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.