Academia – 1 year completed…

Although it’s not quite one year since I started my first permanent position at the University of East Anglia, my first ‘academic year’ is practically over. I’ve enjoyed marking the exam papers over the last week or so, and I’m having a great time interviewing students in the School of Environmental Sciences who have applied for a paid summer internship with me on knowledge exchange in agriculture.

It’s been a little while since I started this blog with an optimistic outlook on academic life – although much of this blog has been devoted to my research since then, my optimistic view of the profession has not changed. I still consider myself very lucky to do this role, to help shape the minds of the next generation and to learn from them, and to be able to pursue my own research interests. For those budding academics out there, why wouldn’t you want to do this job? It’s great!

Have there been long hours? Well, yes, I’ve worked many late nights and weekends to push my research onwards, but in comparison to millions of other people out there who work longer, harder, and for less reward, it’s a very comfortable life – a fact that I will never forget. And it’s certainly not impossible to write papers, teach, and do admin at the same time – I set myself an ambitious target of 10-15 academic outputs in the 2018 calendar year. I’m currently on 7, just less than half way through the year, with many more in late stage review. So I might just hit the upper bound…

I’m trying to do academia my own way though as regular readers of the blog might know. True, I have been focusing on getting lots of academic papers written, despite the fact that I don’t think it is the best way to measure success. Hypocrisy noted! But, I’ve not been sitting in my office waiting for things to happen – as much as possible, kindly helped by my department, I’ve been out in the world meeting as many different people as possible so that I can make a difference to environmental policy and practice. Indeed, I’m just off to meet an independent environmental consultant who is doing some interesting work trying to create dialogue between diverse, and often conflicting, stakeholders in environmental land management settings.  I’m really excited to present at the Royal Norfolk Show at the end of the month and to meet the Universities Minister when his diary allows. I’m also really excited to speak at various outreach events this month, at the UEA Sixth Form Conference and at a UCAS event.

But, probably the most interesting thing I’ve done this year is to drive a forthcoming partnership agreement with Trent University, Canada. We hope to foster student exchange between Trent and UEA, and run a ‘Model Arctic Council’ next year at UEA attended by some Trent students. Who knows, in future UEA could act as the host for a Model Arctic Council attended by students from across the Arctic states.

Lastly, did you hear that the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia is 50 years old this year? Back in 1968, the school was a real innovator in inter-disciplinary environmental science and continues to be internationally respected for its work on current environmental problems, such as climate change and biodiversity loss. While other institutions are now rightfully promoting inter-disciplinary ways of working, the 50 year anniversary provides us with a renewed sense of purpose. We’ve had a ground-breaking 50 years, but now is the time to lead again.

But just as the new ways of working in 1968 were innovative for the time, we must continue to evolve so that our School of Environmental Sciences is fit for the modern world. We still face many of the same challenges that have been faced for several decades. But can we really say that we have got it right in terms of convincing wider society of the need to prioritise the issue of environmental protection? Can we really say that we have developed participatory ways of working where we are listening to society and co-designing solutions with them? To some extent, maybe, and see here for the work of the ‘3S’ group on the latter question.

But we can do better. We can look around for inspiration – co-location exercises, represented by the David Attenborough Building in Cambridge where NGOs and academics work together in the same building, offer some inspiration. Our department already offers some co-location, for example hosting representatives from Cefas and Anglian Water. This is a great start. But moving forwards, we need to find ways of working and of communicating more effectively with civil society so that we can solve our environmental problems together. This partially requires us to change academia, to incentivise impact over academic publication, and to reach out more to others outside of academia who have similarly important things to contribute to environmental stewardship. In simple terms, it means getting out of the office more and crucially listening to other people!

And to all those A-Level, undergraduate, and graduate students out there thinking of a great place to study cutting-edge environmental science….the School of Environmental Sciences is a fantastic option! Not every staff member is quite as mad, subversive, and outspoken as me, but we are all united in our commitment to change the world for the better! And that means taking care of our environment that offers so much to us!

More next week on the myth of post-truth and the crisis of academic egos! (warning: may offend!)

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