Professor Keith Beven

Doctor of Science

Wednesday 22 July 2015 at 2.30pm - Orator: Professor Jim Freer

Madam Chancellor,

Ladies and gentlemen, a quotation to start:

‘Arguably the worlds most cited hydrologist’, that was the opening line from the president of the American Geophysical Union when introducing today’s honorary graduand. The occasion was receiving the Horton Medal in 2012 for ‘outstanding contributions to hydrology’. After a glowing introduction our graduand, Distinguished Professor Keith Beven, reached the stage, and in his inevitable style and with a look of surprise said ‘Wow, was that me!’

Today, for this speech, I want you the audience to take ‘as read’ that Keith is simply the ‘greatest thought leader’ in modern hydrology and that this is the reason he has won many international awards and accolades. That his huge number of outputs are very highly regarded, many are game changers. That he has, as one eminent scientist stated, ‘an unusually rich’ portfolio of research in hydrology theory, experimentation and application. That he has written textbooks for students that are used around the world and raised the bar of what was available. To explain all these contributions, would be impossible here, and for the majority of you, perhaps a little dry! So instead I want to highlight some reasons why I think Keith is an exemplary scientist. In the process I hope to give you an insight to Keith the person and why I believe he is an inspirational individual that we can all learn from.

For example when first accepting today’s award Keith noted to me, ‘Jim, put some humour into it’. A nod perhaps to his general standpoint of typically avoiding more formal events. Keith hasn’t got to where he is today by playing academic politics and shaking the right hands, quite the opposite in fact. Simply his portfolio of research has been impossible to ignore and as he stated in an award response, ‘I will happily admit to often playing the devils advocate’. I suggest this is a good thing, but only if done well, and with the intellectual credibility Keith achieves.

He also said he was greatly honoured by todays recognition and Bristol is very fitting because Keith graduated in Geography here back in 1971. However this is the first time he has been in this great hall; he was on top of a mountain in Norway when the rest of his cohort graduated that year. Even more timely as this is also the month that Keith officially retires, but I am not sure anyone in hydrology has noticed a slow down. Keith suggests he does plan to retire in some sense; I remain sceptical, I think he still has much to offer our discipline. His love of photography, in which he is very skilled, might well take up more of his time – I certainly hope so.

Keith’s passion for watery things started early. He recalled a story of a very wet Lake District youth hostelling family holiday when he was about 12. Going over Greenup Edge from Grasmere to Borrowdale was particularly wet. Groups of walkers were helping each other to cross, as small streams had become raging torrents. Keith said there is a photo at the end of the day with me in one corner of a big group with a great big smile.  My mother, on the other hand, he said, never went youth hostelling again!

Keith’s often-used opening catch phrase, when first presenting what was to become his world leading approaches and philosophical arguments to the need for uncertainty evaluation in computer model simulations, and in the vein of Monty Python was, ‘And now for something completely different’. That ladies and gentlemen is exactly what you got. There are very few scientists in my view who can truly state the intellectual developments they are pushing were so completely different that they started a paradigm shift in hydrological thinking at the time.

Keith is also extremely gracious to others, he’s always the first to acknowledge the contributions of colleagues, particularly when they seem too greatly attributed to him.  A good example of this was in his acceptance speech for his Dalton medal award from the European Geophysical Union. He reminded the audience that it was his mentor Mike Kirkby who originally thought up the topographic index concept that his name had become more attributed with. A concept used in one of the most widely applied hydrological models in the world, that Keith also developed with Mike.

At a time in Keith’s career where many would focus on cementing their own place in the history books, he showed his great respect for the history and development of the discipline of hydrology. Keith spent a precious sabbatical exploring the large archives of notes from American hydrologist Robert Horton housed in the Smithsonian Institute. Horton, considered by many to be the father of modern hydrology died in 1945. Keith catalogued and reported a number of new findings and insights from Horton’s work previously undiscovered. In the process he gained the great respect of many scientists for this selfless scholarly endeavour honouring a scientist he greatly admired.

As a mentor, Keith significantly improved many student’s intellectual development and curiosity, including mine. He balanced the expectation to achieve results with the fact he always had time for us no matter how busy he was. As one friend said, Keith pushed but ‘just enough’ even though after appropriate critique of their latest research some apparently required a stiff gin and tonic in the evening to recover. He used to mark all our draft paper errors with a joke ‘1 pint beer penalty’, as Keith isn’t much of a drinker, I am sure he’s still owed many for his retirement. Another colleague noted they used to sing songs as they headed to face the next intellectual onslaught to keep their spirits up. A couple of favourites being a parody of Led Zepplin’s ‘Stairway to Beven’ and ‘Knock Knock Knockin’ on Beven’s door’. We all grew intellectually under Keith’s guidance, many of his ex-students have forged impressive careers since, and some themselves are award recipients.

Keith is probably, in fact highly likely, blissfully unaware of his skills as a potential matchmaker. One colleague said that there was such a wow factor that her future husband worked with Keith it helped convince her to have a first date with him! But seriously, back then we never fully realized the wow factor Keith was developing internationally. He has never made himself in any way unapproachable or superior no matter his intellectual reputation.

Keith also gets his hands dirty. I remember him toiling away just as hard as the postdocs and PhD students on a project digging a trench for a new hillslope experiment in Georgia, USA. You will also see Keith at meetings happily chatting to many a young scientist, helping them with their enquiry and engaged in thoughtful discussion. He provides a number of summer schools for younger scientists, one that has been over subscribed for years on uncertainty evaluation and gains great praise from attendees. Many formal addresses that introduce Keith have phrases such as ‘unselfish’, ‘humble’, and ‘modest’. To be so on top of your game intellectually, and highly respected and yet so approachable, down to earth, to not mind a bit of banter and be someone who mucks in, is a rare thing.

Ladies and gentlemen. I, and many of the colleagues I have contacted, have benefitted greatly from Keith’s wisdom, knowledge, enthusiasm and friendship. They all, without question, speak very highly of him. I certainly wouldn’t advise you all here today, particularly those continuing in academic research related to physical geography, to read all Keith’s papers as one eminent introducer suggested recently. As Keith himself then replied, that would clearly take far too long! But I would advise you to consider the essence of what I see as Keith’s beliefs in his pursuit of scientific knowledge and understanding as a scholar:

Never think you have stopped learning – Keith still says he is a student of hydrology; be true to your beliefs and believe in what you publish; think differently and don’t shy away from controversy; be prepared to question the status quo; have time to discuss your research and engage with younger scientists; and respect the scientific developments of the scholars that came before you.

Madam Chancellor, It is therefore my great pleasure and high privilege as a colleague and as a friend, to present to you Distinguished Professor Keith Beven as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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