Professor Judith Rees

is the current president of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). She talks to Olivia Edward about what initially drew her to geography and what she hopes to achieve during her three-year term
I became interested in geography because I had a really inspiring teacher 
at my grammar school. I had always 
been reasonably good at geography, 
but he was absolutely great and very enthusiastic. I had never been very good at subjects such as French where you had to learn and recite things, but as soon as teachers started to explain causes and effects, and how one thing relates to another, I was fascinated. I think thatís what draws me to geography; itís about interrelationships and patterns and how things work out over space.

I chose the London School of Economics primarily because it allowed me to combine geography with economics and other social sciences and also, if Iím strictly honest, because it was one of the few places not to require Latin, at which I was totally hopeless. Itís a rather special place and Iíve returned to it throughout my career. The department isnít a conventional geography department; it contains people from other backgrounds, and communication with other departments is encouraged. I think you have to look 
at issues from other disciplines, too, and geography is so enjoyable because of its links to other subjects.

I grew up in the East Midlands and came from a family of people who hadnít gone to university so I didnít envision going 
on to become a professor. But after graduation, I saw academia stretching 
out in front of me like a set of hurdles.

I started off as an economic geographer interested in industry and why it chose to locate in certain places, and moved into the water sector partly because it seemed to present the next interesting set of questions. That led to work in water metering, pricing and demand forecasting, and then you couldnít just teach water, so I became interested in the economics and politics of resource allocation, which led 
to environmental resources and climate change. I see it as an evolution.

One of the things Iíve not been interested in doing is research purely for its own sake; Iíve always been interested in the applied and policy dimensions. Whatever you find out or recommend from your research, you have to realise that thereís 
a political and Ė very often Ė short-term reality. But by understanding the political realities, you have a better chance of influencing whatís going on. And I think itís important that we address policy issues.

Geography has changed enormously since I studied it at undergraduate level, and itís changing all the time. It has been subject to some fashions; there was a quantitative period during the 1960s and early í70s, and then the emphasis turned to cultural geography. But geography is a very broad church, and I hope that some of the quantitative skills will return.

I didnít feel that I could refuse the 
Society presidency. Iím a geographer, 
and Iím female, and after more than 180 years, I thought it was probably time the Society had a female president. And the Society has had relatively few academic presidents Ė around six at my last count Ė 
so I felt that was quite important, too.

Iím no Michael Palin and I told the 
Society that if they wanted a figure who would be comfortable hosting fundraising events all over the world, that probably wasnít me. But I feel I have different skills and experiences that I thought could be useful. This is a period in which education is subject to an enormous amount of change by government, right from junior schools onwards, and I thought that was something I could help with.

I also want to ensure that the Society, 
and geography in general, are engaging with the key policy debates of our time, both in terms of influencing public policy and stirring up public debate. There are lots of issues I think the Society should be involved in, such as the current financial crisis. There is a geography to that 
crisis and its implications. Those are the questions I think we should be looking at, ideally in conjunction with some of the other learned societies. And the RGS-IBG is a very respected brand, considered to be respectable, independent and neutral, so it has quite a bit of convening power.

I also want to encourage geographers to play a greater role in public life. Geographers have much to contribute and can make a difference in ways that they might not have thought of. For example, I was on the Competition Commission as a geographer, and Iím 
on the UN Secretary-Generalís Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation, which works to push governments to meet 
the Millennium Development Goals. Economists assume that they can join these bodies, but geographers by and large donít. They should and they have 
a distinctive contribution to make.

CV
1944 Born in Nottingham
1955Ė62 Attended Bilborough Grammar School, Nottingham
1965 BSc (Econ), London School
of Economics (LSE)
1968 MPhil, University of London
1978 PhD, University of London
1969Ė89 Lecturer in geography, LSE
1989Ė95 Dean of geography and pro- vice chancellor, University of Hull
1996Ė2009 Head of geography and deputy director, LSE
2005 Awarded CBE
2008Ėpresent Director of Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, LSE, and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy
2011Ė12 Interim director, LSE

February 2013