Fuelling the Future | Saiful Islam interview with Humanist Climate Action

10 January, 2024

Our volunteer-led network Humanist Climate Action caught up with Humanists UK patron Saiful Islam – British chemist, Professor of Materials Modelling at the University of Oxford, and the 2016 Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer – to speak about Saiful’s humanist, scientific, and environmental values, how they coincide, and how they inform his approach to life and zest for renewable energy.

Hi Saiful! Tell us a bit about yourself!

I grew up in Crouch End, North London, and went to a local comprehensive school, and then to University College London to study chemistry, followed by a research fellowship at the Eastman Kodak Labs in New York. I joined the University of Oxford in 2022, after 16 years at the University of Bath. I’m a chemist who doesn’t wear a white lab coat. My research group uses computer modelling techniques to help develop new lithium battery materials for electric vehicles, and a new type of solar cell compound called perovskite. 

In the footsteps of my scientific heroes and fellow humanists, David Attenborough and Carl Sagan, I was honoured to present the 2016 BBC Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on the theme of energy, titled: Supercharged- Fueling the Future. It included a lemon battery world record! [Editors note: Saiful then broke the world record again in 2022, using 3,000 lemons to achieve 2,307.8 volts]. When not exploring energy materials, I am a father of two, enjoy family breaks, films, and indie music including The Smiths, New Order, and The Cure.

How long have you been a humanist?

I was probably an atheist or humanist since my late teens before I even knew what the terms actually meant. I grew up in Muslim household as my name suggests, but I don’t recall ever having a strong faith. I couldn’t see how following a supernatural deity added anything to my understanding of the natural world around me. 

How did you come to be interested in environmental concerns?

Strong influences growing up were TV science programmes about the beauty of the natural world, especially by our national treasure David Attenborough. I think my real passion for science and environmental issues came in the second half of my PhD when I started studying the exciting topic of superconductors – materials that show zero electrical resistance, with possible use in reducing energy loss in electricity transmission lines. This led to an abiding interest in low carbon energy applications and to my current research on battery materials for electric cars and new solar cell types. I’m also interested in sustainable earth-abundant materials and the three Rs for energy devices – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle – to move away from raw materials that have ethical and environmental issues. However, I never joined groups such as Greenpeace as I was concerned by some of their unscientific campaigns (for example, destroying GM research). To counter misinformation, climate action should always be evidence based.

What your biggest environmental concern?

The impacts of climate change on nature and people (especially in poorer countries) are already apparent: extreme heat waves, flooding, and wildfires. I try to be optimistic and always look on the bright side of life. But we clearly need urgent action and ambition at all levels (society, political, economic, R&D) to tackle climate change and to meet net-zero targets. I’m also concerned by the anti-evidence and anti-net-zero forces spreading misinformation on social media and in some political circles.

Do you think it is important for Humanist Climate Action to exist as a part of Humanists UK?

Yes! It’s very important to keep highlighting that climate change is one of the most urgent global challenges of our time. It’s a major hot topic – both literally and metaphorically, To me, a humanist approach to life is rational, positive, and optimistic, where you can find out more about the world, universe and environmental issues through rational investigation without needing a reward from a supernatural deity.

What one thing would you encourage people to do to live a greener lifestyle?

Not an easy question. There is no silver bullet. As the Muppet philosopher, Kermit the Frog, once said: ‘It ain’t easy being green!’ Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions: if you can, reuse, or recycle as much as you can, buy local produce, draught-proof your home, avoid single-use plastics, use long-lasting light bulbs, eat less red meat, install solar panels, use petrol cars much less, and public transport a lot more. Did you know that around 55% of UK car journeys are less than five miles? Perhaps the school run and supermarket trips.

This interview was originally published in Humanist Climate Action’s Winter newsletter. Want to stay up to date with Humanist Climate Action? Sign up as a supporter and receive their newsletter by visiting the Humanist Climate Action webpage. 


Saiful Islam research webpage: www.materials.ox.ac.uk/peoplepages/islam.html
Twitter (X): @SaifulChemistry

For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Acting Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Humanists UK has over 200 patrons who support its work in various ways through their expertise and prominence in various fields. Existing patrons include significant figures from the spheres of science, philosophy, human rights activism, politics, the arts, and broadcasting. The President of Humanists UK is the geneticist, science writer, and broadcaster, Dr Adam Rutherford. He is supported by Vice Presidents Professor Alice Roberts, Shaparak Khorsandi, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor AC Grayling, and Polly Toynbee.

Humanist Climate Action (HCA) is a volunteer-led network of Humanists UK members and supporters committed to redefining lifestyles and campaigning for policies that promote low-carbon, ethical, and sustainable living in the light of the degeneration of the Earth’s climate and biodiversity. HCA brings humanists together to facilitate individual and collective action on these issues.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.