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!

Influence policy with your science!

Another blogpost from me this week – it has been a busy period! It was great to see this article by science writer, Julia Rosen, released in Nature this week. The purpose of the article is to provide tips on how to influence policy with science, based on the research of various experts from around the world. One such expert, Dr Megan Evans, gives lots of useful advice on connecting with policy based on an excellent paper released earlier this year. Do stay tuned for a book chapter co-authored by Megan, myself, and Dr Rebecca Jarvis, which is to be published later this year. This chapter will provide advice on how to engage well with decision-makers of all kinds and should be available open access alongside a number of other chapters on how to link conservation research, policy, and practice!

In the Nature article by Rosen, I stress two main points. Firstly, it is useful for scientists to network with policy-makers, particularly by working with them face-to-face. Out institutions aren’t geared to encouraging this, but we can change this! Even though we are now able to connect with people across the world at any time in a number of different formats, there is no substitute for face-to-face working. I will be putting this into practice with a secondment to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (UK Government) later this year.

Secondly, I stress the importance of evidence synthesis. As research led by POST and UCL STEaPP found late last year, policy-makers rarely want to hear about the latest shiny, new academic paper. Instead, they want to know what the body of evidence says and preferably want to know which policy options work in practice. Something like the Conservation Evidence project is a good example of how to collate evidence systematically so that a policy-maker can quickly assess the body of evidence and adopt policies that are likely to work. This reduces the chances of making a costly, wrong decision.

Lots of other great tips are provided by other experts throughout the article. Enjoy!

Sustainable intensification: actions not words

Our article on priority practices for sustainable intensification in the UK came out this week in Food and Energy Security. Led by Dr Lynn Dicks (UEA), and funded by Defra, this paper identifies a series of management options which can lead to sustainable intensification if put into practice on-farm. The paper also assesses whether these options are currently widely practised, which in some cases, is actually the case. We also looked at whether farmers would consider implementing practices that were not currently carried out. I have a Masters students currently doing a project which seeks to explore the reasons behind why farmers will or won’t consider various options for sustainable intensification.

It’s great to see this article out. The fieldwork for this paper began on the first day of my first post-doc when Lynn, Bill Sutherland, and I were all in the Zoology department at Cambridge. Lots has changed since then, including both Lynn and I moving to the University of East Anglia. The research could not have been done without the collaboration of a whole host of individuals and organisations who are listed as co-authors.

We hope that readers enjoy the paper. From a personal perspective, it’s great to propose tangible actions for sustainable intensification. Too often, we have obsessed over definitions of sustainable intensification, or indeed whether that term is even useful. I’ve written before about the tendency of some academic disciplines, including Human Geography, to critique ideas until they are blue in the face. While this is often useful, this should not be done at the expense of action when the general idea is good.  Of course there are many valid arguments that say we don’t need to produce more food if we distribute existing resources more fairly and wasted less. But I don’t think anyone would dismiss the basic idea that it would be good to produce food more efficiently while having less of an impact on the natural environment. For me, that is what sustainable intensification seeks to do, and for the first time we have tangible actions to put into practice on farms across the UK.

If we work together with farmers and the farming industry as a whole, we can start to make progress towards a more sustainable and efficient system of food production in the UK. Do let us know what you think about the list! Of course, some options are more applicable in certain farming sectors than others. The paper is open access!

Here is the list of 18 options in picture form below – not all are high-tech, one, for example, suggests further training and skill provision for farm workers.

*In response to a comment received, I accept that we did use a definition in the workshop, which influenced the list of interventions above. We defined SI as an activity that provided productivity, environmental, and social benefits, or any one such benefit without a net loss elsewhere. My point here is simply that a number of definitions have been proposed, many broadly along the same lines. With this in mind, and the general idea being good, it’s time to move towards actions.

Working with defra

I announced in the last blog that I am soon due to start a period of time working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). I’ll be working with Defra, not for them. The motivation for this is twofold (1) to enhance my own understanding of government policy-making, and (2) to contribute social science expertise to the formation of post-Brexit agricultural policy.

I’ve written about the relationship between science and policy-making for some time. Papers have encouraged academics to tell policy-relevant stories, frame their research persuasively, identify policy windows, and synthesise evidence in a user-friendly way while engaging in good networking with policy-makers. I have written here before about how academic incentive structures could further evolve to encourage this.

I really do think, however, that the best way for an academic to influence government policy is to spend some time working directly with policy-makers, as argued by this excellent paper on how ECRs can have policy impact. Although I’ve done plenty of policy-maker interviews, and been involved with a study of Parliament which undertook surveys and participant observation, it would be wrong for me to say that I fully understand how policy is made. I have never been a policy-maker so I’ve never seen first-hand what happens. Much of my understanding of government policy-making probably stems from programmes such as Yes Prime Minister, as well as the academic literature. So I am excited to see how policy is really made, including the constraints on the use of evidence, and find out how academic knowledge can be presented in a more impactful way.

I hope to be able to make a difference to post-Brexit policy too. As I have written before, I’m all for co-location; i.e. more regular interaction between academics and civil society. To be frank, I live in London, but my university is in Norwich. The job of a lecturer in fourfold; (1) to teach (my favourite bit), (2) to research, (3) to do admin, and (4) to engage users of research. On the days that I’m not doing 1-3, I generally work from home (well, a local library) in London. What’s the point of going all the way to Norwich to sit in my office and shut myself off from the world? Why not make the most of my London location and go and work directly with policy-makers in Defra who are working on things that matter to me professionally and personally? It strikes me that I’m far more useful working on shaping policies in Defra than writing an academic paper in my local library. This is far more likely to make a difference to the world than my latest paper published in a journal that no one in the outside world ever reads. The sooner academics, and those incentivising academics, wake up to this, the better!

My work at Defra will be bound by the Official Secrets Act and I’ll have to be careful about making political statements. So, while I won’t be able to tell people exactly what I’m doing, I look forward to gaining knowledge more generally about how evidence is really used in policy, and how academics can improve the chances of policy impact. Maybe I’ll hypocritically write a paper about it when I finish…