BBC Farming Today, World News, and a Tech Expo!

A busy two weeks to report on, featuring my first appearances on BBC Farming Today and BBC World News, and an interesting two-days at a Farming Technology Expo organised by Farmers Weekly. As I’ve said before, I measure my success partially by the number of hours I spend outside of the office. Leaving the office to talk to people outside of academia is by far the best way of having an impact on the world. Papers are useful, of course, we all have to continue writing them. Indeed, I’ve got three papers back needing some minor revision so that will take up some of my time in the next couple of weeks amongst more travel (to Sheffield, Stoneleigh Park, Warwick, and the Cotswolds). Far more people listen to the radio or watch the TV than read academic papers though!

It was fun to be on BBC Farming Today with the excellent Charlotte Smith in late October. I spoke to her about the draft Environment Bill, which was going through Parliament before the General Election. It is a hugely important document for the future of conservation in England, particularly since the Brexit Bill made no reference to the environment at all, including climate change, air pollution etc. The political declaration accompanying the draft Brexit Bill does mention these things, but this document does not have legal weight. We spoke about whether the draft Environment Bill would result in tangible gains for the environment in England and whether the proposed environmental watchdog had enough teeth to ensure that actions accompanied pretty words. Listen for yourself (first item, will expire at some point) here:

Following the announcement of the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, I also appeared on BBC World News with Lucy Hockings (briefly before the line went) to talk about the implications for climate policy. I made three arguments: (1) as the USA accounts for 15% of global carbon emissions, the decision makes it so much harder for other countries to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees, particularly since current pledges don’t get anywhere near that, (2) the loss of a major economy could jeopardise the climate financing of developing countries to set them on a cleaner development pathway, (3) there could be a domino effect in which other countries follow the USA out. Obviously China is important as the largest emitter, but other world leaders who are sympathetic to Trump’s climate stance, and are in fact only in the Paris agreement in name and not through actions, might follow America out (Brazil, Australia). It was fun to be on BBC World News, broadcasting to millions of people across the world, including 3 million hotel chains and 150 cruise ships.

My most recent engagement saw me speak on a panel at the highly successful inaugural farming technology conference organised by the Farmers Weekly. I spoke about the future of agricultural technology (opening remarks here) and argued that we should not be seduced by radical game-changing technologies, but instead make the most of what we already have by investing in joined-up innovation systems. The event was fascinating with many companies displaying exciting technology and a range of considered talks/panels exploring development, adoption, and extension issues associated with farming tech. Lots of new contacts made and business cards handed out! I was interviewed about extension and ethics by the Irish Farmers Journal and this podcast should appear shortly (will add link in time). I am so excited for two PhD students to start with me in the New Year who will explore the ethics of agricultural technology and consider responsible agri-tech futures. I can’t wait for the 2020 event and more free breakfast bacon rolls! 

 

BBC South Today – food post-Brexit

I’ve argued several times on this blog that academics need to spend less time in the office and more time in the outside world. As part of my new job, I’m looking forward to spending more time on farms and talking to other stakeholders involved in agri-tech. Of course, academics tend to be measured by REF outputs, which increasingly rewards impact, but still favours those 4* academic papers. The truth is, however, that almost no-one in the outside world reads those 4* papers!

Last week I was offered the opportunity to contribute to a BBC South Today piece on the price and availability of food in a no-deal Brexit world – at the time of publishing this, such a scenario is still within the realms of possibility. For those wanting to know the answer, food coming from the EU is likely to increase in price (due to tariffs [currently zero tariff], and non-tariff issues e.g. possible delays at borders, and possible fall in the value of Sterling), food that we are largely self-sufficient is unlikely to change dramatically unless our buying habits shift, and food from outside the EU could well be cheaper if tariffs are lowered. Lowering tariffs on food coming in, however, may not be great news for our hard-working farmers who produce produce to high environmental and welfare standards. This is all relevant to our ESRC-funded project led by Sheffield on post-Brexit agricultural policy.

For other academics thinking about engaging with media, it’s important to know the time commitment needed for different forms of media. A simple interview with a newspaper, or live appearance on the radio, is likely to require some preparation time to anticipate questions and to make sure you know your facts. I always make sure to do a bit of reading beforehand because it is so important to be evidence-based where possible. For TV appearances, the time commitment might be slightly longer, particularly if you need to travel to the studio and get your make-up done (if you get that luxury!). If you get an unexpected question, it’s perfectly OK to pause before answering, or consider reframing the question and taking some control back from the interviewer. They may not always necessarily know the right questions to ask and you may be able to steer the interview onto safe territory.

For the BBC South Today segment, my small part actually took three hours of filming and an hour of travel either way, plus preparation time. This was on top of a couple of pre-filming phone calls with the producer to discuss what the film would cover and a few exchanged emails to make sure your job title was going to be correct and to discuss logistics. Whilst this seems like a big commitment for what amount to seconds of airtime, it’s important to put the effort in. Below are some stills from the filming process and from the film post-edit (iplayer clip expired).

 

 

Remember, you will be reaching many thousands more people appearing on the TV than from writing an academic paper. It can be frustrating to be given a short amount of time to air your views, particularly because producers want you to be concise. Sometimes you might feel you aren’t giving a full answer, and if the film is pre-recorded, then you get little control about what the final piece looks like (which means comments can appear out of context). But it’s definitely worthwhile engaging. You might even get some letters from the public, which I did after an appearance on BBC News on climate change – my advice is to respond to well-meaning letters if possible. Most of all, try to enjoy the experience and say ‘yes’ to as many offers as possible! It’s great exposure for your university who should be appreciative!

The start of Associate Professor life

Many apologies for not writing on this blog for a while. I took some time off over the summer and went to a couple of conferences and workshops. I’ve seen a few academics lately on twitter apologising, or feeling bad, for taking some time off – why? Universities are nothing without your intellectual property which needs some time to recharge throughout the year and you are entitled to all of your Annual Leave if you wish to use it.

I’ve just started as Elizabeth Creak Charitable Trust Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading. I’m in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development. I’m very much looking forward to  meeting new students and I’ve had a great week already meeting new colleagues in the department and the media team. I spoke on Wednesday to BBC Three Counties Radio on whether climate change should be taught in schools, which was fun. It was great to meet the dynamic media team too!

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Radio studio in the media centre

I’m working on jazzing up my office. I like its position with a good window facing outwards which lets me watch the many Red Kites soar over campus. I’ve managed to get the excellent poster by Rebecca Osborne on my research onto my door and a rather self-indulgent ‘paper wall’ above my desk. Any advice on what to do with a big empty shelving unit would be much appreciated – do millennial academics own hard copies of books?

 

I am also set to welcome a PhD student in January with an advert for another position hopefully starting around the same time. If you know someone who might want to do a project on responsible innovation in agriculture, let me know.

I promise to write more on here in the coming weeks as I meet new colleagues and students and aim to spread some academic optimism around my new department (if they need it, I’ve found it an inspiring place so far!).

Associate Professor at 30!

I haven’t written on this blog for a little while, but what better way to get back into it than to announce a promotion to Associate Professor. Whilst I have always been honest on this blog about the specific privileges that may count in my favour as I embark on an academic career, I still didn’t expect to get to Associate Professor (or Senior Lecturer) at 30. Optimism and hard work can be a potent combination! I’m not sure what it was that got me the job, but publishing lots and doing lots of policy and media engagement probably helped.

The promotion means that I will be moving on from the University of East Anglia after  two productive years of my first lectureship. The Agriculture, Policy, and Development department at the University of Reading is my destination where I will lead work on agricultural innovation and extension, supported by the Elizabeth Creak Charitable Trust. I will be hiring two PhD students from the end of the year to work on agri-tech projects and I look forward to working with them! I also look forward to working with local farmers.

I can’t wait to meet my new colleagues and to ensure that social science plays an important role in the fourth agricultural revolution.

Social researchers on tour: learning in the Lakes

One of the best things about lecturing is the opportunity to take students on fieldtrips! Geographers and Environmental Scientists can’t fully learn about the world from a lecture theatre and they often gain so much from trying out new things in the real world and from spending time with staff in a more normal environment!

Our base for the week, Derwent Hill in the lovely village of Portinscale near Keswick. Top quality rooms, fantastic food, friendly staff, and an amazing view of Derwent Water. The weather was amazing all week. Thank you so much to the wonderful staff who hosted us.

It’s quite difficult to summarise all of the things we did this week, but I’ll attempt to do so day-by-day (check out #uealakes19 for a full account of our daily movements).

Day 1: Participant observation in Keswick and Natural flood management in Glenridding

A fun day with an introduction to Keswick by the multi-talented Professor Andrew Lovett. We observed the different ways in which the town of Keswick was trying to mitigate against the problem of flooding through hard engineering and natural flood management. We then observed the different ways in which people in Keswick interacted with their environment through participant observation. This is a good method for observing what people actually do, rather than what they say they do via a survey! We then moved on to Castlerigg Stone Circle where Dr Emilie Vrain led an exercise on perceptions of landscape, and then on to Glenridding to hear about natural flood management. Thanks to Danny from the Ullswater Catchment Management Group for his expert insights.

Plus my crew go off-grid:

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A well-earned drinks break on the way home (my fault!)

Day 2: Interviews on natural flood management

I started with a 0600 trip to Dodd Wood to see the Osprey from the viewpoint (I did see it!). We saw the nest again whilst driving out later in the week, but I couldn’t convince anyone to do a project about the Osprey viewpoint. Joe’s birdwatching parents would be disappointed!

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Osprey Viewpoint at Dodd Wood

Students split into groups to conduct interviews with key people involved in natural flood management in Cumbria – farmers, residents, Catchment Sensitive Farming Officers, business owners and alike. The students got a fascinating insight into the different stakeholders involved in flood management and the challenges of implementing solutions (e.g. cost, politics, practicality etc.). We then analysed the interviews back at HQ and discussed the pros and cons of interviews as a method. One of the main learning points was how to manage respondents when they go off on a tangent. As Frances noted, ‘this information is nice to know’, but it isn’t always relevant so it takes a skilled researcher to intervene without disrupting the flow. Getting distracted by someone’s cute dog mid-interview also doesn’t help!

Day 3: Surveys on the West Cumbrian Coast

After designing the surveys the night before, groups went to four West Cumbrian towns (Workington, Maryport, Whitehaven and Cockermouth) to question people about their views on sources of renewable energy, a key industry in the region. Some groups devised cunning tactics – the Cockermouth group channeling their inner Gandalf and standing on the main footbridge into the town to prevent people from quickly escaping them, whilst the Whitehaven group sought out people waiting for a bus who couldn’t quickly run away! Other groups found life much more difficult, particularly in Maryport which wasn’t very busy. Bad luck to Britt, Sollie, Josh, and Talia who endured the quiet town of Maryport. Special mention to Star who wasn’t perturbed by initial rejections and mopped up all the old people at the bus stop who couldn’t get away. We analysed the survey back at HQ again and discussed the pros and cons of surveys as a method. One key learning point was not to be too precious about survey wording if it turned out to be inadequate – a point not lost on Lee ‘of course it’s clear, that’s why I wrote it’ Wright who recognised the need to tweak the wording the day after.

Day 4: Independent projects day – Keswick, Catbells, Cockermouth, and Windermere

A chance for the students to do their own independent projects. Participant observation and surveys were the order of the day – including a project on perceptions of the Windermere landscape, one on erosion control on Catbells, and another on how mobile phone use differed between environments around Keswick. Kudos to UEA Hockey stars Sollie, Dom, and Georgia for counting the number of people on phones in Keswick. Another group including Kaitlin and Rebecca investigated flood management in Cockermouth, while Zac and Britt explored the impact of tourism on Keswick. Ellie, Frances, and Maud were interested in perceptions of climate change! Thanks to Lee for the wonderful photos from Catbells below. Special mention to Hannah for claiming to have lost her wallet at the Gingerbread shop in Grasmere, before making us return to the shop to find that it was in her bag all along. The extra journey was no problem, however, once Celia had praised the health benefits of the Ginger we had to eat to get us through the monotony of driving on the same road twice in half an hour (we have forgiven Hannah honestly!).

Day 5: Presentations and activities (and Andrew’s birthday cake!)

A bit of free time before presentations was spent either climbing Catbells or kayaking on Derwent Water (sorry for holding everyone up in the Kayak!). A much needed break after an intense week of work!

Then we heard student presentations of their independent projects, some of which were really interesting. Well done to those students who put considerable effort into their fieldwork and presentations! There was then time for a cake to celebrate Andrew’s soon-to-be experienced special birthday.

Summary:

Overall, a fantastic week with wonderful weather. Whilst we learned lots of things about social research methodologies, perhaps the most important lesson was that social research can be done with a smile on your face! And that effort most definitely correlates with reward. We also discovered the tunes of Carlisle FM; a good replacement for Smooth FM, which as Maud argues plays ‘banger after banger’.  Thanks to the Alumni class of 1968 of the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA who contributed to this fieldtrip.  

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Group photo at ‘one of the three or four most beautiful views in Europe’ (Ruskin)

 

Improving food waste recycling in Norfolk: a final year project

Guest blog by Hannah Treacy

Hannah is in her final year of studying BSc Environmental Science at the UEA. Her final year research project, based in Norwich, looked at improving local authority approaches to household participation in food waste recycling. http://www.linkedin.com/in/hannah-treacy

Food waste is a large-scale global problem. It is estimated that every year one-third of edible food is wasted, mounting up to 1.3 billion tonnes of food. A colossal amount equivalent to 21.5 million planes; or 100 million double decker buses; or in food terms: 1.6 trillion loaves of bread!

There are various policies aimed at reducing this ridiculous amount of waste – such as the UN Sustainable Development Goal which says global food waste must be halved by 2030. UK local authorities are rolling out more food waste collection services to households to reduce the amount of food entering the residual waste stream, and potentially ending in landfill.

The study focused on food waste collection services in Norfolk, specifically Norwich City Council who are experiencing low household participation in the scheme; and Broadland District Council who recently expanded their collection service to an additional 3,000 households. Both local authorities tried out a series of public engagement techniques to householders: Norwich’s to improve participation, and Broadland’s to introduce new households to the scheme.

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One of the food waste caddies!

I decided to question householders receiving the public engagement techniques on their food waste recycling habits and opinions of the local authority engagement. The study used questionnaires to target over 700 households across the two local authorities 3-4 weeks after the public engagement techniques were released.

Just to add – these were all hand-delivered and collected by myself and with the great help of my wonderful boyfriend, Harvey. I don’t think my step count will ever be so high – we had walked 20 miles in one day delivering just half of the questionnaires (in the full heat of 2018’s summer). We hit the road again three days later to collect any completed questionnaires and were completely overwhelmed at the response rate – 153 residents had completed the questionnaire! There were some great responses which made for some interesting analysis.

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Enjoying a well-deserved drink after distributing questionnaires!

After collection, the next task was to input all of the responses into an Excel spreadsheet. Here, I produced various graphs and descriptive statistics which gave a great insight into household opinions and habits. On the whole, people who responded were aware of the food waste recycling scheme, and 70% were keen recyclers who put their caddy out every week for collection. Just 16% never recycled, although nearly half of this group were into home composting. I then confronted my fears and started statistical analysis on SPSS, which allowed me to analyse these results in greater depth. I used Value-Belief-Norm theory as a framework to see how biospheric, altruistic and egoistic values faired predicting household behaviour.

It was found that biospheric and altruistic values were directly linked to people recycling their food waste. In other words, people were recycling because of the environmental benefits and because other people do. Contextual factors, such as not recycling food waste due to composting instead or finding the process to be a bit smelly were also important influencers for food waste recycling. The hot weather had raised many concerns surrounding hygiene – the heat had brought maggots, fruit flies and even foxes to resident’s food bins!

The second part of my research was to consider how these results can be useful for local authorities. The key messages were that all of the public engagement techniques used (i.e. leaflet, free caddy liners) improved food waste recycling – Norwich City Council reported that both high and low performing areas improved as a result of the campaign. Other factors to consider were ‘nudge’ techniques which frequently remind householders to recycle and using public engagement techniques to demonstrate how barriers can be overcome – such as getting rid of that lovely rotting food smell.

It is very rewarding that my research gave many useful conclusions that will be of use to local authorities. It also opens questions for further research – I am delighted to hear that Broadland District Council are using a similar questionnaire design to reach a larger number of households. And finally, I am most pleased to have obtained a first-class grade in my dissertation!

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Picking up the first-class dissertation after marking!

Marking dissertations – a joy not a chore!

This blog has been a little quiet recently. January isn’t usually an overly optimistic month – dark nights, HMRC tax returns, and the post-Christmas period really do make it the worst month of the year in my opinion, even for someone who ranks Winter as the best season of the year.

I’ve been doing lots of teaching this semester on what makes a good dissertation, including good research design and execution. I’ve been asked by lots of students ‘what makes a good dissertation’ or ‘how do I do a good dissertation’? The simple answer is that the best dissertations identify clear aims, design their research carefully, use appropriate methods, and ensure that their conclusions are based on the data. Sometimes, enough work isn’t put in at the research design phase, which is by far the most important stage of the dissertation. If you set out to answer a question that you can’t answer or for which you can’t possibly collect the data in the time allowed, then you are heading for disaster!

My undergraduate dissertation got a 2:2 precisely because I set out to answer a question that was impossible to answer. I set out to predict the future, asking ‘if the Environmental Stewardship Scheme (agri-environment scheme) would lead to an improved farmland biodiversity numbers by 2020’, writing in 2010. That is a fine example of setting yourself a mountain to climb – there was no possible data that I could collect that would have answered the question. The examiners and I would have needed a crystal ball or a time machine.

The best dissertations do something a little original, but set themselves a narrow focus. This ensures that data collection is manageable and creates a clear focus in the results and discussion. My best piece of advice is to put most of your time into the design phase. Once you know you’ve set yourself manageable tasks, the project will seem a lot easier, although there will be the inevitable setbacks along the way. There always is with research! Although you probably shouldn’t do this in the social sciences, and you certainly can’t with grounded theory, I always advise a ‘backward mapping approach’ taught to me by Professor Sutherland at Cambridge. If you have some idea about what your results might look like, and what you might want to get out of the dissertation, you will know the right questions to ask to help you get there. A map is of no use if you don’t know what your destination is.

Anyway, the reason I’ve written a blog tonight on a delayed late train back to Liverpool is because I’ve received a significant pile of dissertations to mark from our ENV students at UEA. Now some staff might find this marking a bit of a chore, but I don’t; indeed, I’ve offered to do extra ones this year. It’s so fantastic to read about all the interesting work that our students have done. No project is perfect, of course, but then again nor is any piece of academic work. There are the projects where the student hasn’t thought carefully about the research design, but I’ve had plenty of brilliant projects this year where design and execution have been on point. I’ve even got marks of about 75-80 out of my locker, which for those who know me is incredibly rare – grade inflation isn’t my thing, but two dissertations that I marked this year were fantastic. I will update this blog after the marks have been released so that I can give proper praise to the two students in question! I’ve marked dissertations on topics such as food waste recycling, participation in local democracy, coastal flood management in Suffolk, and factors affecting people’s dietary decision-making. It’s been a very varied and interesting year.

To conclude, for all those students knocking on my door with new dissertation ideas, I stress the importance of reading around your topic area and coming up with an answerable, manageable research question. Staff can help, of course, but if you put in the hard yards at an early stage, it will pay off in the end!