Events like this are always good fun, but an added bonus is that you meet some amazing people. Last night I was talking with Tom Webster, of the Grow Up Urban Farms team. This is a new company that is producing fresh fish and vegetables in the heart of London, using aquaponics and LED lighting to create as near a cloased system for nutrients and water as is possible. The USP is that the food is incredibly fresh and of high quality. By growing the food indoors, the company provides all year round employment in a part of London that really needs it. He is providing social and environmental benefits in a sustainable business environment, and is really excited and proud of it all.
Which made me think. When I was in my teens, my career advisor offered the two sensible choices to a boy near Teesside; British Steel or ICI. When I asked about astronomy or biology, he just sort of glazed over. At University, the choice widened to include public service, whether teaching, research or even as spy (but that's another story). I have spent most of my professional life since as a scientific civil servant, providing the evidence to help policy makers to allow wildlfie to thrive on productive farmland.
It all seems so last century. Most of the policymakers have gone (at least from Defra), victims of cuts. The role of policy as such is much reduced, while innovation is now measured in patents, profits and start-ups. But this does not mean the end of public service, far from it. It has simply moved. Tom is one of many entrepreneurs with social and environmental objectives, to be delivered through a viable business model. HIs work reminds me of some of the many other ventures I'm lucky enough to get to know, the rapidly growing One Acre Fund, that is supporting smallholder farming in Africa to great effect; Incredible Edible Todmorden that is building a community through food production in the heart of the Pennines, and The Real Junk Food Project that bridges food waste and food poverty, first in Leeds and now around the world.
Academics are increasingly concerned with supporting private industry through stakeholder engagement, knowledge exchange and near-market research. The trick is to work fast enough to be of any use to our stakeholders as they face today's problems, yet to be canny enough to help them prepare for longer term challenges, such as climate change. Doing this and still publishing our research papers is not a trivial challenge. Also some important parts of our lives struggle to be converted into good business models; we will still need policy makers to allow wildlife to thrive on productive farmland, austerity, Brexit or no.