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Portrait of a scientist: Andreas Stohl

Foto: Ingar Næss

One would think that being nominated as one of Reuters’ Highly Cited Researchers is a great honour for all scientists. But for some, the science is more important than the reputation.

Andreas Stohl, senior scientist at NILU, has good reason to feel proud: His name is on the top of the recent Thomson Reuters-list, nominating the scientists whose papers have been cited most in the period between 2002-2012. In the category of Geosciences, Stohl is listed with 262 publications. But the Austrian is unfazed by this honour.

“I don’t understand the point of this list”, he says.

The modest scientist does not care much about fame and glory. For him, science is most important, not the reputation.

Fundamental research

“I was always interested in science, especially in fundamental research”, Stohl says.

Model development, data analyses and statistical methods for so-called source reconstruction have become his main interest. In meteorology, these methods are applied to detect unknown emission sources of atmospheric pollutants. Much of his recent work is focused on volcanic ashes and radioactivity. Further research activities have been carried out on greenhouse gases and aerosols in the Arctic. The meteorologist is very keen on developing methods with as large as possible impact on “real life”. Stohl’s motto: The wider access, the higher the impact.

Open up!

He explains, “Many scientists are very anxious to keep the methods underlying their research results to themselves. From my point of view, there are two options for scientists to deal with their research results. Either they sell their methods commercially, or they make them publicly accessible. Other solutions makes no sense.”

Andreas Stohl tries to make all his results available via open access and open source.

“Papers nowadays are of no use if they are not shared with everyone”, he comments. “The more people have access to our models, the better they can be used and adapted to fit for their purpose, and the feedback received will also lead to model improvements on our side.”

Research results in practise

This principle has been applied by Stohl and his research team in many areas of their expertise. A well-known model is FLEXPART, which can be applied for many scenarios to calculate based on meteorological data the dispersion of gases or other atmospheric pollutants.

Two examples are volcanic ashes and radioactivity, where FLEXPART has been used to estimate where the ash particles and radionuclides would be transported in the atmosphere and in what amount. After both the eruption of Eyafjallajökull on Iceland in 2010 and the nuclear accident in the Japanese power plant Fukushima one year later, other researchers all over the world have applied methods developed and data sets provided by Andreas Stohl.

Dreams and reality

“It is very important to develop methods and hand them over to those that will work with them, in order to keep up the research activities”, Stohl continues.

Typically, new methods are picked up by other researchers first, but are later also often applied by authorities. For instance, FLEXPART is also used by the Austrian Meteorological Office for emergency preparedness in Austria, or by CTBTO (The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty) for locating nuclear bomb tests.

On the question about his wish for the future, Stohl replies that he would love to do more fundamental research on his favourite topics, greenhouse gases and hydrological cycles. However, in reality he will most likely continue writing proposals for smaller, tailor made research projects that fit into the calls of the European Commission and the Norwegian Research Council (NFR).

“Due to a shift in paradigm, fundamental research in the atmospheric sciences is hardly getting any funding at all any more. Both EU and NFR grant funding only for those research activities that comply with their calls for proposals, that are based on a political agenda. This affects especially the Norwegian research landscape. It seems obvious that Norway is not interested in financing long term research, but instead focuses solely on short term, applied science.”

Referring to Reuters’ list of highly cited researchers, Stohl adds with a wry smile, “Most of the research that lead to my papers on that list have not received any funding at all.”