A week in Umea: reindeer herding, birdwatching, political science

Academic life really does have its perks. Last week I got the opportunity to visit the political science group at Umea University in Northern Sweden. I visited this group back in 2014 and I was keen to revisit because they have international expertise in policy co-design methods, including doing participatory research with multiple stakeholders. For readers of this blog, I very much encourage you to visit them and Umea. It was a magical and unforgettable week and I am very grateful for the welcome given to me by Camilla Sandstrom, Katarina Eckerberg, Irina Mancheva, and the whole group.

Umea is situated at 63.8 degrees north, meaning that you can see the Northern Lights on occasions and the weather is very cold in the Winter, although not as cold as further inland since the city is fairly close to the coast. It was about -15 degrees at night when I was there, but with warm clothing, it was not the type of cold to worry about too much. I stayed at the U & Me hotel in the centre of town which I would highly recommend. About £60 per night, amazing view of the river and Teg (residential area of Umea), good breakfast, lovely rooms (see below).

It was a little tricky walking to the university on the first morning because of the ice, but a good pair of walking shoes prevented any catastrophic slipping. The university looked picturesque in the snow, although apparently it was a very poor year for snow as they usually have much more. It is certainly fun to work somewhere where you can go ice skating on the pond! The political science group have an excellent balcony, which got very warm in the sun, from which to observe the ice skating. On Shrove Tuesday, we had lovely Semla buns! The Swedes take lots of coffee (or ‘fika’) breaks which are an excellent way to chat with colleagues to find out what they are up to. I will be having more fika breaks from now on! They gave me a nice office for the week from which I could observe about 75 Waxwings lining up to feed on the berries below in the late afternoon.

I did do some work whilst I was there, of course, as they had much expertise to help us with our ESRC project on post-Brexit agricultural policy co-design. I gave a lecture to political science students on the subject and they were very interested in our case study. Two seminars were given to the political science group and SLU (Swedish Agricultural University) respectively. The political science group had some useful feedback on our methods and suggested a number of examples of policy co-design processes for us to learn from. Individual chats with group members also provided lots of insightful knowledge for our work and I look forward to future collaboration.

Birdwatching was excellent too. I saw one of only about 20 White-Backed Woodpeckers in the whole of Sweden in one of the wooded areas in Umea after receiving a tip off from one of the political science group (thanks to Katarina Hansson-Forman!). On a trip out of the city, I saw Hazel and Black Grouse (the Black Grouse were having what appeared to be a annual general meeting in the middle of a large lake), Eurasian Three-Toed Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, as well as six Moose! Moose are big!

The highlight of the week thought was the opportunity to witness the managed socio-ecological cultural landscape of the Saami through the eyes of Saami (thanks to Camilla Sandstrom!). Saami are allowed to keep reindeer, which tend to be in the mountains during the summer and nearer the coast in the winter. I helped round up a group of reindeer in the morning, which we loaded onto a trailer and moved 20km or so to pastures new. I was surprised about the size of the reindeer (quite small!), but very interested to hear about the technologies used to herd them (GPS tracking, drones) and techniques used to manage loss caused by large carnivores (wolves, wolverines, bears, lynx, golden/WT Eagles). It was also interesting to hear about how conflicts were managed between herding communities, wildlife organisations, and forest companies. I will never forget my half-day in the forest. For those wondering, Reindeer tastes excellent too!

Finally, I have to say huge congratulations to my friend (now) Dr Irina Mancheva whose public defence I managed to attend.

I met her in 2014 at the start of her PhD journey and managed to be there at the very end. I find that Sweden, and in particular the political science group at Umea, treats PhD students very well. They are well paid, their salaries are pensionable with various social benefits, they have their own office, and the public defence system is a real celebration of their work. We should take note in the UK! Go check out Irina’s suite of papers and read her thesis here. I have taken inspiration from a number of her papers for our work on co-design.




The future of British agriculture: Optimistic or pessimistic?

The future of British agriculture: Optimistic or pessimistic?

The perfect conference to invite an optimistic academic to. The 54th student Agricultural Club conference was held at the University of Reading last night, another tremendous effort from our students to keep this going for the 54th year in a row! The event was well attended by students, staff, and local people involved in the agricultural industry. I actually got a very late call to speak to fill in for someone else, so my slides were rather random and my panel performance rather rambling, but I hope I got my main points across.


The Chair, John Giles from Promar International, asked three speakers (Paul Henman, Promar; Andrew McLay, InnovateUK, and myself) to say whether we were optimistic or pessimistic about the future of British agriculture. With a blog called ‘Academic Optimism’, I could hardly be pessimistic. None of the speakers were overly pessimistic in their ten minutes; although we laid out various challenges, we argued that each could be thought of as an opportunity. There was much overlap with all the speakers pointing to the value of innovation, the importance of a public money for public goods scheme, and the challenges of negotiating good trade deals in a short space of time.

My main points for optimism were (my views):

  1. Innovative mindset of many of our farmers – with greater investment in new technologies (e.g. Transforming Food Production), better knowledge exchange about innovative but non ‘high-tech’ ideas like Agroecology and Agroforestry, there are some really interesting opportunities to grow more with less. Hitting targets like net zero by 2040 will require a mix of technology and non-technology solutions and an innovative mindset can help these come to fruition. It was great to see so many young agricultural students in the audience who had an appetitie for innovation.
  2. Public money for public goods – I spoke about our project (see picture) with Sheffield and Defra on the co-design of the new agri-environment scheme (ELMS) post-Brexit. This is a real opportunity for land managers to be properly rewarded for providing public goods (e.g. clean water, clean air, improved biodiversity, access to nature) instead of being paid for how much land they have (under the CAP regime). ELMS applies to England only, but the devolved nations are likely to have similar schemes.
  3. Increasing consumer awareness of food – consumers are increasingly concerned about the welfare of animals, the environmental standards with which food is produced, and transparency/trust in the supply chain. Although there is always work to be done, British farmers lead the world on environmental and welfare standards, so this is an opportunity to tell a more positive story about the value of our produce.

My main challenges were (my views only):

  1. Slow technology adoption – it can take many decades for new technology to be adopted. We must ensure that an emphasis is placed on technology adoption as well as technology design. We need to invest in good advisory services for farmers to aid uptake of technology, promote participatory user-centred technology design, and understand how to change both developer and user behaviour. We will need to show that new technologies have multiple benefits e.g. economic and environmental.
  2. Social, ethical, legal implications of tech – firstly, we should not get carried away that technology is going to be a silver bullet. There are other solutions that are less ‘high-tech’ that can provide gains. However, if we are thinking about a new vision of farming where AI, robotics, drones, gene editing, aquaponics etc. are increasingly used, we need to anticipate their consequences e.g. on data ownership and privacy, of changing farm workflows on physical and mental health, impacts on farm employment and animal welfare, the challenges of data security, and how it will change the nature of rural communities (see poster on my door below!).
  3. ELMS must be good – the new agri-environment scheme needs to be properly funded, supported by a network of advisors, and not be overly bureaucratic. It will also need to include a wide range of stakeholders in the design of the scheme.
  4. Trade deals and telling a good story – post-Brexit trade deals risk undermining the great work that our British farmers do. If more cheap food is imported (we should insist on standards!) then we will need to sell the high standards of British agriculture better. I referenced many examples of great initiatives to reach out to the British consumer about the brilliant work our farmers do (Facetime a Farmer, Open Farm Sunday) and also individual farmers who do great public work (e.g. Abi Reader, Joe Stanley, Gareth Wyn Jones [and many others]).
  5. Fighting misinformation, but admitting improvements are needed – British agriculture is increasingly finding itself challenged by environmentalists on a range of issues – e.g. pesticide use, climate impacts of ruminant meat production, animal welfare, changing diets – some of these attacks have been unwarranted and based on misinformation. Our so-called unbiased media outlets, such as the BBC and Channel 4, have been guilty of spreading hyperbole. We must all challenge misinformation where we see it, reminding people, for example, that the UK beef and sheep sector only accounts for around 4% of greenhouse gas emissions – if people stopped flying or driving petrol or diesel cars, or made their homes more energy efficient, then we would make quicker progress towards net zero. But then, the TV media seem to like fawning over celebrity environmentalists who promote veganism or climate rebellion one week, before appearing on a Boeing 777 to Australia, driving a Formula 1 car round the world, or featuring in fossil fuel-guzzling car adverts the next. But, some of the evidence is sound and shows that we do need to do better on carbon and on pesticides. We need to take this challenge head on, do better, and then let people know we are doing better.

For blog1

Overall, I’m positive about the future of British agriculture, but our farmers desperately need all the help they can get from the government. Trade deals shouldn’t penalise our hard-working farmers and post-Brexit agri-environment schemes should reward good practice generously. All of those passionate about British farming have a role to play though. If we don’t get out into the world to speak to the consumer, to challenge misinformation, and promote the high standards of our farming, who else will? I walk past this picture on the wall of the School of Agriculture at Reading each day – the message has never rung truer. Back British farmers!


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!