In 1967 Professor Keith Clayton boldly accepted the challenge of setting up a School of Environmental Sciences at the fledgling University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, a concept of Lord Solly Zuckerman. As a reader in Geography at the London School of Economics (LSE) Keith Clayton could surely have pursued a simple career path to a Chair. Instead, with a co-founding geologist, Professor Brian Funnell, he set out to design a new interdisciplinary approach to studying the earth, its surface processes, biological systems and interactions with humans. He became the founding Dean of the new School in 1967, a year before the admission of its first students.
The discipline of Environmental Science was virtually unheard of 45 years ago, so setting up a centre to research and teach this new subject was truly radical. At the time, scientists worked within very tight discipline boundaries, even geographers and geologists struggled to find common ground. As a result, much of the established science world was dismissive, even rude about this new interdisciplinary approach, doubting both its integrity and longevity.
We must assume Keith relished this challenge for he rarely backed down from confrontation. His energy and enthusiasm for his science, the School of Environmental Sciences and UEA was infectious, and while unapologetically outspoken at times, his leadership was dynamic and inspirational. Emeritus Professor Tim O'Riordan, who worked alongside Professor Clayton for much of his career, said recently, ‘The science of maintaining the planet largely began here in Norwich with Keith. He set a trend which dozens of campuses are only now seeking to emulate. He broke the mould of single subject science and opened up an era of coordinated and communicative science which embraced all manner of people throughout the world.’
Keith Martin Clayton was born on 25 September 1928. He went to Bedales School in Hampshire and then to the University of Sheffield, gaining a first-class degree in Geography, and sharing the Fearnsides Prize for Geology. Between 1949 and 1951 he was a demonstrator at the University of Nottingham while completing an MSc at Sheffield (1951) with a dissertation on the ‘Geomorphology of part of the Middle Trent basin’. He then did National Service in the Royal Engineers and in 1953 was appointed Assistant Lecturer at the LSE. In 1958 he completed his PhD at LSE on ‘The Quaternary of Southern Essex’, was promoted to lecturer and in 1964 to Reader.
In laying the foundations for a School that soon became internationally renowned, Keith also took a key decision in 1971–2 in helping set up the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at UEA. Instrumental in this was the recruitment of the renowned climatologist Hubert Lamb from the UK Meteorological Office to lead it. CRU is today recognised as one of the world's leading institutions concerned with the study of natural and anthropogenic climate change and it is again telling that Keith had the foresight to see the potential in such science, long before it became main-stream.
Keith was a leading quantitative geomorphologist. His early work, based on his PhD, centred on glacial erosion and landforms in southern Essex, although he extended this to the study of the ‘finger-lakes’ region of New York State, a product of his visiting Professorship at the State University of New York, Binghamton (1960–2). In the late 1960s Keith became particularly interested in utilising the newly emerging remotely sensed images from satellites. He understood the importance of being able to quantify processes such as glacial and coastal erosion, and he realised that computers were vital to assemble and process the massive datasets required. In the 1980s he was quick to exploit the rapidly developing personal computer to assist in data manipulation and he trained a number of PhD students to realise his wider research objectives. His position in the vanguard of modern quantitative geomorphology was recognised in 1989 with the award of the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.
Much of his varied research was based in East Anglia. He strongly advocated allowing natural coastal processes to operate unhindered as a far as was practicable. He was an early champion of coastal ‘managed realignment’, long before the term became common to scientists and public alike. He believed passionately that healthy sand-rich beaches, fed by natural erosion and deposition cycles, are a more sustainable coastal defence than concrete sea walls. His views on this were not welcomed by engineers or by many coastal communities in East Anglia, even though he was vocal in his early support of ‘social justice’ through appropriate compensation. In his later research he showed how quantitative geomorphology was important for society, arguing that the siting of installations with long-intended lifetimes, such as nuclear waste repositories, had to be based on robust information about susceptibility to long-term surface processes, particularly glacial erosion.
Keith's teaching was most dynamic in the field; in the late 1980s he organised and led the UEA Environmental Sciences first-year field course to south Devon, where he revelled in field days on Slapton beach geomorphology and coastal erosion, the geomorphology of asymmetric Dartmoor valleys and the coastal landscapes of Bolt Head; in all these he demanded that his students collect their own surveying or pebble lithology data to work up in evening sessions.
Keith did stalwart administrative service at UEA, including the post of Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1971 to 1973 and three terms (10 years) as Dean of the School of Environmental Sciences. He was President of the Institute of British Geographers in 1984 and served on numerous national committees, including the Council of the National Environment Research Council (NERC), the NERC remote sensing working party, the University Grants Committee, where he was Vice Chair, the National Radiological Protection Board and the Dounreay Particles Advisory Group of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.
He was an advisor to government departments on environmental matters, helped shape international environmental and climate change strategies and received a CBE in 1984 for services to the University Grants Committee and UEA. In 1960 he set up GeoAbstracts, an abstracting and indexing company. This again was ground breaking; bought by the academic publishing giant Elsevier in 1985, it was a forerunner of the online citation systems used by academics worldwide today.
The present Vice Chancellor of UEA, Professor Edward Acton has succinctly captured the importance of Keith Clayton's contribution both to higher education and, most importantly, to interdisciplinary environmental science: ‘He was hugely influential in his field [… and] his legacy lives on proudly in the School of Environmental Sciences – that he did so much to build.’