Aims for 2018

It’s always hard to imagine where you will be, and what you’ll be doing come the end of the year. It is possible, however, to start each year with a few academic goals that you are determined to achieve by New Year’s Eve! The trick here is to be optimistic, but not over-demanding. In other words, goals must be realistic in the time available, but they should also challenge you to work hard.

This year I have set a goal of achieving 10 outputs, with an upper bound of 15 papers overall. Now this might seem rather enthusiastic since I’ve never achieved that many in a year before. But, the year thus far has been rather like how Hollywood movie releases sometimes go for actors, i.e. you film several films over a number of years, before finding that they are all released at the same time. Rather like waiting for a London bus for 15 minutes, before finding that three come along at once. I’ve had three papers out in January, all first author (one co-lead), two more are on the cusp of acceptance (one first author), and I’ve been asked to write two book chapters this year. With other papers in preparation and review, it therefore seems an achievable target.

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Second goal – perhaps this is somewhat meaningless, as many people think academic metrics aren’t particularly useful. It’s true, they don’t tell you everything, but I still keep an eye on the h-index now and again. At the moment it’s languishing at four, but at least the citation graph is showing a good trend! By the end of the year I want that closer to ten, which will involve more good-quality paper writing, and good dissemination of existing papers. With a h-index of nearer ten, and with 10+ papers written in the year, I’d be happy with my progress at PhD+4 in December 2018.

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Thirdly, I’d love to gain a big research grant and/or a PhD student. I absolutely love teaching and I would be so excited to guide a PhD student optimistically through their studies. I am going to explore collaborative studentships and other opportunities, which would mean that I gain the funding required to attract an excellent student to do their PhD with me. Roll on 2018!

 

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Using interviews in conservation science

Today we published a paper in Methods in Ecology and Evolution on the use of interviews in conservation science. Co-led by myself and Juliette Young, it will be published in a special issue devoted to the use of qualitative methods in conservation, spearheaded by methods expert, Nibedita Mukherjee (senior author). We conducted a literature review on 227 papers which had used interviews in a conservation-related study of decision-making. Our paper found that many of these papers fail to report on the use of interviews carefully, sometimes leaving the reader struggling to make a judgement about what the researcher has done. I have fallen into this trap many times before, probably because reviewers don’t always insist on robust reporting of qualitative methodologies. Moving forwards, I will try much harder to do the following: justify why I’ve used a particular type of interview, give details on sampling, say whether I piloted it, provide a clear interview guide, and show how data led to conclusions.

We hope that the paper is accessible to both seasoned users of interviewers, and also those who haven’t used them before. For interview newbies, we provide a step-by-step guide on how to use interviews in research (see picture below).

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Step-by-step interview guide. Taken from Young et al., 2018, Methods in Ecology and Evolution (link provided in blogpost). Material is reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

For interview veterans, we provide some recommendations on how to report on the use of interviews clearly in published material. To help us do this, we need reviewers (i.e. us!) to insist on proper reporting, even if this means lots of supplementary material is generated. While qualitative research might not always be reproducible, we should still leave the reader in no doubt about what we did.

The publication of this paper means a lot to me, and brings me particular joy. Although all co-authors are fantastic, there are three particularly wonderful names on the author list: Esha Marwaha, Jay Shah, and Stephen Parkinson (see pictures below). They are all undergraduate students at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, who I was fortunate enough to look after for two years. I’ve still not fully recovered from having to leave them in June, but I’m excited for them all to graduate this year! They did some great work on this paper, and I congratulate all of them on their first publication! Esha may be interested in pursuing an academic career, and I optimistically predict that this will be the first publication of many for her.

 

How might technology change life on the farm? (and not always for the better!)

Today, we published a paper looking at how both technology and agricultural society can be re-scripted by use in practice (apologies in advance for the slightly complicated writing style: Latour + Geography journal isn’t an ideal recipe for simple language). In other words, we looked at what happens to both technology and agricultural society when new technologies are launched into a farm environment. While the relationship between technology and society is a common subject of research, interactions on individuals farms have rarely been looked at in a spatial way.

This research formed part of Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform. Firstly, we looked at how decision support tools were being used by farmers and advisers in practice. We wrote a previous article on the good design features of decision support tools, which was always interested in whether farmers used them or not. The question of whether they are used, however, is not sufficient to gain a full picture. For example, an affirmative answer given by a farmer might give a system developer confidence that the system was being used as intended by the designer. Yet, we found little evidence that decision support systems would be blindly followed by users; instead, they would use them alongside their own situated, experiential knowledge. Systems could be resisted, negotiated, and changed, and used in ways not intended by the designer. Think of how you use technology in your own life here – Apple has designed the iPhone to perform many functions – phone calls, whatsapping, internet browsing, texting – and many of us will do all of those things. My father owns a smartphone though and he usually only ever makes phone calls! So while the product could do lots of things, we all use it in different ways! It’s the same with decision support systems in agriculture – each farmer will use them differently.

The most interesting part of the study concerned how the introduction of technologies could affect life on the farm. There has been lots in the news recently about the potential side-effects of new technology – from autonomous vehicles and robots taking jobs from humans to sex robots fundamentally changing human relationships to the potential for armageddon. Back to our own lives once again and the same example of the smartphone – think about how that has changed your lives. Does it make you interact with people less in the real world, including your partner? Does it make you less likely to think for yourself? The introduction of the technology into your life has simultaneously changed your life.

Our study found that the introduction of technologies had the potential to change life on the farm. To some extent this is well-known – with the mechanization of agriculture, technology has replaced human labour and hence changed agricultural society. However, we also found that it could change things at the individual farm scale. We found, for example, that the use of decision support tools could change how farmers interacted with their land, spending more time in the office instead of in the field. The changing workflow required to use new technologies might be welcome for some, but we found evidence that some farmers might enjoy their life less if they were forced to accept some systems. There is certainly much more work to be done in terms of understanding how agricultural society might be affected by new technologies. But, the crucial point of our paper is that technology DOES change agricultural society – and therefore when researchers, designers, and policy-makers find the next big technological innovation, the farming community should be considered. Yes, there may be benefits to production, but is progress worth it if there are social side-effects? We hope that developers of technology think of their users, and wider society, when designing tools, and develop a social conscience. A large body of literature in STS might help them! In agriculture, talking to farmers would be a good start…

Finding a formula for academic optimism (Guest blog: Charlotte Payne)

Charlotte is a postgraduate student at Cambridge. Her PhD fieldwork is
in Burkina Faso, and focuses on the environmental and socio-economic
impacts of harvesting edible caterpillars. She blogs about her work
here and is (unapologetically optimistic) on
twitter @libertyruth

Spoiler: Idealism + cynicism + humour… = optimism!

My research focuses on edible insects. I love it, and I’m very optimistic about it. But arriving at that optimism wasn’t a straightforward process.

When I first began to pursue this line of research, I was driven by a combination of idealism and humour. I was searching for a way to ‘do good’ with the skills I’d already acquired.

I had done a project on insects as food for chimpanzees, and I’d really enjoyed it. I’d loved spending time in the Ugandan forest and being given glimpses into the extraordinary lives of chimpanzees, both through watching their behaviour and also through sifting through their feces each evening! I’d also done my own bit of participant observation when my supervisor and I, watching the chimpanzees enjoying a feast of weaver ants, tried eating them ourselves. Discovering their bitter, citrusy flavour was a delightful surprise.

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Foraging for termites like a chimpanzee

When back in the UK, I began to think a little more about the insects that the chimpanzees were eating, and I read about their potential role in human evolution. I was intrigued and amused by the idea that eating insects may have contributed to the human condition.

Yet, Uganda had taught me something else. I’d also worked on a project looking at crop raiding by chimpanzees and elephants, and this had given me a glimpse into another kind of life altogether: People struggling to make a living on the edge of a protected area.

I knew then that I wanted to do research that could have a positive impact. But the insects were so compelling… So, when I came across a handful of old articles positing that edible insects are a low-impact alternative to meat, which if popularised could empower the disenfranchised, challenge Western prejudice and cross cultural divides, I realised I’d found what I had been looking for: Something that might have the potential to combat a lot of the world’s problems and keep a smile on my face.

This was back in 2011, when edible insects had not yet hit mainstream media, and the first academics I spoke to about it laughed in response. I felt like I was mad, but a good kind of madness, so I laughed along with them and didn’t give up. Laughing at the strangeness of your own ideas is no reason not to also take them seriously.

So I remained staunchly idealistic, but my formula wasn’t yet complete. I was still missing one thing: A healthy dose of cynicism.

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Edible insects are a source of happiness for many people

Seven years on, with several esoteric research projects and papers in this curious and emerging field under my belt, I’m a bit more realistic, and yes, this does make me cynical. I do not believe that insects are ‘the answer to everything’, and often I find myself discussing how problematic it can be to think in that way.

But you know what? I still think insects are wonderful! And importantly in terms of optimism, I’m still driven by the desire to solve problems that I care about. The problems that edible insects were posited to solve – malnutrition, environmental degradation, wealth inequality, socio-political oppression – are still around and I’m exposed to them a lot in the work that I do. So while I’m still laughing, I’m also crying (especially when I write up my results…), but I remain convinced that I can have a positive impact, and I’m confronted on a daily basis by how much more I have to learn. What more can we ask for from our work?

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This is the kind of joy that academic pursuits can bring

To summarise – I am optimistic about being in academia because it allows me the freedom to pursue quests for knowledge and change that make me laugh and cry; to indulge my idealism, my cynicism and my sense of humour in one fell swoop.