Monday, 19 December 2011

Science and fiction

People often ask fiction writers where they get their ideas from. When I am writing I have absolutely no idea where the ideas come from, it's only afterwards - sometimes some considerable time afterwards - that I can make connections with events, or people, or conversations that have somehow become lodged in my brain. Usually these merge and emerge in a way that is so different from the original spark that only I would see any connection. So when I was asked to write a piece of fiction that made some connection with science I decided just to see what happened, rather than consciously writing a story based on a piece of Relu research. But because the programme is as much about people as research, I soon found that the story I was writing seemed to fulfil the brief quite effectively. In an era of climate change, what if......? You may read the story at

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

St Lucy and her lamp

Today, 13 December, is St Lucy's Day. St Lucy represents the return of the light following the winter solstice and as John Donne tells us in his Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day, being the shortest day: "It is the year's midnight" - or it would be, but for the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. It's close enough for me anyway and I can start looking forward to longer days after Christmas. Climate change may be affecting the growing seasons, with the buzz of lawnmowers heard well into the winter, but we still feel the psychological effects of the darkness at this time of year. Like many people, I hate the shortness of these winter days and the long, dark nights. I do try to find something positive in it - for a few weeks I delude myself into thinking I am getting a very small insight into the life of our farmers, as I drag myself out of bed before dawn. Fortunately I can then stumble onto the metro train and sink into the Today Programme on my ipod, rather than having to milk any cows. But I shall be very glad to see the light returning, as St Lucy's lamp fires up towards spring.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Crackling and the autumn statement

I have just been watching the Chancellor's autumn statement and there does seem to be support on offer for small and medium sized businesses. The messages about broadband and mobile phone coverage even seem to be getting through. And yet, is this going to be enough for rural enterprise? Only yesterday, the farmer from whom I buy pork emailed to say that their recent delivery for my freezer will be the last as they are winding up the business. It does seem sad that all their years of hard work, raising Gloucester old spot and Oxford sandy and black pigs to high welfare standards, resulting in top quality meat, result in a situation where they cannot make a decent living. I don't suppose today's proposals are going to make them change their minds. We may never taste decent crackling again.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Relu makes an impact

Yesterday's confrence at The Sage seemed to pass in rather an exciting blur. So many researchers and stakeholders took the trouble to tell me what a good day they were having, and how brilliant Relu has been. Having so much going on: the debates, discussion workshops, interactive activities from the projects, and the awards, gave it a real buzz. The films added a fantastic dimension to the event. We had two great winners in the Relu Awards: Sustainable Uplands, learning to manage future change for impact and Understanding environmental knowledge controversies for methodology. My only regret was that two such good projects: Comparative merits of consuming vegetables produced locally and overseas and Catchment management for protection of water resources had to lose. But we have four excellent films that the projects can use to promote their research in the future. And ALL the great impacts and innovative methodology from the programme is now available in two new briefing papers: "Changing Landscapes" published by Relu and "Innovation in Interdisciplinary Methods: the Relu Experience" published by the Data Support Service.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Who should run the countryside? Find out tomorrow!

We are all packed and ready to take everything down to The Sage for our conference "Who should run the countryside?" which kicks off at 9.30 tomorrow morning. This afternoon the Newcastle University porters are whisking boxes of conference delegate packs - each in a Relu printed eco-friendly hessian bag - down to Gateshead Quayside. Those coveted Relu Awards are carefully shrouded in bubblewrap and will be revealed at the ceremony tomorrow afternoon when Sir Howard Newby presents them to the winners. Chairs and speakers are lined up for the debates and discussions and at this moment the various props needed by the projects for their interactive activities will be starting to arrive at the stage door. Ben, The Sage's endlessly reassuring technician has the films and we have our back up copies just in case. There have been a couple of crises - including one unfortunate panellist with a broken leg - but another heroic stakeholder has stepped in to help. The Relu programme is fortunate in having so many willing friends. And that makes me feel that tomorrow will be a good day.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Bringing rural controversies - and song - to Tyneside

We can't promise that "Who should run the countryside" will be ALL singing,ALL dancing but there really will be some singing - and where could be more appropriate than The Sage, Gateshead? I understand that acoustically it is among the top 10 venues in the world and it is a stunning building, apparently created from silver panels that roll upwards from the riverside. So it seems an appropriate place to hear the Sustainable Uplands project singing about the future of our hills. Other highlights could be more sharply pointed, I think, particularly when debates such as "21st century land ownership: a responsibility or a privilege?" and "Food security v environmental responsibility: which should take precedence?" get underway. Some stakeholders have already remarked on the provocative nature of the conference's title and, of course, that isn't accidental. We want to stimulate people to think about the countryside and to contribute their views. We want to bring some rural controversy to Tyneside, and to make this a really engaging day.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Sage is the place to be on 16 November

It seems as though five minutes ago Relu's "Who should run the countryside" was months away but suddenly we have barely two weeks to go. No need to panic though, or so I keep telling myself. Bookings are high, and we are still taking some last minute applications, the debate and workshop speakers are all organised and briefed, the Relu projects are poised to wow the delegates with their interactive activities, our film makers at Xube have the films in hand and we aim to try them out on the big screen the week before the premier to make sure all the technical stuff is ok. The Relu Awards themselves are safely in my office but I'm keeping those under wraps for now. Suffice it to say that they are amazing.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Stars in our eyes

As autumn creeps in, and Halloween masks appear in shop windows, our conference seems scarily close. Assistant Director Jeremy Phillipson and I have spent this morning with the crew from Xube who are making films to show at The Sage on 16 November. They have been meeting up with the teams shortlisted in the Relu Awards and filming the projects, the teams and their stakeholders. Delegates will be able to view the results as part of the conference programme, and vote for the overall winners. It's our version of the "X Factor" so we are taking it very seriously. From what I have seen, the footage looks great and I think it will be hard to choose between the entries. But we have also commissioned a 10 minute film which will include brief vignettes of the finalists, and an overview of Relu's achievements. This will feature comments from some high profile stakeholders to the Relu programme, and from the team at the Director's Office. Jeremy agonised a bit about whether this was an occasion which demanded the wearing of a tie, and I thought that there might be a make-up lady to run on at intervals with a powder puff, but, apart from some fiddling about to reduce the reflection from our spectacles, nobody seemed very bothered about how we looked. Which is probably just as well. I'm not sure Jeremy and I can compete with Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole.

Monday, 3 October 2011

No more caveat emptor!

Hitting both Farmers' Weekly and Farmers' Guardian last Friday with a story from Relu researchers ( does feel like a small triumph. Graham Medley and his interdisciplinary team from Warwick University have been investigating endemic disease in livestock - those conditions that don't usually make headlines but do affect farmers' profits and animal welfare. They conclude that making more information available to livestock buyers about risks in the herd from which they are buying could be an important means of reducing disease. Obviously the price would reduce for animals from a herd with a poor disease record, which could provide the incentive needed for farmers to get to grips with the problems. It will be interesting to see whether this stimulates some debate among the readers of the farming press.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Catching the learning curve

Animal and plant disease has been much on my mind recently, as Relu's projects on this theme come to fruition. I have been working on policy and practice notes from the research and on our briefing paper "Growing Concerns: animal and plant disease policy for the 21st century" which draws heavily, not just on the impressive work being carried out by research teams in the programme, but also on the stakeholder workshop we ran in London on 10 May this year. This does give the document a relevance and "real world" feel that I think it might otherwise lack. We owe much to people who are willing to spend valuable time enhancing the research in this way - and who are prepared to be quoted, as many have been in this briefing paper. Putting the publication together has been a great learning process for me, on a topic about which I knew nothing. But that has been the story of my involvement with the programme.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

All hands to the plough

I have just returned from a brilliant holiday in Romania, visiting cultural sites. The mediaeval painted churches are particularly dazzling. But we drove through the countryside I was also struck by the amount of subsistence farming. There were strip field systems that looked as mediaeval as the churches, and people working them with horse-drawn ploughs. One or two cows would be tethered by the roadside and presumably they were milked by hand. My companions on the trip were very taken by the idea of the organic produce on offer at the roadside stalls. It's true that the plums, apples and watermelons were delicious, and it was heartening to see families working together in the fields. But I couldn't help wondering whether such a labour-intensive approach can continue now that Romania is part of the European community. Not many people in the UK would want to work so hard to produce food.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Beautiful and useful

I spent a lovely couple of days in the North York Moors for my birthday last month (21 and a bit since you ask). We didn't even get rained on much. It's an untamed and beautiful landscape and I hadn't really given much thought to the benefits that we get from it - beyond the obvious aesthetic enjoyment. But of course, increasingly, we need more and more from our limited allocation of land in the UK and areas like the uplands provide us with some of the real essentials - not just food but water, carbon storage and renewable energy. Efficiency is everything, even for ecology. So how can we squeeze more from these landscapes? If farmers collaborated, that would help - scale is usually a factor in efficiency - but there is little tradition of this in the UK. Relu's latest policy and practice note for local government is a rallying cry to national parks to provide a lead and they are well-positioned to do so. Perhaps these beautiful, wild landscapes provide an example for us all. They will be providing a focus for discussion at the Relu/Northern Rural Network event on 14 September where the note will be launched.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Camera, Action!

Filming has now started for the Relu Awards films. Richard from Xube, the company producing the films has been keeping me updated on their progress and it all sounds very exciting. I am delighted that the finalists have found so many people willing to strut their stuff on camera - both researchers and stakeholders - and they have been braving the rain to keep up with the filming schedule. It sounds as though the films will do them justice and I'm looking forward to seeing the results. Richard has asked me whether I would like to go and see them at work and it's certainly tempting. Watching the professionals in action is fascinating. TV companies are always looking for locations and seem particularly keen on using hospitals so I had several opportunities to watch film crews in action during the time I spent in NHS communications. That included a couple of weeks when one production company was making making an episode of "Wire in the Blood" at the hospital where I was based. But I'm sure none of our researchers would play the big star in quite the same way as Robson Green. Fortunately.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Academic and communicator

Relu has lured many brilliant academics into its interdisciplinary fold but Gareth Edwards-Jones must count as being among the most memorable. He was keen to talk about his research and bring it to a wider audience and, for me, as communciations manager, that was a great bonus. He treated his performances lightly, and often referred to himself as "The Media Tart" but his ability to speak with authority and enthusiasm gave his research an added dimension. He made a difference to the world and we will all miss him.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Fighting alien algae

It's difficult to imagine how blue-green toxic algae "blooming" on a lovely lake like Loweswater can have a positive side - unless you are a science fiction writer looking for inspiration. It looks pretty sinister and it's certainly bad for the tourist industry that provides many residents with a livelihood. But adversity often bring human beings together in common endeavour, and that doesn't have to be about fighting off extra-terrestrials. Relu's Community Approach to Catchment Management project has put this tendency to good use. Concerns about the algae prompted the suggestion that farming in the catchment might be to blame and it was farmers themselves who took the initiative and got together to see what could be done. When scientists became involved they were able to bring an additional dimension to the work, but the residents themselves have continued to be equal partners in the group that has come to be known as "The Loweswater Care Project". They would not claim that the algae have been defeated yet - that looks like a much longer term ambition. But they have learned to work together to improve their local environment in a way that could prove to be an important model for future community environmental projects. And they have managed it without any help from Dr Who - or so they claim. Relu Policy and Practice Note no 32

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Climate change in my backyard

A couple of years ago I noticed that my rosemary bush had become home to some strange, bronze-coloured beetles. I consulted the Royal Horticultural Society website and discovered that the Rosemary Beetle had reached Tyneside and was now residing in my backyard. The thrill of putting the most northerly dot on their distribution map was somewhat muted when I noted the damage being done to one of my favourite herbs. Reading the latest Relu policy and practice note I realise that this could be just the beginning, as new pests and diseases take advantage of climate change. The problem is that we can't easily predict which of these are going to become problematic. How can policymakers begin to plan? One dimension that is sometimes overlooked is that of human beings. Presumably my beetles didn't fly in from the continent and the nearest infestation on the map was much further south. So it seems likely that they arrived via the horticultural trade, or were brought north by an individual gardener. The last couple of Tyneside winters have seen them off - for the moment. But none of us, whether gardeners with tiny backyards, commercial growers or policymakers can afford to be complacent.

Monday, 4 July 2011

How do we know an expert when we see one?

What is an expert and how do we know one when we see one? I have been pondering this question while editing Relu's latest policy and practice note on "Field advisors as agents of knowledge exchange". It seems so simple: if you an advisor, you learn stuff then you pass it on to your clients. But nothing in life is ever that straightforward. Relu researchers have put the whole process under a microscope, and shown how the people who advise farmers: vets, land agents, ecologists and so on, digest and repackage information and tailor it to specific client needs and circumstances. That means no two farmers will necessarily get the same advice about anything, even from the same expert advisor. Vets are also innovative experimenters and bring science into the field of their everyday practice. So being an expert doesn't just mean putting on a green jacket and wellingtons. As the "models" who posed for the photograph on the front of this Relu publication would tell you, nowadays you also need a laptop computer in order to look convincing.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

From Hollywood to Gateshead

Hearing pitches from film companies last week seemed like a great excuse to put on dark glasses and pretend the glimmer of Newcastle sunshine was really Los Angeles. This may sound frivolous but the objective was serious - to commission a company to make films of our Relu Awards finalists. These will be shown at The Sage Gateshead on 16 November so that delegates at our conference "Who Should Run the Countryside" can vote for the winners, X-Factor style. We do know how to do glamour at Relu. While the Hollywood mogul act from the customers may have been unconvincing, all the film companies seemed to know their stuff. We have now commissioned Xube, a London-based company to produce a five-minute film of each of the finalists and a ten-minute compilation that will include some interviews with our Director. I just hope I can persuade him to remove his dark glasses.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Killer cucumbers

One of my colleagues tells me that cucumber sandwiches are being left on the shelves at the shop where he buys his lunch. It's bad news for royal garden parties and I don't suppose there are many customers for beansprouts either. And yet we still don't actually know the source of the E coli bug that has infected over 2,400 people, caused serious kidney-related complications in hundreds and killed 24, mainly in Germany. The economic consequences for vegetable growers across Europe are also very serious. In communications terms the whole episode has been a disaster. Could the German authorities have handled it differently? I have a lot of sympathy for them and I wouldn't have been volunteering to do their media handling. In a situation of such uncertainty, when leads can only be followed up and verified by careful research and meticulous microbiological tests, can the authorities hope to keep the 24 hour media monster fed? Or are journalists bound to chase after red herrings? Maybe everyone has some lessons to learn: consumers need to have more information about the complexities of the modern food chain to help them make choices and there need to be clearer responsibilities along that chain. It would also help if the media had a better understanding of uncertainty, and we all stopped demanding instant answers. In the meantime, I'm still eating cucumber, but I wash it thoroughly and make my own sandwiches.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

If only all could have prizes.....

After some considerable sweat (no blood, fortunately, and we are saving the tears for the X-Factor style final at The Sage, Gateshead, on 16 November) the judging panel for the Relu Awards has come up with two finalists in each category. At competitions, from Blue Peter to the Booker Prize, the judges always say how difficult it was to choose from so many excellent entries, but in this case it really was true. Fortunately we had two panels of stakeholders to apply their expertise and make the decision for us. These are the choices they came up with:
Best Example of Interdisciplinary Methodology and Scientific Innovation:
Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies: The Case of Flood Risk Management
Catchment Management for Protection of Water Resources A Participatory Modelling Framework to Support Catchment Management

Best Example of Impact:
Comparative assessment of environmental, community & nutritional impacts of consuming fruit and vegetables produced locally and overseas
Sustainable Uplands: learning to manage future change

The next stage for us at the Director's Office is to commission short films of each of these projects, and the tendering process for that is currently underway. At our end of programme conference "Who Should Run the Countryside" all the delegates will have the opportunity to vote for the winners. So put 16 November in your diary now. Bookings will open very soon. And at the conference we will be launching two Relu briefing papers, telling you about all the excellent entries in the Awards. So you can decide whether our panel got it right.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Looking ahead to new horizons

After an excellent Relu "New horizons in animal and plant disease" event in London last week I am just beginning to look at all the rich material from the discussions. We were extremely fortunate that senior people from policy making organisations were willing to give up their time - and also people very much at the sharp end of putting policies into practice. It was a great opportunity for our researchers to discuss the real-life implications of their findings with a diverse group of stakeholders, and an intensive day for everyone involved. Our team of note-takers worked extremely hard, and they deserve special thanks. The themes ranged from who should take responsibility for disease to how we should rethink our approach for the 21st century. Now I will be working on a Relu briefing paper drawing on the discussions from the day. It will be challenging, but I hope the results will be interesting.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Now wash your hands please

Who takes the rap if you get a nasty dose of diarrhoea after visiting your local swimming pool? Or you are bitten by a tick in your local park and develop Lyme disease? Or your child is infected with E coli at a farm open day? Like so many things in life, it's complicated. But local authorities have responsibilities in these and many more areas relating to animal and zoonotic disease. With global warming there will probably be new and more varied diseases reaching our shores and the people at the front line - who may be in many different departments of local government - need the most up to date information to help them combat such threats. Relu's latest policy and practice note will help - it draws on the latest research from the programme and shows how it is relevant to local authority responsibilities.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Making a splash with slurry

It's always a thrill for a townie like me to make it into the pages of Farmers' Weekly, particularly if I can mention something like slurry and sound like a genuine country person. My Talking Point article that appeared in the magazine on Friday 22 April was trying to persuade farmers to think seriously about farm-scale anaerobic digestion. Of course I can't claim any personal expertise on this. The article drew on the research that Professor Charles Banks and his team have been carrying out in the Relu programme, and an opinion piece is a good way of getting the results talked about. So I'm just doing my job and encouraging knowledge exchange. But I do genuinely think it's time we thought more seriously about this technology. It's not just about slurry. The amount of food we waste is scandalous. Since the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth we can't feed waste food to pigs - but surely feeding it to an anaerobic digester would provide some kind of alternative?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

What is the cost of clean waterways for farming communities?

Is it fair for farmers to bear the financial cost of cleaning up rivers for town dwellers to enjoy? According to Relu research, that could be the unintended consequence of implementing the European Water Framework Directive. Policies that drive land use changes to reduce pollution of waterways could have serious economic consequences, not just for farmers but for whole rural communities, and the research suggests that in general it would be towns that benefit. Putting a value on the benefits we derive from the natural world is always difficult, but it is important that all these aspects are costed in, not just the ones that are bought and sold on the market. And we have to take into account how these vary across different geographical areas. The encouraging news is that this projest has devised a model that will enable policymakers to do just that, meaning environmental investments can be targeted more effectively, to ensure that everyone gets the maximum value for money. So it's not just the people with pleasure boats, or indeed just the farmers, who benefit.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

If you go down to the woods today....

Everyone knows that the countryside is a benign place that does you good. Exercise makes your heart healthier, green spaces made your head healthier - it's obvious. But the countryside is full of animals, and just occasionally you might catch something nasty from them - E coli from cowpats, Lyme disease from tick bites, Weil's disease from rat urine. We can hardly blame the land manager on the country estate who puts up warning signs, in an attempt to deflect any legal action, but that may just put you off your picnic without doing any real good. Research from Relu's Assessing and Communicating Animal Disease Risks for Countryside Users project confirms what we all suspected - giving people information simply isn't enough to alter their behaviour. But if we can persuade visitors to make small changes, it would make a big difference in helping them to avoid infection. Achieving that will require a more structured approach - visitors need the right kind of communication, in the right form, at the right time. It's no good seeing a big poster telling you to wear long trousers to avoid tick bites when the whole family has arrived for their day out wearing shorts. They also have to see good practice in action - if the park ranger is wearing long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt they are more likely to follow that example. If someone has been bitten by a tick, they need to know what to do and have the means available - removing the tick promptly with an appropriate pair of tweezers will remove the risk of getting Lyme disease almost completely. In order to provide communication that really will be effective, we need land managers and health authorities to pool their expertise. An authoritative knowledge base, available for all organisations to draw upon, could be a big step forward in protecting the public from zoonotic disease.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Relu rules KE!

Yesterday was taken up by a cross-country trek to Birmingham for the first team meeting of a new project, being funded by Defra, to improve knowledge exchange across and beyond their Demonstration Test Catchments. For people like me who don't know anything about this kind of thing (and definitely don't know the acronyms) - there are three "DTC"s the Wensum, the Avon and the Eden, and three research teams are pondering the question of whether farmers can go on producing as much food as we need while reducing the pollution caused by agriculture. It's a tough challenge, but if they can find some potential answers then we need to get those applied as widely as possible. The knowledge exchange project will be aiming to find the most effective ways of sharing the lessons. It's not a Relu project - but it could be "Son of Relu" in its approach - interdisciplinary, involving stakeholders as equal partners and looking for ways to involve them in the process of knowledge production. It was fascinating to hear about how farmers are taking readings of run-off on their own land, and how powerful this can be in making that connection between pollution levels and land management strategies. For me, it underlines how influential the Relu approach has become. But I would say that, wouldn't I?

Monday, 21 February 2011

The sweet smell of successful anaerobic digestion

Ambridge’s plans for a farm-scale anaerobic digester came to naught, but perhaps they could have been viable if dodgy Matt Crawford hadn’t tried to get his finger into the pie. Brookfield’s milking parlour might even have been able to operate by recycling slurry from the cows. And maybe rather than taking against the whole scheme because of fears about land being taken out of food production, Pat and Tony Archer should have thought about setting up their own digester to process crop waste and slurry. It could have been a useful source of organic fertiliser for Bridge Farm. But anaerobic digestion doesn’t have to be fictional. Charles Banks and his team have been able to demonstrate that it could be a real-life, economically viable diversification strategy for arable and dairy farms. Where are the farmer-entrepreneurs who could make it happen in the real world? There must be some who could make it work – and it needn't involve going into partnership with Matt Crawford.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

How can local government make it big in society?

The stated aim of the Government's new localism legislation is intended to shift power from central government to individuals and communities but how is this to be done? Local authorities will have to engage much more closely with residents if "Big Society" is ever to become a reality. Newsletters through doors aren't going to be enough (and they may be the first things to be cut in this time of austerity). It's going to take commitment, imagination and robust feedback mechanisms to give people a real stake and make them respond. So, at a time when resources are being cut, how is this kind of engagement to be achieved? There aren't any magic solutions but a recent policy and practice note for local government offers some useful pointers from Relu research.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

1970s revisited?

Some of us are old enough to remember the 1970s and although Led Zeppelin, platform soles, and flared trousers may feature more vividly in those memories, there is also Dutch Elm Disease and the sad loss of these once ubiquitous trees. At the time it seemed as though the authorities could not quite believe the potential consequences of the infection but, as it became an epidemic, more and more elegant, and often ancient, giants sickened and died. Many people felt it as a very personal loss as they had to come to terms with the scars on much-loved landscapes. The idea that we could be revisited by tree diseases on a similar scale is alarming. But in the present era of austerity are we prepared to expend the necessary resources to protect our landscapes and heritage gardens from new threats? It is certainly a question that merits debate, as Relu's Policy and Practice Note No 25 shows all too clearly.