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.

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