisation, a term that Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps has gone on record as saying is “a dull way of describing something much more exciting”. If Shapps’s choice of vocabulary is perhaps unfortunate, Sharples is nothing but upbeat: “It is the articulation of where we need to get to if we are to meet our transport decarbonisation challenges that are extremely important to us in our fight against climate change.” Looking at the issue from the perspective of CSA, Sharples is clear that “what’s needed is the right research that answers the right questions at the right time”.

She pauses to give an example relating to zero-emission vehicles, saying the questions currently in the air centre on “how we make this happen on a national scale. We know that it is possible to purchase zero-emission vehicles. We know that the charging technology is available. What we need to understand is how this plays out in practice within the vast range of settings we see in the UK. What we really need to address is to make sure that we have the answers to the more difficult questions about how we can move from a proven technology – that still needs to develop – into the practical reality that makes it viable for the UK’s population.”

Staying with the topic of decarbonisation, Sharples says “we know that there are also challenges in terms of rail electrification. We know that it costs a lot to electrify railways, but we also know that in order to modernise and decarbonise our railways, the right solution is to move away from a reliance on diesel.”

She explains that part of the role of the CSA is to frame questions in such a way that “they are at the right scale and level of detail that will allow research communities – very often a combination of industrial and academic partners who might take things forward to innovation – to respond. It’s important that we get those questions right so we enable the people out there with brilliant ideas to be able to test them. A lot of the work that the department funds is competitions and design challenges or opportunities to test. But we don’t say: ‘this is what we want, and you must deliver it’. It’s not a service delivery. Instead, we say: ‘this is our challenge, and we’d like to hear what you as technical and academic experts come back with that helps us to make decisions’.”

While CSAs are in place to assist government with tackling hard questions, they are also finding themselves under greater public scrutiny as their roles become more visible. The proliferation of televised press conferences laying out the UK government’s response to the Covid-19 public health crisis over the past 18 months has meant that scientists such as government CSA Sir Patrick Vallance have moved out of the relative anonymity of their profession and into the media spotlight.

Sharples sees this as a positive outcome for roles that exist in part effectively to provide checks and balances. “One of the things Covid has demonstrated is the important role that science can hold in informing policy. We need to build on that and use that momentum to engage the public in conversations about science. A key challenge here is when the evidence is complex or uncertain. The more we can do to make sure that all understand what evidence means, and how we can use it to inform decisions, the better. The CSAs have an important role in that.”

‘Covid has demonstrated the important role that science can hold in informing policy’.

Sarah Sharples

Based at the University of Nottingham where she is Professor of Human Factors in the Faculty of Engineering, Sharples accepts that the UK’s transport system can be an emotive subject. While she becomes almost poetic about the beauty of the coastal landscapes that the road network gives the public access to, as well as the grandeur of the architecture that goes with the expansion of the railways during the reign of Queen Victoria, when it comes to obvious environmental pressure points such as heavily congested motorways, she explains her position in terms of her academic career expertise: human factors. “One of the things I am passionate about is recognising the part people play in the system. We recognise that people will have feelings, behaviours and views that will play out in the choices they make as to how they travel.”

Switching hats, she says that as CSA one of her responsibilities is to make sure that “research isn’t blind to the human factors aspect of the way in which we deliver future transport”. I try again to get Sharples to react to my assertion that transport creates ecological stresses by suggesting that if the 18th-century pictorial satirist William Hogarth were alive today, he might not be so much concerned with ‘Gin Lane’ as with ‘Dartford Crossing’.

“It’s important to understand what transport is there for and why we travel,” she says. “We usually travel for a purpose rather than for the sake of travel itself. Transport is there as a service to enable us to live our lives in society. It’s there from an economic point of view to deliver the best possible outcomes for the country. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges for the CSA for the Department for Transport, because a lot of the value of transport is seen out in other parts of society.” She goes on to say that one of the “most valuable” aspects of the transport system is that it “allows people to access a healthy way of life, access healthcare, access leisure facilities. It also gives them access to work that gives them a standard of living that enables them to have positive health outcomes. So, you can absolutely think of transport as an enabler.” It is also, she finally admits, “a major contributor to UK carbon emissions”. The figures for this are in the public domain, published in the 216-page government document ‘Decarbonising transport: a better, greener Britain’. That, says Sharples, “is why it is so important we address the different transport solutions that are out there, and think: ‘what do we need to do to influence how, when and why people travel?’”.

This last question is central to delivering a sustainable transport model for the UK, and for Sharples one of the key pillars of this is inevitably human factors, a field of engineering in which she is an acknowledged world expert. She is forthright in her defence of human factors (“in the UK the term is interchangeable with ergonomics”) as an aspect of engineering (“our department here at the University of Nottingham is in the Faculty of Engineering”) and disapproves robustly when I suggest that there might be readers out there who think of human factors as a ‘soft’ science or skill. “The way I explain human factors is that people have capabilities and limitations. Our job as human factors experts is to maximise the impact of these capabilities and minimise the impact of these limitations.” The discipline of ergonomics (the term is derived from the Greek words for ‘work’ and ‘natural law’) has evolved to incorporate this knowledge of capabilities and limitations into the design of systems and technologies. Relatively new, the science was formalised and given its name in 1949 at a meeting of distinguished (“all men”) physiologists and psychologists at The Admiralty.

According to Sharples, this historic conference went on to become the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (of which Sharples is a past president). Since that initial meeting, “the world of ergonomics and human factors has evolved significantly, especially over the past 20 years”, to plug a gap that existed somewhere between physiology, psychology, engineering, design, sociology and anthropology. Drawing on experiences of pilots during the Second World War, the new ergonomists could see that there was a need to better understand the way they responded to aircraft cockpit displays, which led to analysis of better designing work situations “to meet the needs of people. One of the philosophies is to think about the whole system that a human works with.”
While the lay person might only associate the term with chair comfort or workspace layout (‘physical ergonomics’), Sharples’ area of expertise within the discipline is cognitive ergonomics, which concerns “how we design information, support decision-making, think about workload”.

With degrees, both from the University of Nottingham where she’s been based since 1991, in psychology as well as human factors in manufacturing systems, Sharples has always been well-placed for a career in human factors, and by extension her current role in transport. In the late 1990s her PhD brought her into the world of health-and-safety aspects of virtual-reality technologies. “That was a really interesting opportunity to think about the research we needed to do to inform the guidance on how we implemented virtual-reality technology.”

It was at about this time that the UK’s rail industry started to focus on human factors: “Network Rail, or Railtrack as it was then, should take a lot of credit for a significant insight into the value human factors could bring to its business.” This was highlighted in 1998 by the Ladbroke Grove rail crash. “There were many technologies that were being used in the rail network system to support decision-making,” but the cause of the disaster was that a train passed a signal at danger. “The question was, why did that driver make that error? How can we more effectively design the technologies that drivers, signal controllers and so on interact with to help them make safety-critical decisions in the most appropriate way that takes advantage of human capabilities and manages their limitations?”
The main way in which her experience in the discipline of human factors has influenced Sharples’ current role is that “it teaches you to step back and think ‘why?’ Why has this system worked well? Why has this system not worked well?” She emphasises the importance of analysing positive outcomes because “all too often we focus on when things go wrong, which means that we fail to pay attention to the role people play in making things go right.”

It follows that the first and most important impact her human factors expertise has on her role as CSA is simply “that of all the analytical and decision-making skills I have learned over the past 27 years thinking about the subject. It drives my family nuts, but ergonomists tend to indulge themselves continually with everyday questions such as: ‘how could I design that coffee machine better?’ Second, human factors, as with many other science and engineering disciplines, plays an important role in designing innovation in future transport systems. For example, if you think about air traffic control, we’ve seen modernisation take place over the past few decades, moving from a system that was heavily based on technologies such as paper, to electronic flight strips. Yet it is the users who have played an important part in designing the way these technologies have been implemented.”

Sharples won’t be drawn on what she thinks of the politics that goes with delivering a transport infrastructure. “My job is to provide advice and my advice needs to be based on evidence, and that evidence sometimes has uncertainty associated with it.” At this point she repeats that the role of CSA is to provide advice, pointedly distancing it from policy makers “whose job it is to deliver policy”, further to which, decisions are taken by ministers.

When asked if she finds this structural demarcation of responsibilities challenging, especially in the light of the management of the Covid crisis, where at times the advice provided by CSAs has appeared to have been overlooked by politicians, she says: “Actually I don’t find it challenging at all because it is clear that we are all different parts of an important system.

“I’m comfortable that there may in future be a situation where my advice is not reflected in a decision that is made. That’s because my advice is given from a scientific perspective, while the goal of politicians may be to consider other factors. It’s not a difficult situation at all, because everyone understands what everyone’s job is.”

Sarah Sharples will be chairing a webinar on AI in Transport on 30 November 2021 as part of a series of IET events on 'Responsible AI'.

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