Member Profile: Steve Hall

August 25, 2020

MTS Member and CEO of The Society for Underwater Technology –

I’m Steve Hall, born in the UK. I spent my early years in England, Australia, and eventually Wales where I finished school. Most of the time we lived near the sea, and between long summers on the beach, and growing up watching TV shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, I was always interested in the ocean and particularly the machinery that enabled humans to explore the deep, though I was also very interested in aviation and spaceflight as a child of the Apollo era.

I studied at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) which was later merged with Cardiff University, and read for a Bachelor of Science honours degree in Maritime Geography at the Department of Maritime Studies. Many of my lecturers were mariners, and we learned traditional seamanship skills such as using sextants and the fundamentals of boat handling as part of the course. It was very much aimed at students who wished to work in areas such as hydrographic survey, ports and harbour management, ocean governance, marine resource management, marine policy and law and was great fun, with plenty of fieldwork in small boats. I was also a member of the Royal Naval Reserve undergraduate unit, which gave further opportunities to learn about practical sea-going.

Upon graduation, I worked in the private sector (mostly survey of coastal engineering structures and disused industrial sites) before passing the UK Civil Service entry exam. I was posted to Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, where I specialised in hydrocarbons, working at oil refineries, harbours, and oil fields doing things like supervision of pipelines, checking calibration of oil storage facilities and “collecting and protecting public revenue.” It wasn’t exactly what I’d set out to do in life, but involved working at coastal locations and on ships, and was interesting work with a great team of colleagues where I learned a lot, including the sometimes confrontational aspects of dealing with people suspected of breaking the law, ensuring that they received fair due process, and the follow up legal aspects.

My first managers were skilled, extraordinary people, often ex-HM Armed Forces, Intelligence Corps or similar, and as we worked in compact, expert teams there was a terrific amount of knowledge exchange and passing-on on experience. Very little was written down, we learned the officer’s skills as if we were apprentices to master craftsmen and women. Your supervisor would always take a great deal of interest in you, as often you worked solo. Officers would share experiences and be a source of strength to one another when the officer was away on duty or undertaking a potentially hazardous mission such as investigating drug or arms smuggling.

After nearly four years in Customs my wife saw an advert for jobs at the to-be-opened ‘James Rennell Centre for Ocean Circulation’ – a new research laboratory to support the UK contribution to the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE). Having always wanted to put my maritime degree to use, I applied for the job of WOCE Programme Administrator. I was hired and transferred from HM Customs to the Natural Environment Research Council. My first boss there, Arthur Fisher, quickly ‘taught me the ropes’ – he’d served 35 years as ‘ship’s husband’ responsible for getting research missions underway with diplomatic clearances, logistics and scientific supplies, and before long, I was rostered on board RRS Discovery for my first long-duration voyage in the south-west Indian Ocean in early 1993.

We mobilised the ship in Cape Town and spent the next six weeks in the Roaring Forties and Fearsome Fifties, with 13 metre waves, icebergs, and storms mixed in with days of flat calm. It was a life-changing experience for me. My work was to process seawater samples to look at the content of industry-made Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) dissolved therein. We’d sample deep seawater and after analysis, could tell how long since that parcel of water had last been in contact with the surface, helping us understand the three-dimensional circulation of the ocean basin.

Today some of these parameters can be measured by ‘lab on a chip’ technology but in the 90s this still needed large, bench-top equipment. My boss in tracer chemistry was a remarkable scientist, Dr. Denise Smythe-Wright, one of the first British women to be allowed to work at sea as it used to be men-only for overnights away from base until the 1980s. She taught me a lot, including how to improvise repairs and get the best out of equipment that didn’t want to work at times. She also taught me that calibration and testing matters as much as the actual measurement of the sample.

On my return to shore, senior scientist Dr. Raymond Pollard aligned my work more closely with the science teams. I soon returned to sea on an even longer research cruise and took on the role of schools liaison officer for the laboratory which was great fun. I gave many talks at schools and careers events, even some television and radio work, as I found I could explain complex ocean science concepts to non-expert audiences, maybe because I was not a traditionally-trained scientist through the usual route of Masters and Doctorate – rather I had largely learned through hands-on training.

I started being invited to join committees such as the education committee of the Society for Underwater Technology, eventually becoming the Chair, & became a member of Council of the Challenger Society for Marine Science. When it was time to relocate the James Rennell Centre, with University of Southampton Departments of Oceanography and Geology, Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon Laboratory and Research Vessel Services to the new Southampton Oceanography Centre in 1995, I was asked to serve as the move coordinator, an honour but a big job involving moving several hundred staff, and millions of pounds worth of equipment, to the new site.

I then served as the administrator of the Autosub Science Missions programme, the first UK long-range autonomous underwater vehicle. I did that for five years, by the end of which we’d achieved missions in locations as varied as Scottish Sea Lochs, the Straits of Sicily, and below polar sea-ice. The time with Autosub introduced me to working with US-based engineers and included my first visits to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the US Navy’s Underwater Warfare Center at Newport Rhode Island. The Chair of the scientific steering committee, Sir Anthony Laughton FRS, was one of the living legends of the oceanographic research community and it was a real pleasure to work as his programme secretary – again, learning lots from a highly experienced mentor.

I registered for a part-time Ph.D. where I’d have developed decision support tools from models looking at climate change impacts over small islands and developing states, but in 2006 I was promoted and joined the new National Marine Coordination Office to begin a new chapter in Ocean Policy. I dropped the Ph.D. study as my day-job had moved in a different direction, and spent the next decade gradually absorbing and transferring knowledge about a very wide range of subjects from the science community to decision makers and policy specialists in UK, European, and International governments.

In 2008, I was asked to join the UK delegation to UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) under Trevor Guymer, and I became Head of Delegation in 2013. My time with IOC reinforced my understanding that the world needs to invest in better marine robotics and instrumentation for obtaining cost-effective data from sustained ocean observations.

The IOC meetings were where I first encountered the Marine Technology Society. MTS would sponsor refreshments on one of the first evenings of the bi-annual IOC Assemblies. It was an excellent way to raise the profile of MTS, with over a hundred delegates representing the world’s active ocean research nations all present in one space. By the time I was Head of the UK delegation, the US delegation was led by Craig McLean of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and we quickly established a firm friendship. Through my time with UNESCO IOC, I also met Rick Spinrad and Zdenka Willis.

I wrote a well-received policy paper on UNESCO-IOC’s role in the UN Ocean Governance system and was elected as Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in 2015. That meant that I was also representing the United States and Canada in the United Nations (UN) system, leading to regular visits to Washington, DC and Ottawa. I also took part in the preliminary work at the UN in New York on a new UN system for access to marine genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction. I had also taken on the role of Tsunami Warning national point of contact for the UK and our remaining 14 overseas territories, and in that capacity was able to contribute to the installation of improved warning systems in Anguilla, Turks and Caicos islands, working again with NOAA colleagues.

In 2017, a vacancy arose for a new Chief Executive for the Society for Underwater Technology. I’d served many years in SUT Committees and Special Interest Groups, and on SUT’s managing board, and decided to apply, taking up the role in April 2017. By that point, I had worked 30 years in the public sector and liked the challenge of a new job in an international marine science and technology learned society that is similar in many ways to MTS.

Since joining SUT, I’ve worked hard to get the structures into better shape, control costs, introducing new special interest groups – such as one on defence, and worked with our members to open new branches in the Middle East and Canada. I also became a member of MTS and have been working with the MTS Board Members and leaders on initiatives to help bring our two societies closer together.

I’m still inspired by key individuals who have been valued teachers, mentors and friends – these days I learn constantly from people like Professor Ralph Rayner, David Saul, Council members of SUT, Rick and Zdenka in the MTS family, and of course my very supportive network of family and friends. Throughout the coronavirus lockdown I’ve worked from my home in Wales, learning new skills like the delivery of my weekly ‘Underwater Technology’ podcast for SUT (https://sut.buzzsprout.com).

My full-time working life is likely in its last decade now, but I’m constantly learning, finding joy in discovery of new places and people, and I’m an optimist that our global ocean science community will find ways to reconcile environmental protection with sustainable use of ocean resources.

To someone contemplating working in marine science and technology my advice would be to try and avoid getting into too narrow a specialisation too early – and keep your eyes open to new technologies and concepts from outside the sector. The gap between land, sea, and aerospace technology is getting narrower all the time and the days when a technologist only ever works on a marine system are numbered. In the next 20-30 years we might see autonomous underwater vehicles exploring beneath the ice-covered ocean of Jupiter’s moon Europa, or the ethane ocean of Saturn’s moon Titan – the technology will be a fusion of ocean, space, aviation and artificial intelligence engineering. If you can get a Masters degree or Doctorate go for it – I think I might be the last generation that could rise to senior positions without one, now I wouldn’t even get an interview for some of the jobs I’ve done – employers would expect to see a Ph.D. or at least a Masters degree.

You really should also consider undertaking serious continued professional development, especially if you DON’T have a Ph.D. Professional accreditation such as the Chartered Marine Technologist offered by MTS and SUT, or Chartered Marine Scientist/Engineer from IMarEST will tell employers instantly that you have high level core skill set, and can be trusted to deliver complex programmes very quickly after being hired. I have IMarEST Chartered Marine Scientist accreditation and it has opened doors that might have stayed closed to me without a PhD.

For MTS to grow and stay relevant, it faces several challenges – which are shared by similar societies across the world. The first is, “Why Join a society?” People who are skilled users of social media and virtual networking spaces argue that the era of having to join a club or society to share knowledge and network is obsolete. What extra value does joining a specialist society give you, especially if you don’t live anywhere near a Branch where you can take part in real-life meetings with your fellow enthusiasts?

MTS, like SUT, IMarEST and others, has to add extra value to membership through services such as offering professional accreditation, recognised continued professional development, mentoring, training in skills that might benefit the member’s career including presentational skills, CV writing, improved scientific writing skills, use of online tools, and constant updating of professional knowledge. We need to ensure, especially in times like now with COVID-19, that all members can access services wherever possible online.

I also believe that MTS as an unbiased, scientifically literate learned society, also should have a voice in influencing marine science, engineering and technology policy; influencing best practise in the workplace, and ensuring that decision makers are aware of the impacts that various marine policy decisions will have on the ocean environment and workforce. For example, if the world needs to start undertaking deep-sea mining to obtain the resources we need to decarbonise society, transition to electric vehicles and build large-scale battery storage for renewable energy, MTS should be able to give an authoritative statement as to the viability, safety, and environmental impact of the activity, including suggesting working practises that enable a resource to be extracted with lowest possible negative environmental impact.

I’d like to see MTS, SUT, and others work together as a strong, cohesive voice supporting marine technology as a tool for sustainable solutions to the provision of renewable energy, new living space, new raw materials, opportunities for commerce, provision of food and delivery of strong homeland defence. We can promote the New Blue Economy, encourage students to enter the sector, and build bridges with other users of marine space. There are voices in several countries that are anti-science, resistant to truth, such as climate change deniers and even flat Earthers. Organisations that are fact-based have a duty to stand up for truth and state objective facts, not treat everything as if it’s mere opinion. Truth is neither Left or Right – it’s simply the reality we all face and need to adapt to.

We can tell politicians, public servants and funding agencies about the opportunities that exist in our world, and encourage them to work with us to deliver a better, cleaner and more sustainable future, including all playing our part in helping to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and the UN Decade of Ocean Science.

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