Peak Inequality talk: my evening at a Corbynista rally (not strictly true)

I may well regret writing this blog, but my employment situation may soon change for a period of time during which having a political stance is unwise. Therefore, I’ve got a few weeks to make controversial political statements before going into hiding for a few months!

The evening started in a rather perverse way given that I was attending Danny Dorling’s talk on Peak Inequality at LSE. After popping for a look round Somerset House, I observed Simon Cowell, Ayda Field, and Robbie Williams arrive for an X Factor press conference in rather fine Rolls-Royces. Prising myself away from the glitz of X Factor and the tabloid journalists gathered there, I went to LSE to hear the talk.

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Simon in the background. Missed Louis Tomlinson – gutted!

Now, for those that know me really well, a talk from Dorling was never going to be quite my scene, although he is an incredibly well-respected Geographer who has received deserved recognition. To be frank, Dorling’s articles and I never got on well in my undergraduate days, but then again I’m sure he wouldn’t particularly like my papers!

Anyway it was an interesting evening, and enabled me to envisage what a Corbynista rally might look like. There was plenty of praise for Jeremy, of course; for his moral compass and generally for his policies which are absolutely, guaranteed, unquestionably, undeniably, going to reduce inequality. It was claimed that inequality in the UK could be brought down to levels of the 1920s or 1960s, hurrah, the good old days of equality according to Dorling. I did want to ask one question, however – while the evidence was strong that inequality was indeed lower at these times, wasn’t that because everyone was poorer? I wasn’t alive so maybe I’m misremembering…anyway my take-home message was ‘one way to reduce inequality is to make everyone poorer’. Corbyn will be great at doing that!

In summary, the talk was rather like the standard undergraduate Geography essay that my friends and I used to churn out. The essay starts off with a good, forensic critique of neoliberalism, just as Dorling did in his talk (although with very selective evidence and he managed to engineer a Fraser Nelson quote to support his argument). All is going well at this stage because there are many problems of neoliberalism that need to be highlighted. Then the essay does quite a lot of Tory-bashing, mentioning how terrible Margaret Thatcher was, as the talk did, for good measure. But then it presents a socialist utopia – yes, socialism is the answer, let’s not bother to critically evaluate it because the marker is probably a fully signed-up Corbynista, but it’s absolutely fine to make the claim that socialism will definitely make things better. Sadly, this is what the talk did, but I look forward to being proved wrong by reading the book. I felt a little short-changed that we didn’t all start singing ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn’, but maybe next time…

So what’s the moral of the story – well for any students reading, or for any Geography staff, ensure that you critically evaluate socialism just as well as neoliberalism – indeed to offer a balanced education, us lecturers should be insisting on it.

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The post-truth myth and the crisis of academic egos

Based on Rose, D. C. in press. Avoiding a post-truth world: Embracing post-normal conservation, Conservation and Society, DOI (TBC) [note academic paper is restricted to conservation, while this blog uses a wider lens – find in early view section here http://www.conservationandsociety.org/aheadofprint.asp

‘Post-truth’, Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2016, is everywhere you look at the moment. From reading scientific papers, newspaper articles, blogs, and books, you’d be forgiven for thinking that post-truth was some kind of new phenomenon, a new paradigm for the relationship between evidence and policy. The ridiculousness of this has occurred to me for some time now as the first post-truth articles rolled off the press in the midst of apparently unexpected election results in the UK (Brexit) and America (Trump). But the post-truth fad of 2016 shows no sign of slowing down. As I perused the bookshelves of Waterstones, Evans Davis’ book ‘Post-Truth: Why We Have Reached Peak Bullshit’ captured my attention. Now, the latter two words of that title did immediately spring to my mind when I was flicking through the first few pages, but such books are obviously selling well. ‘Why?’, I wondered, ‘surely decades of work in the policy sciences has shown that politics has always been post-truth to an extent?’. Apparently not if some of the recent post-truth contributions are anything to go by, but then again you have to peddle the post-truth myth if you want to sell copies! I much prefer this in The Spectator – “Post-truth? It’s pure nonsense“.

In the context of nature conservation, yet applying just as well more generally, I discuss these issues in my new paper which is in press in Conservation and Society.

I start by asking when the ‘truth phase’ of policy-making existed? This is a question that could just as easily apply to public policy in all areas – seriously, when did the truth phase exist? When did policy-makers make decisions purely on ‘the truth’ [whatever that is] without thinking of other factors, such as beliefs, world views, interests, and practicalities? When was the last election campaign where candidates did not try to stretch the truth or form arguments based on a selective use of evidence? The answer – probably never. If we consider scientific evidence as a primary source of the truth [contentious – see the paper when released!], then policy-making has never been based on science alone – and that is an eminently good thing. I have no desire to live in a technocracy. Science says that we can do all sorts of things, but it doesn’t mean that we, as a society, should do them, a point made by several prominent STS scholars over the years. While better scientific representation in Parliament, or on Science and Technology Committees, might be a good thing, I have no desire to see decisions made by a Parliament dominated by them! [figure below adapted from Rose, 2014, Nature Climate Change]

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So if there has never been a truth phase, surely many politicians have told mistruths, or misused evidence, before? If the recent outcry is anything to go by, apparently it’s a new phenomenon. But, in the UK, didn’t Nick Clegg promise to scrap tuition fees, before then increasing them in government? Didn’t Jeremy Corbyn’s team make repeated pre-election claims that the rise in tuition fees had led to a fall in applications from students of poorer backgrounds, a claim which showed complete disregard for the evidence? Didn’t Gordon Brown et al. claim in 2005 that the Conservatives wished to cut spending by £35 billion, before then admitting they were going to spend £15 billion more than Labour? And what about the record of former PM Tony Blair – what was his record like in terms of making evidence-based decisions?

OK, so those examples are selective and rather unwisely limited to politicians on the Left. I could have pointed to many similar examples of ‘post-truth’ claims by Conservative politicians through the decades – but it makes a change for an academic to criticise the Left first, so why not? My point, however, is simple. Policy-makers have always lied, or stretched the truth (that’s politics!), but it is only very recently that scholars are rushing to write books on post-truth or to claim that there is a ‘crisis of democracy’. A ‘crisis of academic egos’ might be more accurate as scientists realise that not everyone listens to their lecturing from on high (but when did the deficit model of understanding ever work?). One possible comeback from the post-truth protagonists is that post-truth is somehow different – it isn’t about merely stretching the truths or telling white lies, but instead it is the deliberate act of lying without fear of the consequences. Some of those examples listed above, however, as well as many more, surely fall within this description of post-truth. It’s funny that this claim has been made only after a couple of disagreeable election results – does democracy only work if the people get the ‘right’ answer as designated by the intellectual elites?

Although I tactfully try to avoid the subject in the paper, instead sneaking my point into footnote one, I suggest that the recent ‘post-truth’ fad has indeed been whipped up by scholars and other commentators in response to election results that they disagree with. It is no secret, for example, that the academic community in the UK heavily favoured ‘Remain’ in the Brexit vote. It is, of course, perfectly understandable that many academics hold this position – Brexit does potentially create challenges for funding, as well as providing challenges for attracting talent from the EU, and even splitting up families. There was also much evidence to suggest that leaving the EU would cause problems for the economy etc. – although those pre-vote Treasury forecasts might as well have been made by the clairvoyant who lives next to my in-laws. All are good reasons to have backed the Remain case, and indeed to support ongoing protests.

Yet, other people had their own reasons for voting ‘Leave’, including evidence that suggested there would be benefits. Amidst the many claims, there were some spectacular mistruths told by both sides. It is unfair to suggest, though, that the arguments for supporting Remain were somehow the only valid ones. Yet, if you had attended the academic conferences and meetings that I have in the last two years, you’d have thought that the wider public were stupid, ignorant, and devoid of the truth – ah, the deficit model of old! Hardly a conference goes by where someone doesn’t make fun of the public for voting Leave! It’s like a rite of passage – make an anti-Brexit joke early in your talk, or indeed at the start of a coffee break, and you’re part of the club, and everyone will like you. Perhaps it’s worth considering how this looks from outside of the ivory tower.

The major point I make in the paper is that it is too convenient for the academic community, including in conservation science, to blame people for being ignorant and devoid of truth. ‘If only people had listened to the scientific facts’, goes the argument, ‘then the result would have been different’. I will argue in the paper that such a contention is dangerous – it is dangerous because an attitude of ‘we have the facts, we have the truth, you don’t, so listen to us’ is precisely the cause of the gap between academics and the public. The day after the Brexit vote, I walked into the department to shocked people saying that ‘I don’t know anyone who voted Leave, so how could it have happened’.

That is precisely the problem. If the academic community continues to blame such events on people lacking in truth, then it won’t consider that change might be needed. Change, for example, that may lead to a new kind of science better suited to the societies it serves. Lack of engagement with society causes science to be poorly communicated and framed, and may lead to the production of knowledge which is irrelevant to people’s lives. Not including people in the co-production of knowledge further reinforces the idea that academics reside in an ivory tower and therefore do not care about people’s concerns in practice.

Instead of wishing that we lived in a truth world, we should embrace the fact that public policy on the environment, and on other issues, has always been post-normal. As evidence is often uncertain and the policies affect a large number of people, an extended community of people has always been responsible for making policies. Such decisions will not always be based on what the evidence suggests we should do (although it is always likely to play some sort of role), but that is not automatically a bad thing. As Sarewitz argues, let’s stop treating science denial as a disease. In order to succeed in a messy post-normal world, academics need to become better storytellers in order to make their knowledge persuasive and relevant to people. Blaming people for being ignorant isn’t part of that good story!

So the next time you hear the claim that ‘post-truth’ is a new phenomenon, perhaps point out that such a claim may actually be ‘post-truthful’ in itself.

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!)

Towards a new kind of academia

In the last week or so, I’ve done a couple of talks about how we can do academia differently; firstly at the Zuckerman Symposium at UEA to celebrate 50 years of the School of Environmental Sciences, and secondly at a policy event with POST at Kingston University. My school of Environmental Sciences at UEA was the pioneer in its field back in Zuckerman’s day so it’s fitting that I should be part of a department that may once again be part of forging a new kind of academia. My department is great for impact, but I’m going to challenge it to break out of the academic mould and to prioritise this above publication in journals. REF reform will help (see below). My talk at Kingston was described as provocative – good, change doesn’t occur without ruffling a few feathers! I’ve had some interesting discussions on Twitter afterwards too with other visionaries who want to change academia for the better (thanks Niki Rust, Dani Rabaiotti et al.). Some people are leaving academia because they feel they can make a bigger impact elsewhere – we need to stop this! I was heartened by the comments from audience members at Kingston though – there is much support out there for revolution!

 

So what’s wrong with academia at the moment? Well in my view, quite a lot, although it must be said that there are fine examples of innovations being conducted across the country as we strive to make more of an impact on policy and practice. My own department at UEA is great on impact! Indeed, I would be quite wrong again if I left readers with the impression that academia makes no contribution to society – in fact, it makes an enormous difference. Look around us; those innovations, medical breakthroughs etc. have changed our lives.

But, are we doing enough to ensure that all of our academic research makes an impact on policy (notwithstanding that not all research strives to do so)? Well, if the findings of our report on the use of research in the UK Parliament are anything to go by, then no. Academic research was criticised by people in Parliament for being difficult to access, hard to understand, irrelevant to the pressing issues of the day, not concise, and for failing to provide an overview of the body of evidence. And academics were criticised for not engaging well with Parliament, in other words failing to send research to be used in parliamentary debate and scrutiny. People in Parliament are calling out for concise summaries of ‘what works’, but we are tending not to provide it.

In summary, we are not engaging well, nor are we providing what policy-makers want. Take this analogy.

Many years ago I tackled my Methodist Minister after the service about their sermon; tackled verbally I may add! My family were very embarrassed about this, but I have long had a reputation for saying things that need to be said. I tend to be very good at launching metaphorical grenades into the fray, which is good, because you can’t change paradigms without offending people. The subject of his sermon touched on why congregations were dwindling and why young people weren’t coming to Church. So, I asked what the Minister intended to do about it? Why not take the message to where the young people are, in the shopping centres, in people’s homes, in the pubs, at the sports stadiums? Why not invite different types of music into the Church to improve the experience? No, no, no came the replies – apparently that’s not what the Church is. So their approach to boosting the number of young people rested on them doing exactly the same thing that they’d been doing for years, which is exactly the reason why no one was coming. Sound familiar?

I think the same is true of some aspects of academia. We often seem to wonder why few people are listening to us, why for example society isn’t taking the threat of environmental change seriously enough? We often lambast the public for voting in the ‘wrong’ way or for not listening to the experts. We can express great surprise when we encounter members of the public, often keeping them at arms-length and using them for confirmation rather than allowing them to set the path of research in a truly participatory way. We act very surprised when we learn that non-academics think differently from us, hold different values, perhaps not really actively caring about the environment. Well, wake up everyone! People out there largely don’t think like us, so we either continue to do what we are doing, or we start reaching out to people in an inclusive way and telling some relevant, optimistic, and persuasive stories! Let’s get out of the office more – what are we doing sitting in there (except when students need to be supervised of course!)? Society is not in the office!

We certainly don’t solve this problem by portraying the public as stupid in the light of some unexpected election results. We don’t solve it by reverting to the deficit model of understanding. We don’t solve the problem of limited policy impact by publishing jargonistic articles in journals that no one can access or understand. If Jesus was a scientist, he wouldn’t be publishing in Science, he’d be taking the message to the people (he might actually do both!). I did make the point to the Minister that Jesus was successful because he took the message to the people, rather than waiting for them to come to him, but that fell on deaf ears.

So let me throw down the gauntlet to academics, and I do so not in a critical way because we need much more encouragement to produce research that is wise to the needs of government (funders, and universities take note!). I’m going to be taking a message of REF reform to the Universities Minister soon and I’ll be calling on him to join me in changing academia – we need to be incentivised to change so we need help. We need to prioritise policy and societal impact – I’ll be writing on this in the coming weeks and offering some practical suggestions for improving the impact of our work.

 

Why can’t great review papers be 4*?

I was recently involved with a study of evidence use in Parliament, a piece of research led by UCL STEaPP and POST. One of the main conclusions from this piece of work was that policy-makers weren’t interested in the latest, shiny, new academic papers. Since time is precious, they wanted accessible summaries of what the body of evidence said; in other words, nicely summarised syntheses of the evidence. I’ve written about this already here and make similar points in this blog written by a member of the Science in Policy group at the University of Sheffield.

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Imagine my surprise then in my first ever REF progress meeting as a new permanent member of Faculty. When asked to propose my top papers, I immediately suggested a review that I did in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, which I thought was probably my most useful paper. The dismissal was instant – ‘sorry, that’s a review paper, that doesn’t make an ‘original, novel, significant contribution’ to knowledge so that can never be 3* or 4*’. What nonsense is this? We have policy-makers desiring syntheses of evidence, while at the same time criticising academia for not providing evidence in a usable format, and the powers-at-be shaping the REF are actively discouraging evidence synthesis? And as Neal Haddaway said to me after reading this, the novel part is the synthesis! Madness!

Now you might tell me that the impact part of the REF rewards such activity. Well yes, maybe it does. But academic career progression is still mainly linked to your ability to write a 4* paper. As I’ve written here, this seems to motivate academics to spend a good deal of time making up some fancy-words, upping the ‘bull****’ in a paper, and focusing on novelty. The consequence – we end up swimming in an ocean of new information without being able to make the most of what we already have.

The way to make the most of the evidence we have is to synthesise. Now I’ve had some experience of working with Bill Sutherland’s Conservation Science group at Cambridge who are real pioneers of synthesising, and then summarising conservation evidence, in a user-friendly way. This takes great skill and effort. Occasionally I’ve been met with slightly disappointed comments from colleagues when I say that I’ve written a review paper – a sort of patronising tone that might be saying ‘you did a review paper, that’s nice, you weren’t clever enough to come up with something novel, but well done anyway, that will be policy relevant’. This perception that systematic reviews and summaries of evidence are somehow easier than other types of academic papers is nonsense. It is exactly the kind of snobbish attitude that means that great review papers can’t be 4*.

So, answers in the comments section please everyone – why can’t a great review paper be worth 4*? It takes great skill, and it is what policy-makers want.

Call my Geography Bluff…

This week on the train home from UEA, I started reading a Geography paper. To be honest, it’s been a little while since I read something from a Geography journal because much of my recent work has been based either in the agricultural, conservation, or political sciences. As I read the first page, however, the memories of my Geography degree came flooding back…’why’, I thought to myself, ‘have the authors made up so many complicated words and why have they used ten words when one or two would have sufficed?’. Now this is a gross over-simplification – I have seen many examples of great and bad writing in all fields, and there are certainly papers that I’ve written which are unnecessarily complicated in part.

But as I carried on through this paper, all I could think of was the BBC’s old gameshow ‘Call my Bluff’ . For those unfamiliar with this BBC daytime classic, which involved the brilliant Sandi Toksvig in later series, the gameshow was centred around obscure words. One team had to read out an obscure word with a definition and claim that their one was truthful (only one card was the truth). The other team had to guess which definition was truthful.

So let’s try that with Geography. Let’s start with a Foucauldian classic ‘Governmentality’. Is that:

(a) the way in which the state exercises control over, or governs, the body of its populace

(b) the capacity for intellectual thought in a government

(c) David is just really jealous that he can’t make up complicated words to gain a 4* paper and should really shut up

Answers in the comments maybe?

Let’s try another. ‘Glocalization’

(a) Someone mis-spelled globalization

(b) the practice of doing business making both global and local considerations

(c) David still hasn’t written a Geographical 4* paper and is getting increasingly jealous

Another. ‘Tricontinentalism’

(a) “An alternative term to post-colonialism that emphasizes the transnational locations and the political implications of critiques of colonialism and imperialism.” (Dictionary of Human Geography)

(b) “Speaking about three continents at once” (Dictionary of Academic Optimism)

(c) You guessed it…I’ll say no more

Last one. ‘Social constructivism’. Ah we can bring good old Marx in here – I say good old Marx, I tend to have significant disagreements with every Marxist Geographer that I meet. Never been a fan of Marx.

(a) social interaction and processes create knowledge and order in the world

(b) it’s definitely (a), this theory has some merits

(c) still definitely (a), but if you go too far down the road of social constructivism you might think that everything in the world is socially constructed and you’ll think nothing is really real.

OK that was a largely pointless exercise in which I listed a few complicated Geographical words or phrases – I could list many further words that are far more difficult! In response to the first draft of this blog, someone sent me this paper  . I bet this is 4*, prizes for anyone who can tell me what it means. There are some spectacular sentences in it!

My point is simple, however, and it is a criticism not just labelled at Geography. Most of us are using taxpayers money to fund our research, so surely we have some sort of duty to write things in ways that people understand. Too many papers that I read in the discipline are not written in an accessible way. Indeed, papers that I’ve written, and papers from colleagues, have sometimes been criticised by Geography reviewers for being written in too much of a policy relevant, tangible way. We’ve been advised to make the paper more theoretical, and less policy relevant – surely that’s code for less useful. And I knew a former colleague who used the phrase ‘policy relevant’ as a marking code on dissertations that he felt were useful, but not theoretically elegant – yes, they really used the phrase ‘policy relevant’ as a criticism! Madness! I wager that a fair few papers rated 4* are actually no better, nor more useful, than papers ranked 3*, but they are ranked as such because they’ve managed to make up some fancy-sounding word or theory and convinced the reviewer that it sounds cool.

This reminds me of some other conversations I’ve had over the years. I remember a session held at Cambridge by a famous visiting professor on how to communicate more effectively outside of the discipline. This academic arranged a session for early career researchers based on one of the academic’s papers – after speaking for nearly an hour on their own paper, they finally asked for contributions from the early career researchers. My first contribution, perhaps rudely, but it needed saying – was any strategy that doesn’t involve writing an incomprehensible paper like that is good! Surprisingly that started a chain of emails to me after the session in which some of the other ECRs wrote to me privately saying that they were also frustrated about how Geographers sometimes wrote in difficult ways and they felt duty-bound to follow suit. It was disappointing that they felt unable to share this critique in front of big-name Geographers, but I’m never a shrinking violet.

Second story, I’ll always remember the job interview in which I was asked to describe what I did. The interviewer then replied to me with ‘OK that’s a nice bit of consultancy you’ve just described there, but how is it academic?’. To which I answered ‘well it was published in Nature Climate Change, and it’s very policy relevant, so I’m not sure what your definition of academia is, perhaps it is publishing obscure papers in journals no one reads, but that isn’t my definition of academia’. I didn’t get that job but it was fun to render the interviewer completely silent…..

Rant from me over! But let’s try and write more accessible and understandable papers. It isn’t clever to write in a way that no-one bar a few so-called ‘clever’ Geographers understand – mind you that’s made the careers of quite a few big-name Geographers that I won’t mention! It’s far cleverer to write in a clear, concise, and understandable way! The best compliment I had this week was from AHDB, who I wrote a report for – they said that they found it clearly written! They had expected not to be able to read it because it had been written by an academic, but were surprised that they’d been able to read the whole thing in one go! Winning!

Overcoming the barriers to the use of conservation science in policy: time for action

Our open access accepted article on the barriers and solutions to the use of conservation science in policy is now online with Conservation Letters. The main data used in the paper are from a global multi-lingual survey filled in by 758 research scientists, practitioners, or people in policy positions. Do bear with us though – we still need to tidy a little bit of the wording (e.g. last sentence abstract) and add multi-lingual abstracts, the latter of which is such an important thing to do in order to make research more accessible. Stay tuned for the more updated version in a matter of weeks! In the typeset version, the article will be easier to read, as the figures should be in more logical places rather than at the end! We will also be publishing opinion pieces written by several members of the fantastic author team in the near future – hopefully in news outlets all over the world and in several languages! From a personal viewpoint, it has been amazing to work with a diverse list of authors from multiple academic departments and conservation NGOs associated with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (including the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and the Conservation Leadership programme) in the David Attenborough Building. Collaboration between, and outside of, academic disciplines is really where research should be these days!

 

 

 

The most interesting result from our study is that there is agreement (perhaps surprisingly!) between research scientists, practitioners, and people in policy positions about the main barriers preventing the use of conservation science in policy. Although barriers such as lack of policy relevant science, lack of understanding of science on the part of policy-makers, and limited awareness of policy processes from researchers, featured in the top-ten barriers included in the online survey, they were not the most highly ranked.

 

 

Rather, all groups ranked barriers relating to the limited importance of conservation on the policy agenda as most important, as well as the related barrier of lack of funding for science, and finally poor communication between scientists and policy-makers. This suggests that while communication problems, and lack of policy relevance or understanding (less so), are partially to blame for lack of science use, they are not the biggest barriers. Instead, the fact that conservation is not a political priority, or that private sector agendas often dominate and contradict long-term pro-environmental management, seem to be the key reasons why conservation science is not influencing the policy agenda.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the most pressing solutions identified by our respondents do not relate to the production of more science, but rather to winning the hearts and minds of people (both the public and policy-makers; related!) for the conservation cause. One of our respondents said that this does not mean targeting messages to people already converted to the conservation cause. Instead, we need to be inspiring people who are not currently convinced by the need to conserve our environment, who can then put pressure on policy-makers to make good evidence-informed decisions. In the paper, we speculate about whether we need a new kind of conservation science, as suggested in recent papers, that moves beyond a narrow technical approach towards a more inclusive system that involves people in the co-production of knowledge.

 

Figure3
Solutions to top-ranked barriers. Under a CC-BY licence, Rose et al. 2018, see details in first sentence

 

One personal reflection from this piece of work. The list of barriers and solutions in this paper is really nothing new. The fact that different groups from research, practice, and policy backgrounds seem to agree on what the problems and solutions are may initially seem optimistic. If we all recognise how to overcome the problem of lack of science use, then surely this makes it easier to do something about it. Yes, that seems logical. But, this is one of many papers that identify similar barriers and similar solutions. If the same issues continue to be noted, then would it not suggest that progress isn’t being made? If we all agree on solutions, why haven’t we solved the problems?

I can see two logical reasons. Firstly, perhaps the barriers to science use are just too hard to overcome. Certainly, improving the use of science in policy is challenging in non-linear democracies where it is right that values and other forms of knowledge are included in decision-making. Furthermore, convincing people of the need to conserve the environment long-term is challenging when many are understandably concerned about their own lives in the short-term, and may not see benefits in changing their behaviour. In this case, I do not agree that the challenges are too great to overcome. We can present more convincing, optimistic messages about conservation, which can be persuasive and can make the environment relevant to people’s lives. We can present science in better ways so that it is as easy as possible for policy-makers and practitioners to use it.

The second potential barrier to action may be institutional/organisational/even cultural, and here I will talk about academia because of the nature of this blog platform and my own work. I suspect that many research scientists, policy-makers, and practitioners know about the things they can do to improve the use of science. Research scientists could present evidence in clearer, user-friendly ways, and seek to co-produce knowledge with others. But, do they have time to do this and are they rewarded for it? Perhaps not, although this is changing, but can we find ways of doing it anyway? To some extent, I’m sure we can. There are likely to be many other institutional and organisational barriers elsewhere.

What is clear from this piece of work is that there is agreement on what the problems and solutions are to improve the use of conservation science in policy. It would be nice if another survey in five or ten years’ time didn’t find the same barriers and proposed solutions. For this to be the case, action is required from all of us.

When the full version is published, we will include translated abstracts in several languages in the supplementary material.