My 2019 reviewed and 2020 goals!

I started this blog a couple of years ago to showcase an optimistic academic mindset, which we seldom see. Two years on and I’m more optimistic than ever about academia as a career.

The year of 2019 started on a combative note with a response to a response on the use of social science methodologies in conservation. The purpose of the special issue of Methods in Ecology and Evolution led by Dr Nibedita Mukherjee was to provide simple guides to using a range of (mainly) qualitative approaches in conservation, aimed specifically at natural scientists who may be considering such approaches for the first time. We clarified this aim in our response to the critical response (which missed the mark in many places).

February 2019 involved marking some undergraduate dissertations, some of which turned out really well, as did some of the Masters dissertations that I supervised at the UEA. It was a pleasure to supervise these dissertations and to see the hard work and flair of the students rewarded.

April 2019 was a particularly fun month with a social science methods field trip to the Lake District with second year students at the UEA – a fun week was had by all!

Team Kayak

Then I took some time off over the summer, which academics often feel very apologetic about, but I believe in taking as much time off as you’re allowed to recharge those batteries.

In October 2019, I became the Elizabeth Creak Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading. I am very much enjoying the new role and it was a busy first few weeks with a variety of media appearances across the BBC!

Finally, December was a busy month of workshops on involving users in agri-tech design. Papers published this year included a viewpoint on organising agri-tech transitions responsibly, a perspective on next steps for the conservation science-policy research agenda, plus a viewpoint on evidence-based engagement with the UK Parliament. A few empirical papers will follow early in 2020 (I hope!).

The h-index continues to creep up and this blog has now been viewed by people in 81 countries! The plan for this year is to keep enjoying myself, support two PhD students starting in January (both on the responsible innovation of agri-tech), enhance the University of Reading’s involvement in Agriculture 4.0 (adoption of tech and ethics), and to write a few more papers whilst staying involved with the media!


Responsible Agriculture 4.0 transitions: new paper!

I am delighted to share my new paper (open access) co-authored with Professor Laurens Klerkx from Wageningen University in The Netherlands. I have long been an admirer of Laurens’ work on co-innovation and we are both now interested in the social and ethical impacts of the new technologies associated with ‘Agriculture 4.0’.

The perspective piece first outlines the different types of technologies being associated with Agriculture 4.0 – such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics, gene editing, synthetic protein, hyrdoponics, drones etc. – although we note that there isn’t a clear definition of this fourth agricultural revolution. A former student of mine is doing some work on the different types of technologies that are associated with Agriculture 4.0 to determine what is included or excluded – we hope to present this at the World Congress of Rural Sociology in Cairns next Summer. Regardless of the definition, it is clear that Agriculture 4.0 represents a radical shift in farm workflows, the many implications of which have been explored in a recent special issue of NJAS led by Laurens Klerkx and many others.

We argue that it is important to understand what the purpose of Agriculture 4.0 is. Is it, for example, simply to produce more food to feed a rapidly growing population, and if so does this detract from efforts to overcome other aspects of food insecurity (e.g. inequality)? Is the purpose to promote the use of ever more sophisticated ‘game-changing’ technologies, or is there also a role to play for ‘low-tech’ innovations and other ideas in the realm of sustainable agriculture, such as agroecology? Indeed, how do all these different technologies fit together and do they complement ideas such as agroecology? We consider the impact of different answers to the above questions, but above all argue that we must start considering what agri-tech futures look like and why we are choosing to move towards them.

We outline the concept of responsible innovation, which is gaining traction in the Agriculture 4.0 space. We suggest that in order for Agriculture 4.0 transitions to be responsible, they should seek to include the views of a diverse range of stakeholders (not just the powerful few!), articulate visions of the future more clearly including any mission-oriented goals, and consider how different technologies are going to fit together and work alongside each other in pursuit of these goals. As yet, individual technologies are often considered without any attention to how they might work alongside other innovations.

Do let us know what you think!

Engaging the user in agri-tech development

In the last few weeks I have spoken at a number of events on the importance of end user engagement in the development of agricultural technologies and other innovations. I have been working in this area for a number of years, stressing the value of user-centred design, understanding barriers to technology adoption, and moving beyond individualistic approaches to behaviour change. This has built on the work of many others in this space.

The first notable event was the Agricology Steering Committee held at FarmEd in the Cotswolds (lovely new building, recommended conference location!). This is a fantastic new education venue on a farm near Shipton, where they are trialling a number of innovative farming techniques, including agroecology. On a farm walk, I was reminded of the value of on-farm demonstration, which has been proven time and time again to be the best way of doing knowledge exchange with the farming community. Ian Wilkinson (owner of land) dug a number of holes in differently managed fields, showing the benefits of agroecological techniques over conventional management – for example, the field that had been more carefully managed had many more earthworms in the soil sample and the soil itself held together much better! I’m not a scientist so the live demonstration was very useful for me. Agricology also produce a number of knowledge exchange videos which can also be a good way of helping farmers to understand new techniques and give them the skills and confidence to try them out.


I’ve also spoken at two InnovateUK events for the Transforming Food Production Science and Technology into Practice calls (highly recommend the Elmbank Hotel in York!). This offers a multi-million pound pot of money for demonstration and feasibility projects – in others words, proving the value of a particular technology, showing it works and doing knowledge exchange with users (demonstration), or assessing whether an idea has potential to make a difference (feasibility). I spoke on the value of end user engagement and stressed two main points – firstly, who is the user? In agriculture, we often think this is just the individual farmer, but our behaviour change review for the AHDB found that many other people are involved in on-farm decision-making – family, friends, peers, advisors, retailers, consumers etc. Thus, successful demonstration projects should seek to include a variety of users from beginning to end. Secondly, I spoke about how to engage the user. Too often, we have sought to engage users in a tokenistic way, perhaps through the odd workshop or on-farm demonstration event. Such events can be very useful and there are good demonstration farms in the UK, but we must do more than simply engage the usual suspects in knowledge transfer. I spoke about methods to engage beyond the usual suspects and stressed the importance of listening and changing innovation behaviour, rather than just expecting the end user to be the ones to change their complex workflows. I’m looking forward to being involved in some funding bids that do the end user engagement part of the projects properly!

Engaging beyond the usual suspects in agriculture is something that I am very interested in at the moment. Our ESRC-funded project with Defra, led by Dr Ruth Little, at Sheffield seeks to understand how policy-makers are co-designing the new agri-environment scheme (ELMs) post-Brexit. It seeks to find out what co-design methods are being used, who is being engaged with and how, and commits to offering advice to policy-makers about how to do better engagement. A two-day project meeting a couple of weeks ago in Sheffield planned a number of activities to this end, including some paper plans, so stay tuned for updates from this project!

To summarise, I’m pleased that end user engagement is on the agenda. But, it must be done intelligently and not become a tokenistic tick-box exercise! On a side note, I also attach a couple of pictures from an excellent workshop run by the University of Warwick which brought together Clyde Higgs scholars and staff funded by the Elizabeth Creak Charitable Trust (who fund me!). It was so inspiring to see a diverse generation of people interested in farming, many of whom did not have an agricultural background!

The life of an academic isn’t all work though, I managed to get to Ascot (super close to the office) too! I won the grand total of a £1 by the end of the day.

First Flow in the opening race at Ascot!

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!

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.