Smith Family Educational Foundation
The Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment was founded in 2008 with a grant from the Smith Family Educational Foundation.
Sir Martin Smith, Founding Benefactor of the Smith School in conversation with the Smith School.
It was his children, Katie, and especially Jeremy, who persuaded him that the School was the big philanthropic project the Smith family had been seeking.
Martin and his wife Elise had already made significant contributions to science and the arts, as founding supporters of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and creators of the Smith Centre at the Science Museum, opened by the Queen in October 2006.
But those ventures, and others such as Martin’s chairmanship of the English National Opera, his involvement with the Royal Academy of Music and the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, and the formation by Elise of a period instrument collection at the Royal Academy of Music, were not enough.
“We always had the idea that we would like to do one major philanthropic project if we could find it,” Martin says.
“But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think we expected it would be in the environmental field. We were attuned to this whole idea by our children, but like all the best things in life, it actually happened by chance.
“I had the idea that the restructuring of Templeton College in Oxford four years ago might be an opportunity to create the first environmental college in Oxford and Cambridge. But what came out of my research was the realisation that the big opportunity was not simply to create an environmental college but to create an institution that linked the whole environmental issue to the people who were most likely to be able to do something about it – the public and private sectors, or in other words governments and NGOs, corporations and private individuals.”
And so two years later, with the strong support of Oxford’s then Vice-Chancellor, Dr John Hood, the Smith School opened for business as a new University department, headed by Professor Sir David King who had just completed a seven year term as the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor.
Martin Smith completed a degree in physics at Oxford University in 1964, returning to education after a five-year stint with Guinness’s in Dublin to study business and economics at Stanford University in California. It was there that he met his American wife Elise. He then worked for the management consultancy McKinsey for two years before beginning his 25-year career in investment banking. But with time, and particularly recently, he has become increasingly aware of how much men is taking from the environment without giving a great deal back.
“I was conscious of the fact we were living in a wasteful world and, having a scientific background, I was aware that the scientific community was becoming increasingly convinced that rising levels of manmade carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were going to lead to global warming.
So I was on my way to being converted, but as soon as I started studying the subject seriously, I began to see that here was an opportunity to do our major project in an area that is perhaps the most important issue facing the human race today. I felt it was a chance not to be missed.”
At the outset, the location of the Smith School was up for grabs. “In theory it could have been any major university in Europe or America. We were strongly inclined to do it in the UK rather than the States not least because at that time, the US position on climate change under President Bush made it difficult for an American University to have the international credibility the project needed.
“And once we had decided it was the UK, it was really Oxford, Cambridge or London but there were still two more things we needed. First, we were sure the School had to be near to a first class business school (the Smith School is a stone’s throw from the university’s Saïd Business School).
And secondly, we felt that as the environment is in effect the ultimate multi-disciplinary subject, it was very important to be in a university that was highly integrated and where it would be possible to pull together people from physics or law, economics or business, or any of the major academic disciplines to work on these problems. But I wouldn’t deny there was an element of sentiment in the decision as well!”
Martin Smith is sure his choice of Oxford was the right one because of its range of academic excellence, demonstrated by the extent to which Sir David King has been able to pull together those interests. Proof lies in the School’s impressive array of more than 60 associate academics in the environmental field, spread across the university.
“The associate programme is in my view the most convincing evidence that Oxford was the right choice,” Martin says. “That’s not to say the School couldn’t have been established elsewhere, but it certainly has worked incredibly well at Oxford.”
The Saïd Business School was established more than 10 years ago and the university’s Environmental Change Institute is also located close to the Smith School in central Oxford, providing world class research and teaching to students of the environment and other areas of study. So why was the Smith School needed at all?
“Firstly, we wanted an organisation dedicated to acting as a hub linking all academic disciplines. Prior to our arrival, many of the people involved in environmental studies at Oxford hadn’t met each other and didn’t know what each other was doing, so the hub role is already proving to be very valuable. And to ensure that the School itself is fully integrated, we established as a principle from the outset that every academic at the School be formally linked back to the department of their own underlying discipline.
The second point was our commitment to linking the work of the university, in a very solutions-orientated way, to major players outside Oxford – corporations, government departments, NGOs and so on. In that sense what we wanted to do was to create a franchise of those external organisations supporting the School and, through the School, other parts of the university as well.
And thirdly we wanted a School that was committed to teaching. We are still at a very early stage with this but it seems to me that it really is not acceptable for anyone to go through a major university these days and come out without at least a basic grounding in the facts of the science of climate change, the consequences of it and the broader environmental issues arising there from. That is an important part of the School’s commitment.”
The Smith School does not have its own students but does offer its teaching expertise to other university departments. Martin Smith believes that it is essential to instil an environmental consciousness in all of us if we are to successfully tackle climate change. “But I suspect there’s a much greater awareness of green issues in the younger generation than there is in my own, and much greater acceptance of the problem. Part of the difficulty is that these are complex issues which are science based, and as a society we are not used to making cultural changes on the basis of what scientists say. Secondly, we are dealing with issues whose full impact will only be felt over quite a long time horizon. They don’t have the immediacy of a financial crisis or a war but over time they have the potential to be of much greater importance than either of those.”
Things are changing, however, with media coverage of environmental issues spiralling and the interest of politicians increasing. “It has crept up on us and now there is almost an explosion in coverage. But perhaps most importantly we have leaders out there in major corporations and governments, people in positions of real authority, who have accepted that climate change is a problem and are beginning to take action, not just talking about it. That leadership is inevitably going to percolate down to the man in the street.”
Martin foresees the Smith School becoming one of many research and teaching institutions all over the world focused on environmental issues and influencing private and public sector decisions.
“I hope that in due course there will be a cadre of Oxford graduates around the world in leadership positions who will have been exposed to these subjects at our School. As the leaders of tomorrow they will begin to change the culture.
“It’s important we don’t think of the Smith School as being the only initiative of its kind. I hope and believe you will see more and more institutions like ours developing in the great American universities and in Europe and the Far East. We definitely want to lead the field but we don’t want to be out there by ourselves.”
Among Sir David King’s aims is to establish strong links with Harvard and Yale universities in the US and other major institutions across the globe. “America is rapidly developing a green consciousness. In one sense it is capitalism that has got us into this difficulty and so capitalism, supported by appropriate government intervention, is going to be the ultimate driver that gets us out of it,”
Martin Smith says. “In effect we are looking at a whole new industrial revolution.
“More and more people can see that change is inevitable and will therefore start adapting their companies or creating new companies to take advantage of the opportunities this change is going to produce.”
“The election of Obama is already beginning to release those energies in the US. The formation of new environmentally-orientated companies in Boston and Silicon Valley is accelerating at a phenomenal rate, encouraged in part by the fact that the administration is now taking a much more constructive view. I think we all feel that Obama is very sincere about this topic and that he’s a pretty determined figure, and so over time this will permeate through society as a whole.”
Martin Smith says he is “amazed” at the achievements of the Smith School in its first year. “Looking back at the research and publications in major journals, at the seminars and lectures, at the sheer quality and number of academics the School has attracted, all culminating in the World Forum in July, which itself was a stunning achievement, we really are off to a flying start.”