Monday, 26 August 2013

The Celtic tiger shows its wounds

I have just returned from a few days in Donegal.  Driving back and forth between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland I am always struck by the casual lack of any obvious border between the two countries.  The only immediate clue is in the sudden change of style in the road signs.  Miles become kilometres, the iconography looks different.  But as one proceeds through the countryside there are other, more dramatic contrasts.  Traditionally Ireland is a country of green landscapes, agriculture and farmsteads.  But when I first visited in the early 1980s change was already in the air.  Old farmhouses were being abandoned in favour of spanking new ranch-style bungalows with running water and the full complement of services, often built from the template designs in The Bungalow Book.  Irish rural settlement has always looked different from the traditional village that is so familiar in most of the UK.  Homesteads tend to be scattered rather than clustered, and there is little of the peculiarly English rural romanticism with its cottage garden and roses round the door.  But these new Spanish colonial style developments looked particularly incongruous.  Although the houses themselves may be quite grandiose, with pillars and stone ornaments much to the fore, the effect is stark.  These new builds usually stand naked in their standard one third of an acre, without the softening effect of any surrounding garden.  There may be some grass if you’re lucky; that can be zipped over with a ride-on mower.  Whole estates of this kind, often brightly painted in blues, reds and greens, create the impression of a giant Toy Town.  During the days of the Celtic tiger it was a pattern that became ever more prominent as spare money was poured into new houses and second homes.  Some of the old farmsteads were renovated and became holiday cottages; others were left to disintegrate.  But then, along with its European neighbours, the Celtic tiger faltered.  Bungalows have been abandoned at every stage of construction, as their owners were hit by the recession.  No doubt Northern Ireland has also suffered, along with the rest of the UK, but the wounds in the Republic seem much more obvious, a stark public display of the uncomfortable and sometimes tragic personal consequences of a challenging economic situation.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Tell me a story

For the past three days a number of my colleagues from the Centre for Rural Economy here in Newcastle have been in beautiful Florence, at the European Society for Rural Sociology Congress.  Of course I’m not at all envious (well, only a little).  Neither do I mind helping my colleagues prepare their presentations for such events.  In fact it’s something I really enjoy doing.   But I do wonder why it is that we assume academics will automatically possess the necessary skills for communicating their research to an audience, and why they are so rarely that able to draw on the assistance of communications specialists.  One of my colleagues, who had better remain anonymous, told me recently that preparing powerpoint slides used to be so much easier because he would “simply paste in chunks of text from my research papers”.  It’s harder now that I have shown him the error of his ways apparently.  He is very much the convert.  Solid bullet points of text are out while visual images are in, and I think he would agree that the audience tends to be more attentive as a result.  Finding the right picture is often challenging, but sharing the results of research should be about telling a story, and pictures can help to convey that story by adding a visual dimension.  I have written before, I know, about the importance of stories in communicating research, but this has been very much in my mind recently.  I am currently reading “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, a book that I had been intending to tackle for some time.  I wish I had got around to it sooner because I can hardly bear to put it down.  Reviews have mostly been full of praise, but I have also read a few critical comments, particularly on websites, and possibly from academics, that suggest this is not proper science writing.  I have seen it called “science-lite”.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Skloot manages to involve the reader in the lives of Henrietta and her family and make them real, while at the same time conveying the complex technicalities involved in creating the Hela cell line.  This important development, that facilitated so many different medical advances, couldn’t have happened without that individual and her personal story.  I have no qualifications in biochemistry and yet I feel that I understand much more about cells and their biology from reading about Henrietta Lacks.  I don’t think that using human stories or pictures in any way undermines “serious” science, and I wish that academics were routinely given more training and support to help them convey the fascinating tales that they have to tell.   We would all be the richer if they did.