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Jake Whitehead has political ambitions with his research – to contribute to decisions that are of benefit to the environment. (Photo: Christer Gummeson)

Jake mixes science and politics

“Having political ambitions as a researcher could be provocative”

Published May 16, 2012

He is passionate about change and says that the ecological arguments must be more important than the financial with regard to growth. Jake Whitehead is at present working on two doctoral theses at the same time, one at KTH and the other one at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

In 2009, when he chose which European university he wanted to study at, the choice was between KTH, Leeds University and Politecnico di Milano. “These three have the best reputation in Europe with regard to transportation research,” he says.

“I chose KTH because I wanted a greater challenge compared to what an English university would offer. But not quite as much as it would take to learn Italian in order to write a thesis in that language. On some days, the subject is difficult enough in English,” says Jake Whitehead, laughing.

When it was time to take his PhD, the idea of doing it at both KTH and QUT developed. Both theses’ are based on the same question: how to measure the sustainability of our transport systems?

“I hope to establish a framework for measuring and comparing sustainability. This can then be used to compare how various political measures affect the systems in different countries and cities,” he says.

The thesis at QUT focuses on finding and evaluating a number of sustainability indicators by measuring their impact in about 50 countries. Thesis number two, which is being done at KTH, examines the system of road tolls in Stockholm, focusing on the results of exempting environmentally friendly vehicles. He stresses that he is working on both of them at the same time, and the objective is to complete both of them in four years.

“One of the advantages is of course that I will manage to come twice as far in my research over a four-year period. Even if a slightly greater work effort is required,” he says.

Climate compensating for his travels

The reason why there will be two and not one thesis is basically because of financing.

Each university requires that the thesis is linked to them. Even the requirements for the different theses are not the same. At QUT, a thesis for a doctorate may only take three years to complete, but he has been granted an extension. The work at QUT is focused entirely on research and none of the courses required at KTH are present.

“At the same time, the courses at KTH provide me with a lot of knowledge which I can make immediate use of. This gives me the unique opportunity of working with renowned researchers, and I can operate in two completely different places.”

This means that Jake Whitehead flies frequently between Australia and Sweden. Because he is conducting research on sustainability, this issue raises ethical concerns. As the purpose of the research is to reduce other peoples' ecological footprint, he must also reduce his own. He is therefore developing a system to ensure that his theses are climate neutral.

“Last year, my air travel emissions were a little bit less than 20 tons of carbon dioxide. I now have a budget for this year and I hope to reduce it every year, and this not only includes travel but everything that can be measured.

The climate compensation comes from the salary he receives as a doctoral student. The service he is currently using is called Climate Care and directs money, for example, to energy projects in developing countries.

“At the same time I realise, of course, that climate compensation only acts like a plaster protecting a wound and that we must reduce our emissions globally instead.”

Influencing political decisions

In the long term, Jake Whitehead does not only want to carry out research that will form the basis for new political decisions but he also wants to contribute to decision-making, by being politically active.

“Transportation is one of the most important contributory factors to the increase in greenhouse gases. If we can encourage people to make better choices with regard to transportation, my hope is that they will make other similar choices in life. This also provides my political momentum,” he says.

There are indicators within the framework that he is building that reveal a very open attitude to change. This includes measurements of values such as wisdom, social interaction and societal relationships.

“Certainly, these are difficult to measure, but in that way I am broadening the concept of sustainability to mean well-being within economic, social and ecological fields,” he says.

He has been inspired by the English professor Tim Jackson, whose report “Welfare without growth” has been widely disseminated.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is to ensure that the improvements we make are not cosmetic but pervasive and reach the heart of the problem,” he says.”

Well-being guides environmental decisions

Today, economic arguments often contradict those that are ecological and almost all the time the economic arguments win, he says.

“But I do not think they should be looked upon separately, but together. We should have a more holistic approach to development, instead of allowing only economic considerations to govern our decisions,” he says.

Some of the “softer” indicators are also starting to gain international recognition. France has its own index of human well-being and the OECD publishes a similar report every year.

“I am trying to be optimistic but I also have a realistic view that we have a long way to go. But the last 5 to 10 years have created an awareness among the vast majority of people and if we can continue along this path, we will have time to put a stop to it,” he says.

Having political ambitions as a researcher may cause problems for some people, he says, and one of his biggest challenges is to remain as objective as possible.

“I have the privilege of being able to surround myself with people with very different opinions. I even have climate sceptics in my network. They help by giving me the criticism and feedback that is needed to take a step back and evaluate where I am heading.

“Waste of taxpayers' money”

Jake Whitehead gives a modest but intense impression. And he does not hesitate to take on more assignments that can produce positive changes. He started, for example, the website “Progressive talks” last year with the objective of it becoming an international meeting place for forward thinking ideas. The thought is that the best ideas would then be forwarded to local politicians in each country.

“So far it has worked mostly as a prototype in which I have tried several different functions. I will now change it so that it becomes more like a social network. The ultimate goal is to create a global network using my own and other people’s networks,” says Jake Whitehead.

Recently, he also started a petition along with three doctoral students from KTH. The aim is that international graduate students will more easily be able to obtain permanent residence in the country.

“Our research is supported financially by Swedish tax revenues so it is a waste not to let us stay in the country and work when we are finished. This is, on the contrary, a unique opportunity to take advantage of highly educated and knowledgeable people.”

He flies back to Australia in August for the next period of work at QUT.

Text: Magnus Trogen