2017 reviewed

I can’t let 2017 pass by without reflecting on all the good things it has brought to my academic life. I’ve had four jobs this year; firstly starting in the Geography department at Cambridge where I was a post-doc, secondly as Director of Studies in Geography at Gonville and Caius College, thirdly a short stint at UCL STEaPP, before finally landing a permanent lectureship at UEA. It’s been a defining year!

One of the best things about doing academic research is getting papers published! It’s such a privilege to be paid to research things of personal interest, which you can then write-up and share with the world. I started a posterboard outside my office at UEA where I attached all different types of publications from the year – academic papers, workshop reports, blogposts, and news articles. Looking at the board (pictured below), it was quite a productive year, even if quite a few papers are still in review.

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2018 should be even better though as I’m aiming to achieve 10-15 academic publications – this certainly seems possible with 3 papers out in January 2018, 2 invited book chapters, a further 5 papers in review, and several more to be written. I’ve always been blessed with fantastic teams of co-authors, who make the writing process such a joy! My productivity is a testament to the constructive collaborations that I’ve been part of over the last few years. It is absolutely crucial to engage in multi-authored research. A senior Geography colleague once told me off for writing too many multi-authored papers as I would lose my individual voice. I’ve learned that such advice is absolute nonsense – large, multi-disciplinary teams bring a wealth of talents to the table, and help to plug the significant areas of weakness that would be present if I tried to do everything on our own. The world’s biggest problems require us to work together, not on our own.

What else happened in 2017 that brought a smile to my face – well two of my second years at Caius got a First, two finalists wrote First Class dissertations,  and all of my students did incredibly well 🙂 I got to travel to glorious Ghent for a conference, and attended a Parliamentary launch of a piece of work that I was involved with (which also made Today in Parliament on Radio 4 [16.35 in]). I also started this blog to share the positive stories of being an academic. Moving forwards I’ve started a list of people who would like to share their own positive stories about academia and they are going to do guest blogs. Do get in touch if you would also like to do this. Merry Christmas and here’s to a productive and optimistic New Year!

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Conferencing in Glorious Ghent!

As I’ve said before, one of the perks of being an academic is that you get to travel all over the world, often with your expenses paid! This week I’ve been in Ghent, Belgium, at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting ‘Ecology Across Borders’. While a few delegates sadly failed in their attempts to overcome European snow, many ecologists beat the elements to reach the ICC in Ghent. There was around 15cm of snow on Monday morning, and with public transport chaos, even getting to the conference venue from the hotel was a great achievement!

I’ll start with the charming city of Ghent. I had a bit of time to explore this fine city around talks and meetings, taking in the beautiful architecture, Christmas Market, and a fair few waffles and hot chocolates (not putting these down on expenses!).

The streets of Ghent are beautiful and there was so much to do – from exploring magnificent Churches, including one containing Van Eyck’s ‘Lamb of God’ Altarpiece, to climbing to the top of a castle, and learning about the history of the city in the STAM museum, Ghent has something for everyone! Did I mention the chocolate and waffles are great…perhaps I already did but it’s hard to overstate the thing of beauty that arrived on my plate at ‘Max’ (see picture below).

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The fantastic choice of location, combined with a vibrant conference, put me in an optimistic mood all week. I heard some great talks, particularly in the ‘People and Nature’ session on Wednesday – two different methods of mapping cultural ecosystem services (one using Flickr, and one involving stakeholders painting maps) were particularly interesting!

I also enjoyed giving a workshop with colleagues (Nibu and Jean) on social science methods in conservation, including interviews, focus groups, Q methodology (Jean), and the Nominal Group Technique (Jean). There is clearly an appetite to use social science methods in conservation more, and our forthcoming special issue of Methods in Ecology and Evolution (out next month) will provide guidance on these useful methodologies. We repeated this workshop with Masters students at the University of Ghent. They were a fantastic, engaging audience and I loved every second of speaking with these talented students. We came up with a pretty good list of challenges facing decision-makers in conservation, as well as discussing who should be involved in decision-making, and which methods may be used to ensure that decisions are evidence-informed.

The policy session in which I talked was also lively, although I was sad to miss the final two talks. I gave a summary of our work with the UK Parliament, paying particular attention to the key messages for academics – these 10 tips are summarised in the latest BES bulletin here. On Twitter, and in the room, I found a voracious appetite for engaging with policy-makers and there are many fantastic role models for ecologists to follow (e.g. Dani Rabaiotti). As a Geographer, I love engaging with predominantly scientific audiences. I believe, however, that social scientists have a duty to engage constructively at such meetings, which is why I focused on providing tangible messages.

I’m glad that some of the key messages seemed to come across on Twitter e.g. (1) the need for concise summaries of the body of evidence, rather than single studies, (2) the need to seize policy windows, (3) and the fact that there isn’t just one science-policy interface, but many interfaces, which are all different!

 

I’m sure I’ll have many more reflections in the coming days. But I left with an optimistic view of conservation because of the quality of the science that I encountered, and the variety of great initiatives to engage the wider public. I also left with renewed optimism about an academic career, which allowed me to travel to such a lovely city, to interact with cool people, and to eat Belgian waffles.

Another fun conference!

As well as the Parliament launch of our report on research use, I also attended an exciting conference last week. The conference, jointly hosted by the Association of Applied Biologists and Defra, was about the Sustainable Intensification of agriculture – in simple terms, how to grow more food without putting pressure on the environment or on agricultural (or wider) society.

As I’ve said in a previous post, one of the joys of being an academic is that you get to travel to cool places and present your work to people (and usually claim the money for it!). The venue for the first day was Rothamsted Manor, which was magnificent. It appears to be a popular wedding venue  and the website tells me that the first record of the Rothamsted estate was made in 1212. The first record of a house was made in 1221, and by the 16th century there was a large manor on site. Nowadays Rothamsted is home to a major agricultural research institution, known for various major experiments, such as Broadbalk and Park Grass. Earlier in the year, I received a tour of the sample archives which was amazing!

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At the conference, I presented findings from my work on Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform. This platform brought together many different universities, research institutions, and industry partners, to work together in an effort to create a step-change towards the sustainable intensification of UK agriculture. My work looked at the attitudes of farmers and advisers towards decision support tools (and other technologies), and I also helped with some work to prioritise management interventions which could be rolled-out nationwide. Several key findings have emerged from our project.

Firstly, there are many factors that determine whether a farmer or adviser will use a decision support tool (or other technology). Of course, the system must perform well and be easy to use, but it must also be trusted, cheap, work with existing infrastructure, fit decision-making workflows, and help answer relevant questions. Tool designers must also implement good delivery strategies that help to market the tool, and make the most of trusted advisers and peers in the farming community. Read more about this here and here. The diagram below is from the Agricultural Systems paper (Rose et al., 2016).

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Secondly, we developed a user-centred design strategy for developers of decision support tools. Below is a diagram from an accepted paper in the International Journal of Agricultural Management, which will come out soon (I will update the blog then with the link). Six steps are needed for good user-centred design – (1) identify who the user is as varying users like different tools and have different questions to answer, (2) make the case for why users should want to use it, i.e. is it better than an existing way of making a decision?, (3) and (4) ask whether there is the infrastructure (e.g. internet) for the tool to work in practice, and consider whether it is easy to use (based on actual user testing), and finally (5) and (6) adopt a good delivery plan and consider how the tool will be maintained after the end of the project. We consider that a tool designed in such a way, in other words with the user firmly involved, will have a greater chance of making an impact in practice. It is insufficient for a developer to imagine the world in which farmers practise, rather they must make the tool fit the real world of on-farm decision-making (see Task Technology Fit theory).

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Lastly, I also discussed the social implications of new technology, including the potential for it to disrupt life on the farm. I have a paper in review about this, more soon I hope! I also talked about a workshop to identify priority interventions for sustainable intensification, but more on this when that paper is published (I hope!).

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It was an exciting day at a really cool venue, and some of the other talks were very interesting. It was good to see some quality social science, such as Sophie Wynne-Jones’ work at Bangor University and Carol Morris at the University of Nottingham, even though it was in the minority. I’m looking forward to future work in this area, and to ensuring that social science plays a big role in future research. Thanks to Defra and Welsh Government for funding this work.

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