Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Brief encounter

Can streetwise townie Sue have anything in common with Relu who has come up from the country for the day? Could it even end in engagement? Like many apparently unlikely partners these two UK research council programmes found they had a lot in common. Sue - or the Sustainable Urban Environment programme to give her full name - and Relu - held a joint workshop in London and found many common interests in stakeholder involvement, interdisciplinarity and communication. Both concluded that cracking the disciplinary language barrier is essential and that could apply to the town and country divide too. It is clear that both urban and rural environments must be sustainable, and in an era of climate change they depend upon one another more than ever. The extended poster session for researchers from the two programmes struck some promising sparks - with several vowing to keep in touch and exchange information. Could this be the start of some fruitful liaisons? And if we were to hold another workshop for Relu and Sue should it be in the countryside? That might provide even more inspiration.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The water's not so lovely after all

I was put off swimming pools at the age of 11 by a large and intimidating teacher who insisted we all jump in......with disastrous results. I think I must have swallowed a gallon of chlorinated water and I regret now that as a result of this trauma I never learnt to swim. But at today's workshop on cryptosporidium organised by Relu's Assessment of Knowledge Disease Sources in Animal Disease Control, I was quite relieved that I never feel the least bit tempted to dive in. Apparently faecal contamination from human bodies is a major problem in the recycled water and can infect swimmers with this nasty bug. The chlorene may taste nasty but it is no match for cryptosporosis. As always at such project events I learnt a lot, but they weren't really putting on the event for my benefit. It was an important part of the research process. As researcher Louise Heathwaite explained to the experts gathered from government and industry, 'We want what's in your heads'. The project is looking at how expertise and experience translates into policy - and why we don't get it right all the time. It's fascinating stuff but I'm afraid it has confirmed all my prejudices about swimming pools.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Could models get us all involved in Big Society?

Would I like to have a go at mathematical modelling? It's the kind of question that brings back all the sweaty-palmed anxieties of school algebra tests. And yet, one Relu project has worked with a group of "non-experts" who were enthusiastic about incorporating their local knowledge into computer models of flood risk in their home town. Together, academics and residents have come up with a brand new proposal, now being piloted, that could solve a serious, real-life flooding problem. The team also found that, unsurprisingly, many people have a deep mistrust of computer models, because although they are generally "rightish" for most of people most of the time, they may be completely wrong for the particular place where you live. But although professional expertise may fall down on the particular, this is exactly where local expertise can add a new dimension, improve accuracy and give residents greater confidence in the model's projections. Perhaps this could be Big Society in action?

Monday, 11 October 2010

New CAPs for all

Pondering the CAP tends to have a distinctly soporific effect upon me, but when, as happened recently, I hear Brian Aldridge and Neil Carter debating it on the Archers, I know it really must be important. And it doesn't take much digging into this topic to bring home how much CAP reform could affect us all. It won't just make a difference economically, but it could also have fundamental effects on the ecology and landscapes of the whole of the UK. Obviously I have been mugging up from Relu's latest briefing paper, written for us by Alan Woods. As always, Alan has the policy issues at his fingertips and deftly draws in evidence from across the programme. These findings advocate reformed agri-environment schemes that promote an ecosystem services framework - which means getting more for your money from every acre, not just in terms of food but also other vital goods such as clean water, carbon storage and wildlife. There isn't going to be any more land available, so we have to get the best we can from what's already there. I can't say that CAP reform is going to be my favourite reading from now on (except possibly as an alternative to counting sheep) but I can't deny its importance, and I will be as interested as anybody in the outcome of the reform process.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Questing, questing, questing...........

When Ixodes ticks are ready to feed, they go out 'questing' for a bite from a passing animal or unclad human leg. But, if they are carrying Borrelia burgdorferi, that human could contract Lyme Disease - an illness that, left untreated, can be more serious than just an itchy bite mark. So whose fault is that? You can't really blame the tick - it's what ticks do. And who infected them in the first place? At Relu's "Assessing and Communicating Animal Disease Risks for Countryside Users" practitioner panel yesterday, one land manager was anxious because "My deer always get the blame". I can understand his sense of injustice, as deer don't actually carry Lyme Disease - although high concentrations of deer do seem to be associated with lots of ticks, simply because they provide regular meals for them. But the ticks are picking up Borrelia burgdorferi from small mammals and birds. So are they the baddies? Of course, if people using the countryside are well-informed it may not matter. They can cover up, avoid long grass, particularly at relevant times of year, and inspect themselves and pets for any ticks when they get home. If the little pests are removed quickly, using tweezers, they will cause no problem. But whose responsibility is it to tell us about the risks? That's not so easy to answer.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Where is the certainty in animal disease?

Three Relu researchers presented results at last night's Animal and Plant Disease Forum, which brings practitioners and members of the policy community together with academics. If there is consensus on animal disease, it seems to be that information will always be incomplete. In situations of exotic disease outbreaks, it is difficult if not impossible to predict the course of events, and yet action of some sort must be taken. And of course, detailed plans are in place for emergencies such as another outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, or Avian flu. They map out a response, specific down to timings of media releases. But the uncertainty of animal disease means that the response is unlikely to follow such a prescribed plan. So is there any point in having a plan at all? Is it really there to give those who have to cope some sense of being in control as all around them descends into chaos? Does it give them some firm ground from which to step out into the unknown? If so, the plan has a very useful function. And if action achieves the required outcome, knowledge will follow.