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.