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.