Professor Mike Ashmore – Obituary

Professor Mike Ashmore, who died at the age of 68, was an inspirational environmental scientist whose research focussed on the impacts of air pollution on ecosystems and human health. He was an advisor to UK and European Agencies on a wide range of air pollution policy issues and was one of the first UK academics to identify ozone as a potential threat to crop production and natural plant communities in Europe. He also identified the growing need to conduct air pollution research in developing countries, especially S. Asia, where there was clearly the potential for substantial effects on ecosystems and human health. He later extended the reach of his research to enhance public engagement in science, developing the application of citizen science and public participation methods to air pollution research. He was a greatly valued colleague, revered student supervisor and great friend, mentor and champion of all those fortunate enough to work with him during his career.

Following his first degree from the University of East Anglia, Mike completed his PhD at Leeds University, supervised by Harold Woolhouse on the physiological ecology of moorland vegetation, involving a substantial amount of work at the upland field station at Moorhouse in the Pennines. He moved to Imperial College in September 1974 to work with Nigel Bell on the effects of ozone on vegetation, supported by an NERC grant. Mike pioneered research showing widespread phytotoxic effects of ozone, a pollutant associated at the time with California, and not thought to be a significant problem in Europe. Working with Nigel and a succession of research students he demonstrated the widespread occurrence of ozone episodes using sensitive cultivars of tobacco (Bel- W3) in a network of 60 sites throughout the UK. This really was pioneering work as many people were extremely sceptical about ozone being a problem in the UK.

His research gradually broadened along with the number of students and post docs , but ozone remained a continuous theme through his career gradually improving estimates of crop loss working closely with the European Monitoring and Assessment Programme (EMEP) in Scandinavia and his colleague at Imperial College and York, Lisa Emberson.

The research on impacts of pollution on vegetation, including agricultural crops, trees, grasslands, heathlands used a variety of methods from laboratory chamber studies, field manipulation experiments, field surveys and modelling, to explore the effects of ozone, acid deposition, nitrogen oxides and ammonia. Mike became a member of the Imperial College Centre for Environmental; Technology (now Policy) in the late 1980s, where he built up a strong team of research students and assistants. He became actively involved in the highly prestigious MSc in Environmental Technology, running the second term option on Pollution and becoming a Senior Tutor in the department. At Imperial College he spent his time between the Kensington and Silwood park campuses supporting both experimental based studies that were the life-blood of Silwood Park as well as the modelling and policy based work of the Kensington campus. This reflected Mike’s ability for truly interdisciplinary research which allowed him to provide valuable and scientifically credible advice to policy and decision makers during his career. He quickly developed his career at Imperial becoming a Lecturer and then Reader in Environmental Science.

During his time at Imperial, and later at the University of Bradford, where he became Chair of Environmental Science in 1998, he was instrumental in developing the application of Critical Loads and Critical Levels. These policy tools heralded a new ‘effects based’ approach to air quality in Europe through the introduction of pollutant and receptor specific guidelines to protect ecosystems from a range of air pollutants including sulphur, nitrogen and ozone. This work fed directly into the UNECE’s Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and supported the development of European air quality policy on emission reductions. As the problems of Acid Rain gradually declined following reductions in emission, primarily of sulphur, the research focus move to the effects of nitrogen on ecosystems and of particulate matter and ozone on human health. In both research and policy fields Mike played an important role. In the case of nitrogen deposition his focus was on the link between biodiversity loss and the quantity and form of nitrogen deposited, identifying reduced nitrogen as the primary driver which led to two important and highly cited publications. In his work on effects of air pollutants on human health his focus was broader, including personal exposure, effects of diesel derived particulate matter and air pollution effects in developing countries. The research on personal exposure included studies on CO, NO2 and particulates, in a range of locations, including Mexico City, Athens, Delhi, London, Bradford, Leicester, Northampton, and York. This involved both direct measurement of personal and indoor exposure, and the development and application of probabilistic models of indoor and personal exposure, designed to simulate individual and personal exposure.

In 2004, Mike moved to the University of York where he held a professorship in the Environment Department and also a position in the international research for development organisation – the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). Mike had a wonderful ability to expertly manage both people and projects and it was here that these talents really came to the fore in supporting the development of a relatively young University Department and a developing research Centre. He was one of the founding academics behind the OPAL project, one of the UK’s biggest citizen science projects, developing a small team of practitioners and researchers at SEI, who worked to engage people of all backgrounds across Yorkshire with environmental issues – something about which Mike was passionate.

As well as championing public engagement with science, Mike worked closely with policy-makers in the UK through the Department of the Environment (and subsequently DETR and Defra) and in Europe through the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe). He was a member of the UK DETR National Expert Group on Trans-boundary Air Pollution, the UK Department of the Environment Photo-oxidant Review Group and Critical Loads Advisory Group, the UK Department of Health Advisory Group on the Medical Aspects of Air Pollution Episodes, and of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology working group on air pollution and allergy. He was also a consultant to the World Health Organisation on revised Air Quality Guidelines for Europe.

Tree planting ceremony with Mike's wife outside the Environment Building.
His contributions to the development of scientific evidence for policy making were crucial to our understanding of the full impacts of air pollution, both in the UK, Europe and globally. He played a central role in the development of effects based strategies to reduce emissions of the primary pollutants, which has been a considerable success throughout Europe over the last three decades. Perhaps more importantly to the people who worked closely with Mike was his diligence and commitment to research and the collaborators with whom he worked. Mike was truly passionate about science and the people who performed it, he would challenge ways of thinking, had a natural ability to identify the key issues related to a research problem and would work with colleagues to clarify where research needed to go next.

Mike had many interests outside his work, and was very much a family man, deeply involved in the lives of his two stepchildren, Joe and Emily, and later Rowan, his and Elaine's son. Rowan was born at home in Slough and was named after a rowan tree in the garden outside the birthroom. Mike was a deeply compassionate and kind man, with strong principles, including pacificism. As such, his time with MSc and PhD students was of particular value in terms of pastoral care he provided. He was an inspirational mentor, research leader, friend and colleague and a devoted family man who will be very sadly missed by all who were lucky enough to know him.

Lisa Emberson, Sarah West, Nigel Bell and David Fowler Oct 2018

Mike Ashmore Photo

Prof Mike Ashmore

In memorial of Mike, a donations page has been created in order to raise funds for two things:

- to plant a Rowan tree at the University of York, outside the Environment building, with a memorial plaque. A tree-planting ceremony was held in December 2018.

- to provide a bursary for students to attend CAPER conferences - the Committee for Air Pollution Effects Research - Mike was an important part of this group of researchers and policy-makers, and always tried to encourage students to attend.

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