Dr Lew Watts

Doctor of Science

Friday 15 July 2016 at 4 pm - Orator: Professor Nick Lieven

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor

‘We step out on the floor, the music starts on cue, you said you thought it cute the way I slid out through the door’

Perhaps this is not the most likely pronouncement from one of the world’s most eminent geologists.  Lew Watts’ passion for tango and his resulting poetic works sometimes subsumes his undoubted global leadership in geology. This is in many respects a reflection on a career which has moved from an inauspicious start in Splott in South Wales, adjacent to the steel works, or, as Lew describes it, Splott is perhaps the most onomatopoeic place on the planet.  

Life was difficult for Lew at Cardiff High School, spending months in hospital subject to the treatment he received from other Splott-boys, perhaps explaining why he developed an early passion for caving to escape the environment. These subterranean surroundings led him to the natural aspiration of wanting to read geology at Bristol, starting with a combination of geology, geography and zoology.  He joined Bristol because, as he put it, it was the number one place in geology - and it was also not London.

He clearly flourished at Bristol, enjoying his time here by working and playing hard, although we are hugely grateful that his efforts to sell the Wills Memorial Building as an undergraduate did not come to fruition.  He also perhaps didn’t distinguish himself by being discovered by a Professor-led posse hiding under a car subject to the influence of rum and blackcurrent after a particularly entertaining evening during a field trip to Church Stretton, but perhaps we should move on swiftly, as I know there are more stories like that.

However, his academic studies flourished at Bristol and Lew describes being inspired by the fabulous teacher Brian Williams, known as BPJ Williams, who was a junior lecturer in Geology at Bristol at the time. Clearly Lew had a natural flair for the subject—as he says, it just clicked—earning a first-class honours degree.  

He clearly had enjoyed his studies so much that he decided to embark on a PhD. He does provide the alternate reason as being because he couldn’t really think of a proper job. Speaking to Brian Williams, his response to Lew’s request to stay at Bristol was ‘I don’t want you, go somewhere else’.  This was meant in a kindly way that Lew needed to broaden his horizons. 

So, he joined JRL Allen at Reading where he continued to flourish academically completing his PhD at the ripe old age of 23.  At this point, driven by cashflow concerns, Lew decided that academia was not a future career for him and he joined Shell at their research labs in Rijswijk, Holland, and was enthused by the aspiration of the company.  On one occasion he asked if he could test 10 samples, the response came back ‘why not a thousand’.  

Under this encouragement and vote of confidence, Lew moved swiftly through the ranks of Shell spending time in Norway and then in his early thirties was moved to Oman where he became senior geologist in “Petroluem Development Oman” just as the Emirate was looking to open up the south of the country.  He was tasked with creating a 25 year plan for the whole of south Oman, leading a team of 20 people.  

Again this activity was recognised by the company as he was hauled back to the Netherlands at short notice to be trained as an economist freely admitting he knew nothing about economics.  Having turned his hand to this he became senior economist for the Far East — later, as global head of upstream strategy, he had economics reporting into him.

He then moved to Nigeria for “4 years, 365 days” – I’m sure there is a story there – where he was ultimately responsible for a large organisation and several thousand contract staff.  Not content with just Nigeria, he became head of all gas and power in Africa and South America, brokering multibillion dollar deals. Perhaps for another day, but some of his most interesting times were liaising with Shell’s partner Enron, on which he says all the stories you have heard are true.  His words not mine.

At this point Lew’s life became more interesting.  He decided to leave Shell and moved to the US to join Halliburton Energy Services on their executive committee, responsible for all R&D, business development, strategy, and the 50 largest projects.  It is also around this time that he recognised that he was perhaps the world’s worst dancer and as he says ‘trust me on this’.  

Hence, the book on learning the tango, available on Amazon. This book followed 15 years writing and publishing poems in Europe and the US.  He learnt the tango to surprise his wife Roxanne who we welcome here today as well.  

They first met in 1999 and, to quote Lew verbatim, when he danced the band stopped playing –“for all the wrong reasons”.  Science is enormously grateful that he continued his work in geology.

Returning to the plot:  whilst Lew was Chief Executive of the global energy consultancy PFC Energy he was invited to join the World Bank’s external climate change panel to advise on the global energy policy framed within the emerging concerns around climate change.  He was invited as the only industrialist amongst a panel of academics and was eventually asked to chair this group and thus led the World Bank panel on climate change.  

It is not surprising therefore that he still continues to chair three corporate boards and is a member of the governing board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which you may like to look up—he becomes Vice Chair at the end of the year.  

The ‘Bulletin’, formed by concerned Mahattan project scientists, boasts 15 Nobel Laureates on its board of Sponsors and exists to warn the world on man-made existential threats.  It now leads policy and advice on nuclear proliferation, climate change, cyber security and emerging bio-related threats - the grand challenges of modern society.  Thus Lew still has plenty of challenges ahead of him.

In between this frantic level of activity of chairing company boards, advising governments on global security challenges and dancing the tango, he has still found time to contribute to the university giving last year’s convocation lecture on the global opportunities and risks of shale, including a balanced and thoughtful account of the risks and appropriate opportunities in the contentious area of fracking.  

A packed audience hung on his every word. Thus, there can be no geologist at Bristol whom we would want to represent our values as a graduate of this university.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I therefore propose Neil Lewis Watts, geologist, caver, tanguero, global policy leader and—in October this year—novelist, as eminently worthy of the degree of doctor of science honoris causa.

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