Social science methodologies in conservation: a response

Today we published a response to an article which purported to respond to a special issue of papers on the use of qualitative methods in conservation science (Methods in Ecology and Evolution), which I had been involved with. To be clear, the response paper from Moon et al. is less of a direct response, for it mainly criticises the special issue for not doing what it never claimed to do (ah good old academia!), but is nevertheless a useful additional paper for those wanting to use social science methodologies in conservation. But straw man alert, straw man! Many of the criticisms of Moon et al. erect a straw man – they criticise the special issue for only providing a limited number of social science methods and say it risks narrowing the field. No, the special issue never claimed to be comprehensive. It is unclear why anyone would think it was, unless as Moon et al. have done, it’s used as a tactic to create a false argument that can more easily be knocked down. I’m off to find a paper on tigers so that I can critique it for not talking about lions.



The purpose of the original special issue, led by the dynamic Nibedita Mukherjee and others, was to present a how-to guide for conservation scientists about a range of qualitative methodologies, which we accept may have been better termed ‘social science’ methodologies (as some of the methods could produce quantitative data). The audience of Methods in Ecology and Evolution are generally natural scientists who will have received less social science training than others who you might expect to be using these methodologies in conservation. As such, we didn’t want to bore readers with discussions of philosophy, which would feel out of place in an instrumental journal, but we wanted to provide accessible guides to help build knowledge of how to perform the methods. From initial feedback to the special issue, I am comforted that the papers have been useful for those who haven’t, for example, used interviews or focus groups before, which can be powerful methods for conservation decision-making. The focus group paper has been highly cited for example. Social science methodologies should be accessible to all regardless of disciplinary background and should definitely not be the sole haunt of a ‘properly trained’ social scientist (whatever that is). We never said philosophies weren’t important, but that is a discussion for another day, something which Moon et al. now provide.

From the tone of our response, you may have gathered that I wasn’t best pleased with having to respond to an article that was more of a supplementary paper to the special issue (but submitted under the guise of a response), rather than being a direct response. We all could have done far more useful things with our time! {in response to a comment, I am happy to clarify that the time-wasting comment is more me being disgruntled with the process used by Methods in Ecology and Evolution, which asked us to do a first response, and then a second response to a significantly changed second version of their response. It would have been better for MEE to wait for the final response before asking us to respond. We did not have to respond but did so to highlight the original purpose of the special issue and to identify areas where we felt Moon et al. had misunderstood its arguments}.

My favourite thing about the Moon et al. ‘response’ is definitely when they criticise the special issue for using the terms ‘social science’ and ‘qualitative’ interchangeably (a fair point), but then insert the word ‘social science’ into a former quote by one of the author team, replacing the original word ‘qualitative’ in the process. It’s obviously easy to do!

Indeed, I question the response mechanism used by Methods in Ecology and Evolution in this case, which seemed to allow Moon et al. to see our initial response to their response, and then change it based on seeing reviewer comments, but also having seen our response to their criticisms. Now I am all for criticism, but I draw the line at helping others to criticise my own work. Essentially, this is what such a system does – if responding authors are able to see the original authors’ response to their response, change their line of attack because they realise it was initially bonkers or easily defended against, then the original authors end up giving ammunition to the responders. Madness! Next time I face such a scenario, we will say nothing of substance in our initial response to the response, so as to give nothing for the other set of authors to work with, and then throw something sassy in at the end. A much better system, instead of going through various time-consuming rounds to improve the initial response, would be simply to reject the initial response if it isn’t very good. Or disallow it for not being a response.

Anyway, enjoy our fairly pointless response to the non-response! I’m off to do something useful…


Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform – revisiting my old postdoc

I was given my first postdoctoral role in November 2014 by Professor William Sutherland and Dr Lynn Dicks at Cambridge, with Lynn adopting the senior author role for most of the resulting publications. Our funding to do empirical work only lasted until November 2015 – as we publish our last paper today, I recap our findings. I’m very proud of the whole team for such a productive year’s worth of outputs:

Here’s the list of five papers:

Rose, D. C.,Sutherland, W. J., et al., Dicks, L. V. (2018). Integrated farm management for sustainable agriculture: lessons for knowledge exchange and policy, Land Use Policy, Full text (OA)

Rose, D. C., Parker, C., Fodey, J., Park, C., Sutherland, W. J., and Dicks, L. V. (2018). Involving stakeholders in agricultural decision support systems: improving user-centred design, International Journal of Agricultural Management 6 (3-4): 80-89, Full text (not OA)Summary blog , Key Figure

Rose, D. C., Morris, C., Lobley, M., Winter, M., Sutherland, W. J., and Dicks, L. V. (2018). Exploring the spatialities of technological and user re-scripting: The case of decision support tools in UK agriculture, Geoforum 89 pp. 11-18, Full Text (Open access)

Rose, D. C., Bruce, T. A. J. (2017) Finding the right connection – what makes a successful decision support system?, Food and Energy Security, Full Text (Open access)

Rose, D. C., Sutherland, W. J., Parker, C., Lobley, M., Winter, M., Morris, C., Twining, S., Ffoulkes, C., Amano, T., Dicks, L. V. (2016) Decision support tools for agriculture: Towards effective design and delivery, Agricultural Systems 149 pp. 165-174 Full Text (Open access)

Plus this one from Lynn’s research on a different work package:

Dicks, L. V., Rose, D. C., Ang, F., Aston, S., Birch, A. N. E., et al. (2018). What agricultural practices are most likely to deliver ‘sustainable intensification’ in the UK?, Food and Energy Security, Full text (OA)

Plus a media article written on our work:

Farmers Guardian/Arable Farming, In support of a better decision,

Take-home messages

Although we had two tasks, one related to decision support system uptake, and the other on integrated farm management practice, there is one common theme. This relates to the importance of involving farmers, advisors, and other stakeholders across the supply chain, in the design of technologies and concepts that ultimately aim to influence practice. Through the user-centred design of technologies, and farm management practices, we can ensure that they are relevant, useful, and practically implementable. For me, this is why it is so great that Defra are actively seeking to co-design new agricultural policies post-Brexit. There are many historical examples of poorly designed technologies and ‘management-speak’ rather than ‘farmer-focused’ policy concepts, and our work gives real impetus to co-design approaches which seek to enable stakeholders to shape research and policy trajectories. I look forward to working with Defra as part of a new ESRC project led by Dr Ruth Little at Sheffield which seeks to understand how agricultural policies can be better ‘co-designed’. I also look forward to developing my research on the social impacts of new technologies on-farm, which are so often forgotten in the rush towards greater productivity.

Do get in contact with me on if you wish to discuss any of this work or if you would like to access any of the papers (though most should be open access).


BBC World Service interview – don’t forget the coal miners!

For regular readers of this blog, you’ll know that I’m an optimistic academic. The remainder of December is going to be filled with various talks and exciting conferences and all paper writing has finished for the year! 2018 has been great – I set myself a ridiculous target of having 10-15 papers accepted in the year. Looking at my paper wall outside my office, I’ve managed to get 13 papers accepted, with 2 book chapters, one technical report, and some other bits of writing elsewhere! Despite the fact that some of the papers are editorials/letters, it’s still been a very productive year! Definitely time for some time off, however! I should have three papers coming out online this month, so stay tuned for them! One is on Integrated Farm Management, one is on Responsible Innovation of Agri-Tech, and the other one is a pointless response to a non-response (fun blog coming about that experience!).


In other news, I was very excited to do my first media interview this week. I’ve always been rather nervous of such requests in the past, because I write better than I talk (I get super nervous), but I thought I’d say ‘yes’ to a request from the BBC World Service. I’m glad that I did – my tip to all budding academics is to say ‘yes’ to as much as possible, even if you are nervous of the new experience.

The World Service was doing a segment about the COP meeting in Poland and asked me to discuss science communication and how policy is made. Listen for yourself here from 32.30 onwards! Many of the questions related to whether you can mitigate climate change while still having an economy dependent on coal – obviously not and I was quite clear about this in my first answer!

But I am sympathetic to the fact that there are many millions of brave men and women throughout the world who work down coal mines or in other fossil fuel industries. You don’t have to tell me how brave they are working in such difficult conditions – I never met my Grandad because he was killed down a coal mine. These brave skilled miners work hard every day to put bread on the table for their families. Now, that is no excuse for propping up a polluting industry (the world changes after all!), but it should provide environmentalists food for thought. We cannot demand instant closure of mines without thinking of the people who work in them. Transitions to a low-carbon economy must be just and we must remember that these miners have dignity. For many decades, society sent them down dangerous mines and told them that they were providing a great service. Now some overly zealous environmentalists refer to them as villains of the world. This is unfair.

We must think about how we create just and dignified transitions, thinking about how we support, re-skill, and provide short-term welfare for those who might lose out from such transitions. Poorer countries will need more help from the developed nations who caused the problem. People are only going to want to do something about climate change if it makes their lives better, not worse!


Anyway, listen for yourself and let me know what you think!

The disruptive environmentalist

This week I did a podcast for a great new blog by Rob Wreglesworth, the so-called ‘disruptive environmentalist’. I also met another disruptive environmental champion for breakfast this week, and for regular readers of this blog, or anyone who knows me, I certainly fall into the category of disruptive too. For those who like my opinionated blogs and tweets, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to calm down in the next few months as I am working closely with Defra (a hard task for me!).

As I was doing the podcast, I was trying to think what is meant by ‘disruptive’. At breakfast with the unnamed environmental champion, we discussed that disruptors were better than agitators. Agitators try to antagonise for no good reason, but disruptors try to blow a hole in an argument or a way of doing things, but have the capacity to enable it to be rebuilt. Disruptors challenge, but are always willing to provide solutions. This is vitally important – I see far too many academics/environmentalists criticise without providing any evidence-based solutions.

What might environmentalists want to disrupt? Well, the obvious starting place might be existing ways that society interacts with nature, which is leading to biodiversity loss. We might try to identify problems here and propose solutions to overcome them. But what about trying to disrupt narratives put forward by environmentalists? Is that a good target for disruption, or hadn’t we ought to be challenging these if we are also fellow environmentalists?

Well one of my lines from the upcoming podcast might tell you what I think. In a discussion about whether environmentalists are finger-pointing too much and talking ‘down’ to people who don’t share their values, I exclaimed – ‘absolutely, environmentalists are very good at sitting in their hipster cafes eating smashed avocado on dry toast and pretending that they’re holier than thou’. Sure, they are eating a vegan breakfast, but they’ve only done the two international academic conferences this year, and a backpacking adventure round Thailand. Before you send the Twitter mob, read this paper . Environmentalists rarely ‘walk the walk’ in terms of reducing their carbon footprint, so let’s stop the finger-pointing towards other people. In a democratic society, it’s perfectly acceptable for someone not to put the environment at the top of their agenda – but we are getting terribly good at saying the electorate are stupid for making decisions that the so-called ‘intellectual’ community don’t agree with.

There has always been a certain element of surrounding ourselves by the people and views that we relate to – e.g. choosing which newspaper we read and who we socialise with. It’s the same now with social media, we choose who to follow and whose views we want popping up on our feed. But there can be little doubt that polarisation is getting worse. We are getting very bad at having intelligent debates about the environment, and very bad at disagreeing well. We are getting to the point where we finger-point immediately – shooters, bad people, intensive farmers, bad people etc. etc. – this is hardly a good idea when we need everyone to be stewards of the environment.

I’m excited for the podcast to come out. The point I wish to stress is that while we can certainly aim to disrupt the processes that are leading to environmental degradation, we can also be reflexive enough to criticise our own behaviour. Some of this behaviour, particularly the finger-pointing and the tendency to dismiss other people’s values, is not helpful to the conservation cause. Sometimes, therefore, it is our own behaviour that needs to be disrupted.

Being a lecturer: 1 year on

I’ve now been a lecturer for over a year, although I did some teaching before this. According to the dominant narrative put forward by many lecturers, I ought to have had a terrible year. I’d have been marking exams, doing admin, preparing lectures, doing research for at least 10 hours a day, my personal life would be in meltdown, and my love for teaching would have thoroughly diminished. Newsflash everyone – it’s been great thanks and I’ve enjoyed it so much!

Sure there have been a few long hours, but not half as long as the hours my wife puts in, and it certainly can’t be considered hard work as compared to millions of other people in other professions around the world. As my father-in-law would say to teachers/lecturers, try running your own business before complaining that you have the world’s hardest job. Or try going down a coal mine as my late grandfather did, or try being a solider, or working in a warehouse for hours with little pay, or a surgeon, or a police officer, or a hill farmer in Snowdonia in the middle of winter (and many of those farmers were the friendliest and most positive people I’ve met) etc. Not that the advice will be taken on board – gosh we do love to moan – I will never forget the world’s worst train journey last month after being seated next to two academics who moaned ALL the way home. I nearly had to intervene – ‘if you hate it that much guys, go and do something else’. This blog is unashamedly optimistic to try to bring a little bit of balance to the world…

Still really enjoying it

Anyway here we are one year down the line, appraisal went OK, I’m still enjoying life even though I’m on the train en route to give a lecture about plagiarism – now that is mind-numbingly boring, although pretty important. But my lectures are a bit mad so we will hear from Melania Trump, Barack Obama, Marvin Gaye, and Ed Sheerhan (not in person sadly). Then hopefully after an hour most people will still be awake!

So what advice can I give from my first year of lecturing? The best piece of advice is just to do the job your way. Yes, there are conventions and received wisdom about how you do things, but find what works for you and stick to it. Try and judge whether the moment is right to draw a line in the sand and say I’m doing it this way, or whether in fact it’s a battle you don’t need to fight (I’m a terrible judge of this!).

You may be advised to do detailed lesson plans days or weeks before or to think about innovative ways of making your lectures more interesting. My advice would be, just make sure you give a good, informative lecture and make sure it’s ready by the time you give it. And you don’t necessarily need colouring pencils, highlighters, sticky notes, or lego to make your lectures more interesting – we are teaching an academic subject, not teaching how to build William Shakespeare out of lego (see lego shop in London). And remember, we are teaching university students, not 5 year-olds! Mind you, I couldn’t resist a bit of science communication artwork on the fieldtrip to Devon:

I’m all for innovation, but do remember that academia is a somewhat serious business (although don’t take yourself too seriously) and therefore you have to convey points in a scholarly way (bar Ed Sheerhan). As for the emails and admin – just get it done as soon as you get it, so it doesn’t linger.

Then my most important piece of advice is to always remember why you became a lecturer. Most probably it will be because you love to research or teach, or both! And being a lecturer, you get to do both! Don’t fall into the trap of blaming teaching/students for restricting your research output – you are paid to do both and students should never be seen as a disruptive influence on your work. In fact, in-depth debates with students often help your research!

So in summary, what’s not to love about being a lecturer? Granted you may have your own valid reasons why you don’t feel that way, and I openly acknowledge these in the ‘about’ section on this blog. But when a huge pile of marking lands on your desk, I always think it’s helpful to remember the benefits of the job – decent pay, the chance to inspire inquisitive young minds, the ability to pursue your own interests often with taxpayer’s money, the chance to travel the world, and let’s face it work more flexibly and less hours than millions of people in this country. Taking cake for students also helps, as does taking it to incredibly helpful support staff! Here’s to another year…

Enjoying my travels

How to change farmers’ (or anyone’s) behaviour: new report and editorial

I’m excited that our report on farmer behaviour change written for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board is out today – plus the accompanying editorial in Food and Energy Security. This was the result of 8 weeks of work so the literature review is certainly not systematic in the purest sense of the word! Thank you to Dr Carol Morris (Nottingham) for her invaluable input into the project, to Dr Emilie Vrain (UEA) for her input to the editorial, and to Connor Keating who did all the hard work for the report! Congratulations to Connor on his first academic publication!

The report and editorial encourages us to move away from an approach to behaviour change which focuses on the individual farmer, often characterising him/her as a problem non-adopter whose behaviour needs to be influenced. Focusing on the individual farmer rarely works. They are rarely the only decision-maker on-farm, instead relying on advice from family, friends, advisors etc., and thus a whole host of different people need to be involved if behavioural interventions are going to work. We also suggest that it might be more productive if new practices/innovations were designed with stakeholder input so that they already fit farming workflows – then researchers or industry groups wouldn’t have to bother with trying to change behaviour!

We also hint at the wider critique of behavioural approaches that seek to place the emphasis on end user behaviour, rather than critiquing the wider system responsible for driving decisions. Our suggestion to move beyond an individual approach to behaviour change actually does little, if anything, to address this concern. Thus, we should always consider whether we are addressing the right driver on the spectrum from policy decision to on-farm implementation – the barriers to adoption may in fact be present in the policy frameworks decided upon at a high level! In such a scenario, blaming a farmer for non-adoption is nonsensical.

Our aim is to encourage those who wish to influence farmer behaviour to think in a more critical way before deciding upon a course of action. Firstly, consider whether changes to policy drivers might be the most effective way of encouraging change. Maybe the system is working against the change you wish to implement. Secondly, consider whether changes in your own behaviour, for example involving end users in the design of farm practices/innovations, might be more beneficial. Then finally, if you consider that it is farmers’ behaviour that needs to be changed, ensure that you involve all key decision-makers (e.g. advisors, family, friends, landowners) in behavioural interventions.

Tremendous Trent: on tour in Ontario

A trip to Peterborough usually doesn’t sound too exciting (with no disrespect to the people of Peterborough, UK!). However, Peterborough, Ontario, and specifically Trent University was a much more attractive proposition for a Geographer who’d never been to North America before.

Trent University is a new partner university for the University of East Anglia – we are going to get some student exchange going and perhaps a series of joint activities, including a Model Arctic Council. Hopefully this blog will inspire our students, and even staff, to take a trip to Southern Ontario! We’d be very happy to see Trent staff and students at the UEA too. Special thanks to Professor Heather Nicol and Kate Logan from Trent for hosting me!

Let’s start with Peterborough, Ontario, a city about 2 hours drive from Toronto, or fairly easy by coach or train/bus (I did the train, and then someone picked me up). The coach on the way back, on the other hand,…best to leave it there.

Peterborough (or Peterbro as the locals seemed to pronounce it) is a fairly small city (about 80,000), certainly smaller than Norwich. It’s typically North American with front porches on nearly every house and a grid-like planning system. The main attraction, like Trent, is the location of the city on the Otonabee River. I highly recommend Silver Bean cafe, which looks out over the river and may provide an opportunity to spot a Beaver or other exciting wildlife.

Trent University was a delight – welcoming, friendly staff, punctual, enthusiastic students – and set in a beautiful location. There is a college system, which made a Cambridge alumnus feel at home – the five colleges are (wait, this is a test of memory!) Lady Eaton, Traill (downtown), Otonabee, Champlain, and Gzowski. Students can swim in the river (not in the freezing winter!) or take advantage of the fantastic sports facilities and wildlife trails. Trent is known as a rowing hub with Olympic rowers being part of the team – they also play Baseball, Soccer, and even Rugby, amongst lots of other things!

Our UEA students, however, would not feel out of place. The universities were built at a similar time and so the concrete buildings and raised walkways will provide a familiar feel. The university is also about 10-15 minutes out of town just like the UEA.

So I’d describe Trent University as similar to the UEA, only on a bigger scale – not in terms of student numbers which are lower, but in terms of the landscape in which it is situated. UEA has a cool lake and small river and some lovely wooded areas; Trent has a rather large river, and miles of wildlife trials and forest, with a couple of hydropower dams nearby. The bird list was pretty good, as was the mammal list, although the Beaver was elusive, and I didn’t see a bear or wolf on a rare wander into the city limits. I think the Health and Safety Committee at the UEA were happy about that. It was amazing to see so many Monarch butterflies.

I lost track of how far I walked!

I spent much of my time in the School of the Environment. The overlap between our degrees was very interesting, particularly our Geography courses. Trent has some interesting specialisms, however, including in indigenous knowledges that our students would benefit from. They were also keen to take advice from areas of UEA specialism, for example in climate change science and policy. They are also celebrating 50 years like our department!


Overall, I had a great week and spoke to a number of different classes about the UEA (most were large classes, this photo is from the small one!), as well as doing a couple of guest lectures for the environmental scientists. I even had an opportunity to appear on the ‘Trent Travels’ student radio section!

I also had the opportunity to speak to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry at their building in Peterborough. This talk had a great audience, including several people dotted around Ontario via video link. I spoke about how to improve the use of environmental evidence in policy, and they were a very appreciative audience – particularly of my pink trousers. I also found out about a local Wild Turkey roost which was quite a spectacle as I caught up with the electronically-tracked birds later in the evening. Seeing huge turkeys flying into trees is amazing!

I also stayed at an absolutely wonderful Air B n B hosted by Larry and Donna. The value-for-money (about £55 per night) was ridiculous, with a well-stocked larder, and a well-stocked bird feeder outside the room attracting numerous woodpecker species, several Chickadees, and lots of Chipmunks. It’s the first time my bedroom has acted as a bird hide!

The local supermarket was interesting too, no small portions to be found there! And Kyoto coffee did a great egg sandwich!

All-in-all, I can’t wait to return. I can’t wait for our students at the UEA to experience it too! I managed to sneak a quick trip to Niagara in too, a must for any Geographer!