Friday, 21 December 2012

Looking back at six years of fun

As 2012 draws to a close and the end of Relu itself looms in March 2013, I have been looking back at my own experience of working on the programme.  I was appointed in January 2007, and there are two things that our Director Philip Lowe said to me in that first year that have coloured my view of my job ever since.  First, not long after I came to work in the Centre for Rural Economy, there was some discussion about our meeting room and who within the university should be able to book this resource.  Philip was adamant that the meeting room must be available to researchers within CRE because “It’s our research lab.  At any time one of might have a brilliant idea and we will want to rush in there to discuss it.”  This was slightly intimidating as I wasn’t sure how many brilliant, light-bulb moments I might be able to initiate, but also tremendously exciting.  I knew this was going to be a great place to work.  The second comment from Philip that has stuck in my mind referred to our forward planning for Relu.  He said: “We have to meet all the research councils’ requirements of the programme, but the really important thing is that we have fun at the same time.”  I think we have managed to do both over the past six years.  I also have the impression that Relu has generally been a positive experience for the academics who carried out the research.  It has certainly felt like a genuine community of minds.  As one prominent member of this community commented last week “Life will seem strange without Relu!”  But, of course, the world moves on, and already both academics and stakeholders are building on the outcomes of the programme.   The independent evaluation of the programme’s impact commissioned by ESRC couldn’t have been more positive, so I think all involved are entitled to feel a sense of achievement.    My colleagues Philip Lowe and Jeremy Phillipson deserve a very particular mention.   Working with them is a privilege and I was particularly pleased to see that Philip’s huge contribution to rural studies and to the interdisciplinary Relu programme has just been recognised by the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry.  He will be presented with the prestigious Bertebos Prize by the King of Sweden on 28 January.  I know everyone in the Relu community will want to congratulate him.  Merry Christmas and a happy new year.  I'll see you in 2013.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Bridging the Ambridge divide

Before I came to work on rural research, I didn’t give much thought to the range of different skills that the farmer needs to access in order to run a farm efficiently.  Although I’m a regular listener to The Archers, all those references to land agents, agronomists and ecologists rather passed me by.  It didn’t help that land agent Graham Ryder was, for many years the most boring character in the serial.  As for Alistair Lloyd the vet, I was more interested in his relationship with Shula Hebden (nee Archer) than his farm health planning sessions with David Archer.  But over recent years even I have become aware of the complex challenges that the farmers of Ambridge are facing and their need for increasingly specialist knowledge across a wide range of professions.  Unpredictable weather has become a fact of life, even in Borsetshire.  The unprecedented wet summer and its effects have been written into the script and although we haven’t heard any discussions about its possible causes I’m sure that Brian and Pat have been locking horns over climate change in the Bull.  An ecologist was key in advising Willow Farm on a new eco-friendly reed bed solution to livestock waste disposal.  Meanwhile, over at Brookfield, David and Ruth Archer took specialist advice on their milk production, in the face of dwindling profits, and are now moving to autumn calving.  It’s a good time to be an independent consultant in Borsetshire, as everyone seems to be seeking their expertise.  Modern farming involves so many different professions, I just hope they are all working together on their project planning.  In fact I can’t help thinking that our new Landbridge networking site for rural professionals could help them to do just that.  And having now met several land agents who are very far from boring, I wonder whether logging into Landbridge might widen even Graham Ryder’s horizons.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Who is paying to keep our drinking water clean?

When I was walking in the countryside in the south of England some years ago I came across a river where half a dozen cows were wading upstream, grazing on the reeds that were growing in the water.  I'm an unreconstructed townie and the scene struck me at the time as both bucolic and charming.  It was just like a Constable painting.  I didn’t consider for a moment the damage that those cows might be doing to the river, or the ways in which they might be polluting the water.  That was in another life.  Since then I have worked with scientists on the Demonstration Test Catchment projects and learnt something of how cattle poach riverbanks, resulting in sediment entering the stream, affecting the whole ecosystem of the waterway.  I know that those cows were also depositing their urine and faeces directly into the river, and that this encourages the growth of some organisms at the expense of others, with effects that cascade through the food web, with serious consquences for fish and mammals.   From a human perspective, if water was being abstracted for the public supply, it meant there were added costs for the water company and their customers.  So perhaps this wasn’t such a charming sight after all.  Should the farmer have allowed the cows to access the river?  Wouldn’t it have been more responsible to fence them in?  From the point of view of the consumers who have to drink the water, that’s probably true.  I don’t much like the thought of water that has been polluted by cattle coming out of the tap in my kitchen, even if it has been purified.  But fencing is expensive, and if the cows can’t drink from the river, they will also need a drinking trough.  Who is going to pay for that infrastructure?  It’s a big investment for any farmer.  But, at the moment, the water company is paying to cleaning up the supply and passing the cost on to consumers.  Perhaps it would be more efficient and sensible for the consumer to pay for some fencing to keep the cattle out of the river?  As with most things in life, somebody somewhere has to pay, and perhaps we need a more high-profile debate on where the costs should fall for this kind of public good.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Tell me a story and don't make it too scary...

When I was a child nuclear war seemed like a very real possibility if things were to go badly between the powerful nations of the world.  Although I was too young to understand all the implications of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we all knew something serious was happening.  Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and into the 1980s, it was a threat that bubbled up regularly into the public consciousness.  Although there might have been disagreements about the likelihood of nuclear weapons being deployed, people seemed to accept that if they were, the consequences could be life-changing and might lead to the devastation of the planet.  Would any country take on responsibility for such terrible actions?  The effects of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still resonated and the Aldermaston marches provided a focus for protest. 

When I was at the Living With EnvironmentalChange conference this week on “Supporting the Journey to Adaptation”, I was struck at how environmental concerns have filled that “fear niche” for some of us while others seem to remain oblivious.  Although more countries now have nuclear bombs, the end of the Cold War has removed that most immediate threat.  Dystopian literature has moved on from nuclear to environmental disaster.  The difference in the present situation is that perceptions of such a threat, and any notion of responsibility, vary so much across the population.  In the conference hall few would, I think, have denied the seriousness of the situation.  We saw stark statistics laid out in powerpoint slides by distinguished climate scientists.  Although probably not everyone agreed on the likely speed of environmental change, there was no denial of the need for action, for a journey towards both mitigation and adaptation. 

However, we also heard from social science researchers who played us some clips of interviews with “real people”.  They were confused, unconvinced, unwilling to buy into action that the scientists saw as essential.  Uncertainty expressed in scientific results, and taken for granted by researchers as part of the scientific process, is viewed by the public with frank suspicion.

We see this every day in the media and in life.  Recently I encountered one obviously intelligent man who maintained that climate change is a conspiracy by scientists to create jobs for themselves.  It is difficult to counter this kind of world view.  So how can we hope to change behaviour and, as a society, embark on that journey to adaptation, let alone achieve any mitigation?  For me, the most encouraging session at the conference was a session on digital storytelling.  This was a shining example of the benefits of bringing arts and science together, to tell real people’s stories.  By bringing global climate change to a local level, through personal experience, we might help the wider public to understand the part everyone plays.  I have not met many farmers, for example, who would deny that the climate is changing.  Even if they might argue about the causes, they see the consequences in their everyday experience.  Personal testimony isn’t just a fluffy and non-scientific, anecdotal approach.  Stories are always powerful and, as communicators, we could make more use of them.  They make big realities more manageable.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Is ash dieback the wakeup call we need for biosecurity?

Trees are suddenly high on the public agenda.  We take them and their contribution to our landscapes and ecology very much for granted, until they are under threat.  For anyone old enough to remember the ravages of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s, the current debate about ash dieback has particular resonances.  But why have we been taken so much by surprise?  Ash dieback is one of many diseases that are currently affecting our native woodland and moorlands.  Policymakers and stakeholder organisations have known for several years that these problems are increasing.  The first interdisciplinary research into plant disease was carried out by researchers working within the Relu programme and “Growing Concerns: animal and plant disease policy for the 21st century” was published just over a year ago.  Several themes emerged very strongly in this policy briefing paper: animal and plant diseases are also spread by people, so we need to understand human behaviour as well as the science of pathogens; public awareness of these problems is low and consequently there is little willingness to pay for biosecurity measures; environmental change is likely to exacerbate the problems; international trade poses particular challenges.  It is also very unclear where responsibility for either implementing precautionary measures or meeting potential financial losses should lie, particularly when the horticulture industry is very disparate and involves many small companies.  Global supply chains are often long and complex, with many stakeholders involved, so it can be difficult to pinpoint failings.  But the paper does make the point that we have sources from which policymakers can learn, including experience gained in dealing with animal disease.  Researchers have urged a more rounded response, including a thorough analysis of socio-economic drivers and how it affects human behaviour, alongside technical assessments of diseases.  We know that stakeholders’ responses may, sometimes unwittingly, exacerbate risk or limit the effectiveness of precautionary measures.  Flexibility is also called for, as threats change all the time.  It may be, as some commentators suggest, that we are already too late to save our ash trees.  A more optimistic response would be that at last we do have the level of public awareness we need in order to have an effective debate about the wider questions of plant biosecurity. Perhaps we need to seize that opportunity now and decide where our priorities lie: free global trade, protection of our native flora, or crop and food security.  We also need to decide who should take on responsibility for biosecurity and its failures.

Memory and Prediction in Tree  Disease Control PPN 25

Plant Disease Risk, Management and Policy Formulation PPN 31

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Mackintosh, umbrella, or just chance it?

When the weather forecaster says that “there is a twenty per cent chance of rain tomorrow” do you put on a mackintosh?  Or do you assume that you’ll be ok without a coat, because a twenty per cent chance seems pretty low?  Many of us view the weather forecast with scepticism but still complain vociferously when it seems as though the forecaster has got it wrong.  In fact modern forecasts are remarkably accurate.  If conditions don’t measure up to our expectations it’s often because of geographical variability or timing, factors that are difficult to forecast with precision.   But we also don’t seem to be very good at understanding uncertainty.  We expect the forecast to be just that, a definite prediction of the future.  Of course, in reality, it can only be modelled on what is happening at the moment.  Poor Michael Fish will always be remembered as the forecaster who denied that there was going to be a hurricane, even though he did say that it was going to be windy.  When serious damage, injury and even death ensue, questions about “fault” emerge, of course.  We have seen that very clearly in Italy this week.  Six scientists and a government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned because they failed to foresee a major earthquake that struck the town of l’Aquila in 2009.  This is very shocking to fellow scientists who understand all too well how difficult it is to predict earthquakes with accuracy.  Such predictions always carry a large margin of uncertainty.  One effect of the verdict is likely to be that researchers will be unwilling to advise governments or to take part in public communications exercises in the future.  But were the scientists perhaps to blame in the way they communicated?  It may be that at the public meeting where they talked about risk they did sound too reassuring.  Or, alternatively, was the audience predisposed to hear the reassuring words, rather than the caveats that the scientists insist were included?  Just as we would rather think that a twenty per cent chance of rain means we don’t need a mackintosh after all.  But in reality it would probably be wise to pick up an umbrella, just in case, and think ourselves lucky that we don't have to worry about earthquakes in the UK.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Counting the angels on the head of a pin

As a communicator rather than an academic I have, at times, found some of the debates going on around me mystifying and, to be honest, a bit pretentious.  "What is knowledge?" seems to be a favourite one and "when does information become knowledge?" is another.  I sometimes think I'm listening to arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But, over the past five years, as I have been engaged in the reality of disseminating results from the research, the issues become more concrete.  Researchers are usually striving to answer important questions that would help real people in the real world.  Often they might be producing lots of data or information, but it isn't necessarily emerging in a form that is going to be useable by potential audiences.  The Relu programme was designed to address this gap by engaging potential knowledge users from the very outset, and I think that we have achieved a great deal.  But we still aren't perfect by any means.  Projects have gone to great lengths to ensure knowledge exchange takes place, with advisory panels and events that facilitate the process, at programme level we have targeted users very strategically and our publications aim to provide information in the right form.  As a result, I think we do better than many research programmes have managed in the past.  But, although the gap between knowledge production and application is growing smaller, it's often still there.  Representatives ask those "simple" questions, and researchers look surprised, because they have produced the results and published them in an academic journal, and that, surely, is all they are being paid to do?  They have a point; too often there's no money in the budget for doing anything else.  And how much effort and resources are policy makers and organisations putting into drawing out the information they say they need?   It's very variable. Whatever your point of view on these questions, it isn't going to solve the problem, particularly in these straitened times.  The reality is, however, that research which goes nowhere beyond the academic journal isn't benefiting anyone, except possibly the researcher and his/her career.  Even that may cease to be the case as we all strive to measure that elusive "impact" for Research Excellence Framework, or REF.  So perhaps we do need to put a bit more thought into the philosophical question "what is knowledge"? and how all that data is going to be turned into useful information when designing research proposals. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

11 million olive trees......

I have just returned from a wonderful week spent walking in western Crete.  Obviously the countryside is very different from the UK.  It's possible to pluck figs and walnuts from trees as you pass, vines spill over fences and there is a constant aroma of wild fennel.  Irrigation is essential and everywhere we walked we saw the agricultural water meters, measuring the amount of water being applied to each small plot of land.  Water isn't wasted here and neither is land.  The terracing on every possible hillside isn't a vestige of ancient agricultural practice, it's a modern way of maximising your production.  Olives are a major crop.  I'm told that there are over 11 million olive trees on Crete and a farmer will describe his land, not in terms of hectarage, but by the number of trees growing on it.  Our walking holiday was organised by a hard-working couple who also own a taverna where their home-produced olive oil features heavily in the cooking.  When Stelios describes Angela, his Essex-born wife, as "a lucky girl" to get not only him, but all those olive trees, I sense that he is only half-joking.  This is a place where food is valued and is still truly local, both in ingredients and practice.  Cretan cuisine ranges far beyond the "moussaka, souvlaki and stuffed tomatoes" that I have always associated with Greek cooking.  And although I suspect that vegetarianism is viewed with some bemusement, anyone can eat well without consuming meat.  Unfamiliar dishes featuring courgettes, aubergines, green and dried beans, and salads of big juicy tomatoes and cucumbers with olives and feta cheese appear at every meal.  The greens known generically as "horta" were particularly delicious.  Traditionally they are gathered wild, changing during the season, although many varieties are now cultivated.  Wonderful goats cheeses are unlike any I have tasted in the UK and eggs often appear, startlingly yellow in thick omlettes, and obviously freerange.  And as we were by the sea there was also fish, straight from the boats.  When meat did appear it was almost superfluous, although I was interested to try some goat, a meat I have only tasted rarely.  Sampling unfamiliar food is, to me, one of the joys of travel, and I have never seen the point of sticking to what you know.  But it is unusual these days to find a place where local produce is so entirely the norm.  Crete is, like the rest of Greece, suffering from the dire economic situation.  I was told that many public employees had not been paid for months.  As a tourist one is warmly welcomed and I can only hope that people continue to visit and support the economy there.  I shall certainly enjoy the thick, green, viscuous olive oil from Stelios and Angela's olive trees that I brought home with me.  And I hope that the tradition of local food production from one's own plot of land will prove to be a strength for people in Crete and other rural areas. 

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Enjoy autumn but remember your gloves

This morning I put gloves on.  I probably looked absurd to my fellow Tynesiders, many of whom will be sporting short sleeves and bare legs throughout the winter, but I’m a soft southerner with poor circulation.  Autumn is here and I have already noticed yellowing of the tree canopy, astonishingly bright red rose hips in the hedgerows and darkness creeping in earlier each evening.  It’s not my favourite time of year, that’s spring, even with its constant disappointments.   But I do enjoy the beauty and fruitfulness of the autumn months.  The vegetable box that arrives every Tuesday is bursting with a vast array of UK-grown produce: spinach, chard, sweetcorn, beans, tomatoes, courgettes, while the onions and carrots are straight out of the ground, complete with their greenery.  Of course you can buy most of these all year round in the supermarket, flown in from Peru or Chile or other faraway country.  In the depths of winter, when swede is the ubiquitous box-filler, I don’t deny that I too will be supplementing it with some more exotic goodies.  But I think there is something fundamental to the human spirit in our observation, in every sense, of the changing seasons.  Our ancestors knew that when they built stone circles such as Stonehenge, 5000 years ago.  But so much of modern life prevents us from experiencing the reassurance of the changing year.  Personally, I very much welcome central heating, but I do sometimes think back to a time when I spent many months each year working outside, as a digger on archaeological sites.    I was younger and fitter and, possibly, less susceptible to the cold.  I was also more aware of weather conditions, both bad and good.  Our motto was that “it often rains but it seldom rains all day”.  Climate change may be casting doubt on this, but it’s certainly true that the more time you spend outside the more you appreciate good weather when it arrives.  So even now that I spend most of my working life in an office, I do try to get outside at some point during each day.  Everyone needs exercise, some opportunity to manufacture vitamin D, and a reminder that, even in the midst of climate change, we do, for the moment, still experience seasons.   So going outdoors is beneficial, both physically and mentally, even in the depths of winter, as long as you wear gloves.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Essex Lion: a tweeting good tale

As August bank holiday fades into a distant memory and we all trudge back to work the Essex lion too seems to have disappeared, back into the undergrowth of silly season news stories from whence he came.  Being a natural sceptic I wasn’t at all surprised by his sudden shyness, or by the suspicious fuzziness of the photographs that appeared in several newspapers.  There are plenty of exotic animals moving into our country, particularly as climate change takes hold.  Sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer may all be found in parts of the UK, wild boar roam in the Forest of Dean, and any visitor to the London parks will notice the screeching parakeets that have made their homes there.  These are all seen regularly by tourists and residents.  Wild boar and exotic deer are occasional road casualties; as fellow Archers listeners will know, the Grundy family is currently eating its way through a large boar carcase.  But no big cat has ever been killed by a car on our roads, no bodies have been discovered, pecked by carrion crows, and no convincing photographs or films of these animals roaming our countryside have been produced.  Even in Ambridge, however, there is a yearning for some kind of beast to be lurking, unseen, in the woods.  Is it, perhaps, that we townies prefer to think of the countryside as a rather dangerous and exotic “other” place?  We certainly seem to have an ambivalent relationship with it: we want it to be pretty but we need it to produce food, clean water and other necessities of life.  Many of us would like to move there but we don’t want more houses built to clutter the landscape.  We want rural dwellers to be able to make a living, but we don’t want new roads or railways built that spoil the view.  Perhaps we would also prefer the countryside to retain the mystery of unseen big cats or other monstrous beasts that lurk, unseen, in fields and woodland.  They can be alluring, but not too threatening and, sometimes, like @EssexLion, they can even communicate with us via Twitter.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Feminism, farming and academia

Topics on Twitter this week have included speculation about why more women don’t go into farming and why women are still a minority in academia.  Regarding the latter, much time and energy goes into persuading more women to pursue a research career.  Schools are keen to promote science to girls, but peer pressure still seems to steer a disproportionate number towards the arts, so progress is slow.  Many of the female scientists that I meet are very successful and certainly extremely able but, I have noticed, that they tend to reach important career landmarks rather later than do their male contemporaries.  They may have taken time out to have children of course, and accepted responsibility for most of the child care, usually requiring at least a slowing down of their career progression.  But a significant number seem to have moved into academia after pursuing a career in the “real” world.  I wonder whether it sometimes takes women a while to realise that they genuinely do have what it takes to do this rather scary academic stuff? 
And as for farming – why aren’t women flocking to join that industry?  Do they just not want to mess up their manicures?  Somehow I doubt that this is the reason.  It's much more obvious.  There really isn't a lot of "employment" on farms nowadays, when so much of the industry is high-tech and mechanised.  Skills are certainly needed, but to be sure of a farming job you would be well-advised to own, or be closely related to someone who owns, a farm.  And my completely unscientific sampling, mainly from Radio 4’s fictional serial “The Archers”, indicates that farms are usually passed down from father to son.  If a daughter wants to farm she has to find a neighbouring farmer's son to marry.  But Ambridge moves on, sometimes rather more rapidly than the real world.  While Jill, the matriarch, spent her days slaving over a hot aga to produce the perfect Dundee cake for the flower and produce show, daughter-in-law Ruth is managing the Brookfield dairy herd and young granddaughter Pip seems poised to bring her entrepreneurial skills to bear on the profitability of the farm as soon as she finishes college.  And even the real world is changing, if slowly.  Farmers' wives are as likely as anyone else to buy their Dundee cakes at the supermarket and it’s certainly becoming accepted that women can do any kind of job, at least in theory.  I now come across men who take equal, or even primary responsibility for caring for their children, and they are to be applauded.  But would many of today's children, if asked to draw “a scientist” and “a farmer” come up with images of women?  I think we have a long way to go before we reach that point. 
As for communications specialists: any professional gathering makes it obvious that women are in the vast majority and men rarely get a look-in, but that’s another day’s blog.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Hope springs eternal (or Those runner beans don't look so bad after all......)

I live in urban Tyneside and I only have a concrete backyard but I am, at heart, a frustrated gardener.  Hope triumphs over experience and most years I attempt to grow some vegetables.   I am invariably seduced by those plant and seed catalogues that show strawberries spilling out of special pots and mega crops of potatoes being harvested from plastic dustbins.  Every spring I plant my runner bean seeds and, if I’m feeling particularly optimistic, I also try chillis, maybe some tomatoes and even exotics such as peppers.  I have planted courgettes in grow bags (they dry out in an instant) and butternut squash in a plastic container (they can’t grow quickly enough to beat the Tyneside non-summer).  In an exceptional year my tomatoes have produced a dozen or so fruits that I have to persuade to ripen in a paper bag.  Each one probably costs me as much as buying a pound in the supermarket, if I take account of the compost and fertiliser.  My chillis don’t do so badly, as long as I expend maximum time and effort, lifting the pots indoors on cold nights (which is most nights on Tyneside) and shifting them into the best spots whenever the slightest ray of sunshine appears (which has been very seldom this year).  My runner beans provide many good meals for the slugs and snails and this welcome nourishment seems to boost their population faster than I can pick them off.  However many I stamp on during my after-dark raids (and heaven knows what our neighbours think about the cursing that floats over the wall each evening) there are always plenty more to take their place.  Consequently, autumn usually finds me sad and disillusioned.   So I do have sympathy with those farmers that I follow on Twitter, struggling with the vagaries of the British climate, particularly in this year of drought and flood.  Their problems are obviously on a vastly different scale from mine.  But when the catalogues arrive in a month or two I know that my hope will spring eternal.   In the face of climate change and economic pressures, it must be so much more difficult for our farmers to feel the same optimism. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Feel the impact

I joined Relu programme in 2007 and I was immediately aware that my colleagues Director Philip Lowe and Assistant Director Jeremy Phillipson had their eye very much on that ball called “impact”.   They knew from the very beginning of the programme, back in 2004, that research is all very well, but if it doesn’t make a difference to the world and the people who live in it, why are we bothering?  We have to make sure that the research answers the questions that need answering and that people get to know about the results.  This seems such an obvious point to the general public, who, after all, are the people who are paying for research through their taxes.  But there are still a few academics who seem to think knowledge exchange isn’t their responsibility.  Their research could be groundbreaking and of stunning quality, and yet they still seem reluctant to promote it beyond the walls of their own discipline or institution or to reach out to the wider world.  They are too busy, they don’t get paid to do this, they have students to think about, they need to concentrate on the REF.  Fortunately this has been a rare attitude among Relu researchers, all of whom have all of those other pressures on their time.  Most have grabbed with both hands any opportunities for getting their research to the places where it can make a difference.  Involving stakeholders from an early stage was a given in all the Relu projects and this has paid dividends in making the research relevant and ensuring it is communicated effectively.  I’m sure that the enthusiastic leadership shown by Philip and Jeremy has played a key part in making this happen.  So reading the independent review of impact that was commissioned by ESRC and published this week was very pleasing.  It is overwhelmingly positive about the achievements of the programme in knowledge exchange and impact and makes a point of saying that “Much of the “value-added” of the Programme can be traced to its entrepreneurial leadership (Director and complementary Assistant Director) constantly and pro-actively encouraging stakeholders as well as researchers to participate fully in Relu.”  It also says that “Relu was successful in generating a portfolio of a significant number and a diversified range of types of impacts and impacts-in-progress in a variety of contexts.”  It’s always good to feel that we’ve done a good job – and even nicer to be told in writing. 

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Get up out of your comfort zone and dance...!

Relu events have often been designed to jolt academics and stakeholders out of their comfort zones, so when Claire Pencak, our choreographer/artist in residence here at CRE, announced a seminar about her work entitled "Because bees don't read the same books as we do", it seemed only right that I should risk going along.  I really wanted to find out more about the work Claire has been doing, particularly in relation to a project on beekeepers, but I was rather anxious that dancing might be involved.  I'm glad I went (even though there was indeed dancing) because it raised quite a few new ideas.  The work included video, installations and wax face masks as well as music and it prompted us all to think a bit differently about knowledge and how we share and exchange it.   Are books barriers or enablers to knowledge?  The video installation could be read either way.   We contributed our seminal thoughts on the subject by chalking them up on a graffiti wall.  Walid Oueslati, our French visiting professor showed hitherto unsuspected graphic talents, portrayed his work on rural and urban interconnections with coloured chalks.  Alan Hunt, a colleague from the US wrote about butterflies and bees as "pollinators" of knowledge which made me wonder why we view the two insects so differently.  To be "a busy bee" is generally seen as laudable, but "a butterfly" flits from flower to flower without purpose or real application.  We had an interesting discussion about the different attributes and attitudes towards insects.  Could this could be turned into an exercise at some future event where we all opt to be "crickets" or "mosquitos"?  Possibly not, but it did give us an opportunity to think about things in a different way.   The music was particularly enjoyable, performed by Jonathan Lloyd who is researching the role of folk music in rural communities.  And, yes there was the dancing, with my CRE colleague Carmen Hubbard leading everyone in a frenzied finale from the Romanian folk tradition.  This was a challenge for those of us without any sense of rhythm or balance, and I don't think I was the only person well out of my comfort zone at this particular point.  Creative activity can be a great equaliser and, I think, particularly for academics, it's not a bad thing to be put in a situation where they are no longer "the expert".

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

In praise of seasonality

When I arrived home yesterday my veggie box was waiting.  It's a pathetic sign of age, I know, that I should find this prospect so exciting on a Tuesday evening.  Every Friday I log onto the veggie box company's website to check what will be included and begin to plan the next week's meals around the contents.  The produce they deliver is organic, but for me that isn't the great attraction.  What I enjoy most about their deliveries is their seasonality and how the contents of the box change during the course of the year.  This week it brought broad beans - one of my favourite vegetables.  Their season is all too brief but I often wonder whether I would enjoy them so much if I ate them every week.  Of course if I really wanted to I could buy frozen broad beans, but it just wouldn't seem the same.  We are also eating sea trout regularly at the moment.  This is a beautiful fish which is only available during the summer months.  I look forward to its appearance at North Shields Fish Quay, usually in May or June, each one with its bright Environment Agency tag.  Mackerel is also a fish that we eat regularly at this time of year: it is both delicious and cheap.  And this morning we ate locally grown strawberries bought at the Grainger Market in Newcastle.  They are very much a seasonal treat in our house, along with raspberries and other berries.  I couldn't contemplate eating strawberries in December - it would feel quite wrong.  But when September comes I will make the effort to go out into the countryside and pick some blackberries, because that's what you do in the autumn.  I'm probably more obsessive than most people about seasonal foods.  That doesn't mean I refuse to eat imported fruit and vegetables - far from it.  But it would seem perverse to me to buy apples from New Zealand when English apples are in season, for example.  And some produce - such as berries and sea trout - do seem to belong to the British summer, even when summer is as miserable as the one we are experiencing at the moment.  Nutrionists urge us to eat a variety of foods and eating seasonally does seem to fit with this.  Besides, strawberries wouldn't feel like a treat if we ate them every day.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Escargots, anyone?

I live in an urban area, without a proper garden, but every year I attempt to grow some token food crops in my Tyneside backyard: runner beans, herbs, lettuce and, if I’m feeling really optimistic, I might risk some chilli peppers and tomatoes.  It’s an endeavour that requires hope to triumph over experience, particularly after the past few dire summers.  My crops are never lavish and each runner bean probably costs more than a pack of frozen ones from the supermarket, but they do bring a sense of achievement and a brief connection with the process of food production.  This year I begin to doubt whether I will even achieve this small harvest, while the snail population explodes.  Our neighbours can probably hear my unrepeatable comments as I pick these pests off my runner beans and crunch them underfoot each evening.  No amount of culling seems to make any difference.  For many farmers, of course, snails are the least of their problems.  The unprecedented amount of rain during the summer has ruined crops in many parts of the country.  This morning, on Radio 4, I heard a farmer from Worcestershire describing the effects on his vegetable plantings.  Pea plants have been battered to the ground and potatoes are under water.  He added, however, that consumers are unlikely to see effects in the supermarkets.  The farmer has to supply at the price agreed in the original contract, and if their own crops are washed away they must buy in from elsewhere, whatever the cost.  This seems like good news for consumers, many of whom are feeling the pinch at the moment.  But it does seem to remove us even further from food production, with its inevitable ups and downs and I do wonder whether this can really be sustainable.  It seems likely that some farmers will go out of business, but will the rest of us even notice?  Increasingly, food is something we take for granted in so many ways.  The average family no longer spends a substantial proportion of its income on food (I heard 9% quoted recently, down from around 30% fifty years ago) and yet we think food is expensive.  Advertisers sell us ready meals that “save time”, implying that time spent on preparing food is time wasted.  I think that if we all attempted to grow some of our own food we would begin to value it more.  That’s why I struggle on with my containers of runner beans and my pots of herbs, in spite of the continuous battle with the snails.  This year I have even wondered whether I shouldn’t adopt a more win-win “Mediterranean” attitude, whip up some garlic butter and serve escargots for dinner!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

It's just a bit of rain......

It's nearly a week now since last Thursday's "Great Flood" but everywhere in Newcastle and Tyneside people are still talking about it.  Everyone has their flood story, generally about how they managed to struggle home against all the odds, often wading through knee-high water or worse, crawling along in grid-locked traffic and sometimes having to abandon their cars.  This was exactly the moment when we arrived home from a wonderful holiday in Provence (lovely, thank you: sunshine, good food and wine and even the opportunity of fame as we were asked to appear as extras in a new film - though that's another story).  After a flight delayed by "les orages a Newcastle", we landed in rain, lightning and chaos at Newcastle Airport.  Insufficient numbers of immigration officers were trying to process the backlog of increasingly angry passengers, but this was a minor problem compared with what came later.  We soon had our own flood story, as we attempted to drive home to Tynemouth, only to get stuck in often stationary traffic and then find every potential route flooded and roads closed by the police.  There were police cars, ambulances and fire engines trying to push through the queues and attempting to deal with the flooded roads and distressed families.  Desperate parents were leaving their cars and walking miles with babies and small children.   We got home safely in the end, many hours later, but it was a very stark reminder of the power of the elements and their ability to disrupt our everyday lives.  As everyone has been telling one another in the days that followed, this was an unprecedented event in our lifetimes.  Is it attributable to environmental change and will it happen again?  I'm not a climate scientist and I wouldn't attempt to speculate on that, but we do seem to be experiencing some extreme climatic events.  Scientists tell us that environmental change is happening, and whether or not we can attribute this particular heavy rainfall to a shift in our climate, or to human activity, there may be more such incidents in the future.  So it does feel like a wake-up call for many of us.  Maybe we really do need to be more prepared, both individually and as a society.   Just as many parents now will be packing their cars with baby food and warm clothing before every journey "just in case", we may need to think much more carefully about how we develop our infrastructure and how we organise our lives, "just in case".

Friday, 15 June 2012

Sparking new initiatives

I had assumed that as most of the Relu research projects have finished things might quieten down a bit at the Relu Director's Office.  Although this is the case from an administrative point of view, communications seem as busy as ever.  This is gratifying as we did make an argument for extending my role until March next year on the basis that there was more value to be extracted from the programme.  But as I have been starting to put together our next newsletter I have been particularly struck by the amount of activity now being sparked off by Relu, with plenty of news still to tell.  Researchers who dipped their toes into interdisciplinarity, often for the first time, via a Relu project, are moving on to new ventures.  These often build on Relu research.  We are also seeing real impacts coming through as ideas from the research emerge as mainstream thinking.  It's a subtle process and one that we have tried to pin down during the recent evaluation work carried out for ESRC.  It certainly feels as though Relu lives on and has had effects both in academia and the wider world.  A recent meeting with the heads of the research councils was very encouraging, if probing at times, and once again I felt that this is an initiative I'm glad to be part of.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Having fun in Rufshire

The highlight of my week was a trip to Birmingham to an event put on by Relu's Managing Environmental Change at the Rural Urban Fringe project.  They really came up trumps at our Relu conference in November at The Sage in Gateshead.  Asked to put on an interactive activity rather than giving the usual academic paper and powerpoint presentation, they designed a game - Rufopoly - to help people involved in the planning process to think about the competing demands on land.  It's a key challenge at this meeting place of the urban and the rural.  At Wednesday's event Principal Investigator Alister Scott confessed that on its first outing in Gateshead they hadn't really worked out how the game would be played.  I should have realised this as the Rufopoly board had only just arrived from the printer.  There had been some considerable anxiety about its arrival and the team hadn't actually seen the final product.  But nobody would have guessed this as they quickly got everyone involved in playing out their ideas on how Rufshire should approach its planning dilemmas.  The game is a good example of how being forced out of one's comfort zone can prompt creativity.  Since then the idea has developed considerably.  It has been trialled with planning professionals, councillors, students and policymakers from the Welsh Assembly Government.  Wednesday's workshop brought some more key stakeholders together to evaluate rufopoly's usefulness and look at how it might be used more widely.  People attending included local authority representatives, policymakers and third sector organisations.   They were bursting with ideas about different ways in which the game could be developed - for engaging residents in debates, for 6th form geographers, a training tool for elected members on planning committees.  Could versions be developed that showed real planning areas?  What about a computer version on the lines of Sim City?  Rufopoly is just one tool to emerge from the huge Relu programme but for me it represents one of our major objectives: to do science more creatively, in a way that can engage people in unfamiliar processes, and to encourage more fun! 

Friday, 25 May 2012

Reflections on Twitter and timing

Earlier this year I overcame my remaining technophobia and launched Relu into the Twittersphere.  I had been putting it off, conscious of the time commitment.  But as everyone now seems to have this kind of virtual presence it seemed that we could no longer avoid joining in.  I was right of course, it has the potential to take up most of one's time, scrolling through other people's messages, clicking onto the funny pictures and even reading relevant articles from time to time.  Research programmes, organisations and government departments are generally making good use of Twitter to get their messages out with an immediacy that could never have been achieved just a few years ago.  But I have also been struck by the numbers of individuals who have taken to using Twitter to generate discussion and to build networks around topics that interest them.  I even have individual farmers "following" us at Relu.  This does seem to be a tool that allows us to communicate directly with stakeholders in a way that would otherwise be almost impossible.  It also means of course that we have to be prepared for more direct feedback, both good and bad.   Twitter has become notorious for spats, generally involving celebrities.  I don't think any of our Twitter exchanges will make it in to the headlines but I can see that this kind of two-way open communication makes it much easier for disagreements to arise.  As we have always taken the view that feedback is good, whether positive or negative in tone, I don't think this should be seen as a problem.  It may be worth remembering however, that an immediate response isn't always the best response.  Also, I'm conscious that I'm less likely to read contributions from those who tweet constantly and unremittingly about everything.  The world of communication is changing and tools like Twitter form just one element of that.  When we email press releases out now or post them on news sites they pop up almost immediately on a huge range of web news feeds across the world.  I know, because I can search for our news using Google.  As I am old enough to remember the effort that used to go into stuffing hundreds of printed releases into envelopes to catch the last post of the day, and then the hours spent scouring all the printed media to see who had used them, this seems rather miraculous.  But some rules do still apply.   Constant communication can become no more than a background hum that is ignored by the target audience, so there's a lot to be said for keeping one's power dry until there is something worth communicating.  Timing is important too, and now may not always be the best time.    Most of all, whatever tools we use to convey the messages, the content of our communication has to be right.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Writing it how it is

Recently I have had a lot of emails and phone calls from other programmes wanting to know more about how we do communications in Relu and, in particular, how we produce our policy and practice notes.  It's always pleasing to receive positive comments about one's work and the PPN series in particular does seem to be very well received.  But I also feel slightly bemused that the idea of writing these kinds of accessible notes about research seems to be novel.  I know there are a lot of scientists out there doing great work on public engagement and making research accessible, but it still isn't something that happens routinely.  Many scientists who want to write in a more popular style find it very difficult.  I remember science lessons at primary school and even at that early stage we were instructed in how to set out the account of the experiment, with the method, results and conclusion in their proper order, all written in the third person.  I could understand the reasons for this but found the format rather off-putting.  I enjoyed science but my attempts were always, I suspect, a little haphazard.  The incident when my electrical circuit caught fire is particularly memorable so it's probably just as well that I ended up taking arts subjects at "A" level.  However, my degree is in archaeology and this probably gave me my first experience of interdisciplinarity, as it required some knowledge of a range of subjects, including history, geography and physics.  If I tried to explain the principles of carbon dating now they would probably sound rather garbled, but I would like to think I still have some basic understanding of them.  This rather eclectic background means that I have never felt constrained by the "scientific" writing style that is considered necessary for publication in top journals and which, in my opinion, hampers so many academics when they attempt to write for a wider audience.  So the most useful advice I can give to others who want to produce a publication similar to the Relu PPNs is to ignore their early training in science writing and think about explaining their research to someone who is interested in the science but isn't a scientist - someone like me, in fact.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Good badger, bad badger?

A friend recently confessed to me that when she discovered she had mice living in her kitchen she put cheese out for them.  She thought I would disapprove and she was right.  I wouldn't want to share a kitchen with animals that I regard as potential carriers of disease.  I also noted that when my friend thought a rat had moved in she immediately rang the local council's pest controller rather than leaving out larger portions of cheese.  But it did bring home to me how very selective we humans are in our attitude towards animals.   A vet was telling me that "house rabbits" are now commonly kept as pets, while personally I regard rabbit as rather a tasty ingredient for a casserole.  On the other hand, I do feel a slight shock at the idea of eating dogs, but in other parts of the world this would be commonplace.   So some research by one of Relu interdisciplinary fellows about the historical basis for public attitudes to badgers, it did ring a few bells for me.  I must confess that even now Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows is one of my favourite books and perhaps it has coloured my attitudes.  Certainly when I worked in a rural area where there were several badger setts I always felt rather privileged to see those mysterious black and white shapes in crossing the road in the the early morning, or disappearing into the woods at dusk.  At the same time I am all too aware of the problems faced by many farmers as a result of bovine TB.  So I was interested to read the article by Angela Cassidy about the "good badger" and the "bad badger" and how these conflicting images have polarised the debate, with negative consequences for policymaking .  Of course, on mature reflection, I realise that Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows is in no sense a wild animal, but rather the wise adult we would all like to have on hand to advise us, whatever our age.  To endow the real badger with any of his human characteristics is ridiculous.  But perhaps that is why we need social science as well as natural science: to tell us about ourselves and our often illogical humanity.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Reaching the parts of government research may not normally reach

One of the really enjoyable things about my job is that I get invited to all kinds of events organised by Relu projects, and meet not only scientists who are enthusiastic about the research, but some of the people who could use it or benefit from it. In the jargon of our time, of course, they are stakeholders. In real life they could be from government departments like Defra, from local government, from third sector organisations such as the National Trust, they could be people involved in running National Parks or AONBs, or they may be from the private sector. This week I went to an event where researchers from Relu's "Improving the Success of Agri Environment Schemes" project were reporting back to some of their stakeholders. People from a whole range of organisations were there, but also some real life farmers. I was impressed that they had given up their time in such a busy month of the year to attend, and their enthusiasm for the work that has been carried out was palpable. During the discussion they were certainly vocal, and it was clear that they had contributed a huge amount to the development of the project. They had their own ideas about how farmers contribute to protecting our environment, what the weaknesses are in current schemes and how they could be more effective. And quite reasonably they were asking: what next for this research? It's a very good question. The next stage for me is to help the team produce a policy and practice note in our regular series. That will attempt to draw out the points we want to make in an accessible and focused way and it is very different from the academic papers the team are producing. But we also need to make sure that we use the policy and practice note, and other communications, to take the message to the people who can influence government and probably also European policy. That is always challenging but it's what we try to do with all Relu research. It's particularly important when busy stakeholders have given their time to make it happen. They must be able to see that they have helped to make a difference.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Food for life

On Good Friday we ate fish landed at North Shields, a ten minute walk from our house. On Easter Sunday we feasted with good friends on lamb reared in Northumberland, just a few miles to the north. Yes, I am a foodie anorak but there is something special about local food and also about food that is traditional for particular times of the year and that is shared with friends and family. We also enjoyed home-made hot cross buns on Friday morning and later on during the weekend we cut the simnel cake that has been maturing during lent, with its twelve little balls of marzipan representing Jesus and his disciples (minus Judas!). Our household customs are, it has to be said, based on culinary rather than religious principles. But they mark the passing of the seasons in a way that has a reassuring familiarity and I think they feel more important with each year. I understand why most people buy their hot cross buns in cellophane packs, along with the rest of the weekly supermarket shop. Convenience rules in many spheres of our lives. But it seems a pity that we are, in so many respects, distanced from both food production and preparation. I think it is our loss. The Food Programme on Radio 4 the weekend featured two projects about breadmaking: one for soldiers recovering from terrible physical and psychological injuries received while on active service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one for people suffering the effects of torture. Both initiatives seem to be benefiting the participants in a way that goes beyond what we normally classify as "occupational therapy". The soldiers and the victims of torture were regaining a sense of themselves by producing bread - a basic food that is common to so many food cultures. The process was therapeutic providing an unthreatening opportunity for informal chat, while the results were delicious and gave both sustenance and pleasure. Food isn't just fuel, it is something to be shared and enjoyed, both in the preparation and the eating. You can't pick that up off the shelf with a ready meal.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Eventful approaches

A colleague in the Centre for Rural Economy came to ask my advice today about an event she is organising. She wants to provoke meaningful and useful discussion with the policymaking community about a research project and, as anyone who has ever organised any kind of academic conference will know, this is much more challenging than it sounds. Stakeholders come along with very specific expectations, usually involving powerpoint slides and people talking at them. This can sometimes be a useful format for conveying information, but it doesn't necessarily engage the audience's close attention or provoke a response. Allowing specific slots for discussion and setting up discussants to respond to presentations can help of course. Having an "expert panel" to field questions may get a debate going. All of these devices might make communication more two-way. And yet, all too often, there is a static feel to these kinds of events, with little interaction. I can't pretend that there are any magic answers. But there are a few principles that we have applied when planning Relu events that have helped. First, really intense discussion and exchange of views will only happen if you can break people up into small groups, with facilitators and rapporteurs set up to lead and record the interactions. Continually churning the groups will often help, as it prevents people from getting too settled into (or disillusioned with) one group. Provocative questions need to be set that will spark debate, and everyone has to know what kind of participation is expected of them. Even with larger audiences, novel methods and formats may also work. Shake everyone out of their expectations. Make it clear that they aren't going to be able to sit back and check their emails (as if they would!) as the powerpoint slides roll past. Their contribution is key to the day and you may want to give them specific ways of providing this outside the main forum - via video or a striking graffiti wall of comments, or by means of a quiz or a game that helps to give you feedback. Make time for people to take part and feed the results back with an edited film, narrative highlights or presentation to the winners at a final session. Above all surprise delegates and make the day memorable. The presentation that really sticks in my memory is one where the speaker started to take off his clothes to demonstrate what the effects would be if we no longer had cotton available. Fortunately his underwear was made of polyester.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Can we improve on nature?

Google "improve on nature" and you find some weird entries and quite a few arguments: that's the nature of the world wide web. So maybe the new "Nature Improvement Areas" recently announced by the government could have been called something different, though less snappy: people giving nature more of a chance? Getting our act together on nature? These new designations are certainly more about addressing human behaviour than they are about changing animals or plants, though the outcomes will, one hopes, be of benefit to the natural world. The criteria for success in an application for an NIA have been heavily weighted towards "partnerships", "shared visions" and "joined up local action". These aspirations chime very closely with findings, not just from Relu, but from research across the Living With Environmental Change initiative. Increasingly, we are having to think of our land as a resource that brings multiple benefits upon which we all depend, including food, water, carbon storage, ecology and leisure facilities - all those essentials that the latest jargon dubs "ecosystem services". But land is only going to produce all that we need if our management of it is efficient, is carried out at an appropriate scale and incorporates the latest research. That's why Relu is working with Nature Improvement Areas from this very early stage. We have been very fortunate that the South Downs NIA has been particularly helpful and enthusiastic about involving us, from when they were drafting their application, and we are now in touch with all the successful partnerships. The next development for Relu will be drawing out relevant science and producing a policy and practice note in our regular series that can be of practical help. We are consulting with the NIAs about what they want to see included in this at the moment. More links with researchers will, we hope, follow. Maybe we can't improve on nature per se, but we can improve the communications and knowledge exchange between people. Then, perhaps, nature will have a better chance of flourishing.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

One person's meat

Recent studies at Harvard School of Public Health have reignited the arguments about eating red meat. Of course, there are serious implications associated with eating a lot of meat, and they aren't all about the health of the individual. Environmentalists say it's bad for the planet and groups concerned about animal welfare would like us all to stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, farmers and others involved in the livestock industry are hitting back and challenging the validity of the research. Eblex, the organisation that promotes English beef and lamb, argues that red meat provides essential nutrients as part of a healthy, balanced diet. I wonder what they think about producing meat artificially. Writing a short article for last week's Farmers' Weekly got me thinking about the implications of this. Artificial meat might appeal to those vegetarians who have forgotten what real meat tastes like. The sceptical foodie in me can't quite believe it would taste like "proper" meat. I suspect it would be on a par with turkey twizzlers and pink, pasty-tasting sausage rolls. There are also implications for our landscapes. We know from Relu research that there could be serious consequences, particularly for the uplands, if we managed to persuade everyone to make radical changes to their diet. Personally, I enjoy meat, but I don't eat it every day. I prefer to enjoy it a couple of times a week, and stick to meat raised to high welfare standards. For me, that feels like a more useful step on the road to sustainable living, and maybe it is healthier too.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Never mind the ingredients feel the convenience

In the university building where I work we are often asked to help the marketing students by taking part in focus groups. Every time I weaken and agree to do this I end up regretting my decision, because I am invariably the awkward element in the group. Never again, I resolve. But then, a few weeks later, there will be a desperate appeal from another student who needs someone to make up the numbers. They obviously haven't heard about me and my opinions about the kinds of products they want people to test. These invariably come in packets and are "convenience foods" that a pompous foodie like me would never dream of buying. So it was much against my better judgement that I agreed to taste some new vegetarian products this week. The students produced "sausage rolls" and "Scotch eggs" and we all had to give our opinions. Unfortunately the manufacturers, who were obviously very proud of these innovative delicacies, were also present and keen to trumpet their virtues. My resolutions about keeping quiet crumbled, and I questioned why they wanted to make these vegetarian products taste and look like meat by imitating meat-based snacks. That's what manufacterers do, they told me so it's obviously what people want. Hmm... I thought that was what a focus group was there to tell them? The other group members, all students seeking a free lunch, looked bemused. The manufacturers then told us that the advantage of these kinds of products was that schools liked them because obviously it is a well known fact that children will only eat junkfood but these products were much healthier than their meat equivalents. I suggested that by pandering to this view they were actually encouraging the consumption of sausage rolls and other unhealthy, fatty foods and implying that junk foods are ok. Wouldn't it be better to encourage children to eat other kinds of foods? Things went downhill from there on. None of my long-suffering friends would have been surprised by this turn of events as they know all too well my strong (they would say obsessive) opinions about food. Not everyone is as passionate about it as I am, but generally it is a very emotive subject. Food has so many cultural and social associations. Think of Christmas dinner, how wedded most families are to their own particular traditions and how important it is for family members to attend. So it seems a pity that we are often encouraged to devalue food for the rest of the year in favour of so-called "convenience products" that distance us even further from its production. The anonymous paste in those "sausage rolls" might have been "healthier" in some sense than meat, but it could have been made from anything. Taking them out of the packet and sticking them into the microwave may be quick and easy, but is making fresh, healthy, delicious food at home really such a waste of our time? I will certainly carry on making food from ingredients that I recognise and avoiding "convenience foods", but I think I'll skip the focus groups.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Who owns the view?

Yesterday's conference in Birmingham which was organised by the Managing Environmental Change at the Rural Urban Fringe team provided a stimulating day. I felt that one of the most interesting points of discussion was about who owns the view? People often have a real sense of attachment to the outlook from their home and this is understandable. The downside is that this may lead to nimbyism, as individuals want to continue to look out on unsullied countryside. This is common at the point where town meets country, and the newcomers want their own little piece of development to be the last, with no further spread of building work into "their" view. It's one of those points that is obvious once you think about it. But is it fair? Maybe this attitude is as outdated as the mindset of the old British Empire: if I can see it then it belongs to me. Perhaps we need to plan with more equitable aims in mind, and in a way that will benefit everyone. And what about the green belt? Everyone was agreed that people need green spaces but does it now have an unhealthy stranglehold on sensible and sustainable development? Would green wedges or, even a green banana, work more effectively? But on the topic of bringing fruit and veg into the landscape, Pam Warhurst from Incredible Edible was inspirational. Whether you live in the town or the country, it was impossible not to turn one's thoughts to guerrilla gardening. A recording and other products from the conference will soon be available on the project's website.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Going into the ruf

Before our Relu project "Managing Environmental Change at the Rural-Urban Fringe" began I had never given much thought to the meeting point of town and country. But it really came home to me when I went out to take some photos of countryside for a Relu document one weekend. Living on Tyneside, I didn't want to have to drive too far to take my pictures, so ended up at the borders of North Tyneside and Northumberland: classic rural-urban fringe. "Fringe" seems to be the right word for this rather ragged landscape. If my local "ruf" has a defining characteristic it is probably the number of fields being grazed by horses. This is riding school country, where middle-class urban children come to ride ponies. Is that a function we should value? You might argue that any activity that gets young people away from their computer screens should be encouraged. Others feel it is a waste of land that could be used for growing food. There are also areas of apparent abandonment, with decaying buildings and old mineworkings: the legacy of North East England's more industrial past. Some of this unkempt panorama would probably benefit from development, or so it seems. Affordable housing is certainly needed. But am I missing some subtle habitats used by wildlife? I suspect that the planning decisions are not simple as they appear, and next week I shall probably find this out at the "Managing Environmental Change at the Rural-Urban Fringe" event in Birmingham. I'm particularly looking forward to having an opportunity to play the team's Rufopoly board game. When it was launched at our Relu conference in November I had other things on my mind. But this innovative development has really taken off, with planners keen to use it in discussions on strategy. As in Monopoly, players each have a little plastic object to move around the board. I wonder whether these include a horse?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Is rhubarb and pineapple a winning combination?

Will eating rhubarb and pineapple together kill you? I have been thinking recently about the myths I grew up with, particularly those involving food. It's not the bizarre ones that are problematic and I suspect they were confined to my slightly eccentric family anyway. The rhubarb and pineapple combination always seemed an unlikely culinary choice, even if it is harmless. However, I also remember being told to add bicarbonate of soda to green vegetables "to keep them green". Unfortunately this is a practice that destroys the Vitamin C. It also seems pointless, as I have never noticed that vegetables do lose their colour, except when seriously overcooked. Fortunately that once-common advice does seem to have died out, but other damaging food practices persist. A good (and intelligent) friend insists that she always cooks vegetables without a lid on the pan "to get rid of the poisons" and tells me that she has read advice on this in several womens' magazines. Googling the topic does indeed bring up recipes that specify cooking vegetables in this way to "release volatile acids". I'm more inclined to believe the food scientist colleague who assures me that although some vegetables do indeed contain natural compounds that are potentially poisonous in large doses, they are not present in large enough quantities to cause harm (if they were they would make the vegetables too bitter to eat), and in small quantities may actually benefit our health. Moreover, it will make no difference to the levels whether there is a lid on the pan or not. So do our cooking habits matter? They might, when we consider that Relu research into the relative merits of importing vegetables or eating locally grown produce noted that the cooking process is a significant contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions of food. For example, 48% of all energy used during a potato's life cycle is expended in the kitchen. Simple actions to reduce fuel consumption - like putting a lid on the pan - can actually make a difference. But knowing this at an academic level isn't going to help, if there is a different message prevailing in the kitchen. How can we bridge the gap? Interdisciplinary research can be useful because it brings social science into the picture and helps us to understand human behaviour and how we use knowledge. But we also need better sources of information and better ways of telling people about research findings.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Do Ambridge residents watch Countryfile?

Catching up with some of our Relu researchers' and stakeholders' appearances on the BBC's "Countryfile" this week I found myself wondering whether the inhabitants of Ambridge might be watching. One of the topics under investigation was organic produce and its apparent decline in popularity. Consumers seem to be prioritising animal welfare over the use of pesticides, which is interesting in the current economic climate. Free-range eggs do certainly seem to be maintaining their sales. Meantime, over on Radio 4, Borchester Land's mega-dairy seems poised to undercut small-scale producers and it's crunch-time for Brookfield Farm's herd if David and Ruth can't pay for a new slurry tank, the old one having been sabotaged by malevolent badgers. The farming press has praised the even-handed coverage of the proposed new enterprise. I have to agree that it has been well done, showing the care that will go into ensuring the cows' well-being. From a purely personal (and possibly townie-sentimental) point of view, however, I can't help reflecting on the sheer joy displayed by a herd of dairy cows rushing out into a field after a winter spent inside. So I wonder whether David and Ruth Archer couldn't be capitalising on such townie consumer sentiment and going for an animal welfare label, built upon small-scale, grass-fed herds? Perhaps Pip has time to watch television occasionally and could give them a few marketing tips.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

There's only one rural economy

Rural Economy AND Land Use? Someone recently asked me why we need both in the title when land use is so integral to how the rural economy - in fact the economy both rural and urban - works? It's a good question and I couldn't possibly comment on the name of the Relu Programme, particularly as it was decided long before I came on board. But I couldn't deny that there really is only one rural economy. And in their evidence to the recent Government Growth Review Relu and the Centre for Rural Economy where we are based did try to make that point, bringing the work that has been done within the programme into a wider perspective. Professor Mark Shucksmith will be revisiting the evidence to kick off a "Questions of Enterprise" day organised by the Northern Rural Network Newcastle University on 10 February.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Now wash your hands please

When I was visiting the countryside last summer I happened to walk through a field that was being used by a youth organisation as a camp site. The youngsters were having a great time, cooking up lunch with great enthusiasm. I'm sure that the adults in charge had drilled them in safety procedures, the dangers of using camping stoves and so on, but I wondered whether they had also considered the risks from the innocent-looking cows and sheep grazing nearby. Our latest policy and practice note has some stark messages about the dangers of E coli O157. We read a lot of headlines about outbreaks that are traced to contaminated food, but increasingly there are dangers lurking in the environment. This source of infection tends not to result in large numbers of cases at any one time, so perhaps receives less coverage in the media, but the dangers are just as great. Children and visitors to the countryside are at higher risk, because they have lower levels of immunity. The bugs come from farm animals, but they are not affected themselves, so those innocent cattle and sheep could very well be carrying the bacteria. Their faeces are all over the field and it doesn't take much imagination to see how infection happens. I wanted to tell those young people to be sure and wash their hands with soap and hot water before touching any food. But I don't suppose it would have had any effect. I suspect that when all the water you use has to be carted from some distance away, there is a temptation not to bother with such precautions.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Relu in seventeen syllables

The only one of my colleagues who looked delighted at the prospect of writing haikus at our Centre for Rural Economy strategy day on Friday was our visiting Japanese professor. There was a slightly hunted look in everyone else's eyes. However, as they later admitted, it wasn't just fun, it also turned out to be a surprisingly good way of learning about each other's research. Working in pairs, they were forced to explain what they do in simple and basic terms so their partner could get to the essence of it into 17 syllables. I think they have come to expect this kind of apparent eccentricity (I would call it originality of course) from Relu. And our Relu haiku?
Mix people know-how
With a medley of research
For rural progress.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sharing sustainable learning

Projects in the Relu programme are putting knowledge exchange into practice all the time, and creating new resources to share expertise. The Sustainable Uplands project has a Sustainable Learning blog at and the current posting gives some insights into the Relu experience of innovation in knowledge exchange.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A happy, interdisciplinary 2012

January 2012 marks my fifth year with the Relu programme. Moving to Relu from the NHS meant a huge change for me in many respects. But working with the team at Relu has been very enjoyable and entirely positive. There were a couple of aspects of my previous experience that helped. The NHS is made up of people from different disciplines: medics from many different specialties, psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, managers and so on. So interdisciplinarity seemed quite natural to me. The NHS also values stakeholder involvement, and this has been particularly well-established for many years in mental health. So I did feel that I had some insights to offer, having spent more than fifteen years working in communications within mental health trusts in North East England. It has been fascinating seeing how academia has begun to take this ethos of involvement on board. Few, I think, would now deny that the users of research have something to offer the research process itself and engagement makes knowledge transfer much easier. Like so many things in life, it seems pretty obvious once you think about it. Oh, and did I mention that working on the Relu problem has been fun? So having another year to look forward to seems pretty good. Happy new year.