As Government shrinks and the influence of the private sector grows, what happens to public service?
Last night I was one of the panellists at a public engagement event in Cardiff, called 'Come Dine With The Future'. We all had to invent a menu for a 3 course meal to be served sometime in the future, given our individual ideas and research interests. Between us we suggested insects (insect burger anyone, or just feed them to pigs), more productive and resilient plants and animals, that sort of thing. And, happily, the favourite dish of the 100 or so people who came was mainly chocolate (ok, vegan chocolate brownies, but still chocolate).
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.
In the world of Brexit and Trump, where next for old-fashioned , policy-facing, environmental science
First Brexit, now Trump. Both are bad news for a left-leaning, publicly-funded academic working towards a better environment and wanting a fairer, less divided world. But we are where we are, so now what?
Yesterday afternoon, I watched presentations by 3rd year students on topics that are close to my heart. Can the world feed itself? Is sustainable intensification a contradiction in terms? Who should pay for biodiversity, and so on. All of the talks showed a realistic grasp of the massive challenges, and reflected the huge gap between the commitments of governments to a more sustainable world and the actual direction of travel ween before the US election result. But the tone was one of hope. One of the speakers referred to the Venus Project, that gives a new holistic view of the future based on a radical view of economics. Another speaker covered the multiple good news stories collated by Jules Pretty and his team, showing how so many people across Africa are benefitting from increases in food production and environmental quality from their land.
All of which led me thinking about how does an academic like myself adapt to this new landscape? For most of my working life, I have been funded (directly or indirectly) by the UK Government, published research papers and advised policy makers through reports, seminars and meetings. That all seems so last century now. Where should my kind of environmental science go now? Could crowdsourcing work? Perhaps, for small projects that have wider public interests. Commercially funded? Fine, but there is the potential taint of bias. Citizen science and large-scale collaborative research over the web? Yet how do you assure quality of all the different components of the work, and I’m nervous about any model that does not pay people for their time and input.
The political landscape may have changed, but the hunger to develop a more sustainable world has not gone away. We may need to be more imaginative about how to satisfy it.
One of the challenges facing researchers in the Brexit world was always going to be maintaining the confidence of collaborators around Europe. Despite the warm words that nothing had changed, confidence was clearly slipping, and some British researchers were getting frozen out of project proposals. Last week’s announcement that the Government will honour research commitments made within the EU after we leave will surely be a big help, and hopefully British engagement with European research will go something like back to normal.
I confess I haven’t spent too much time on planning European projects of late, I’m more interested in the opportunities opening up further afield. The UK Government is pushing hard for a much stronger engagement with countries beyond Europe, support development and innovation. The Newton Fund is worth £735 million, and is about developing partnerships that promote the economic development and welfare of collaborating countries. I’m now involved in a major Newton Fund project with China (check our my blog from last February), that is looking at the implications of moving away from reliance on chemical fertilisers to much greater use of organic wastes. The Global Challenges Research Fund is twice this size, and is about supporting cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries.
The N8 AgriFood Programme is proving well placed for this new focus on international work. This is partly from the way we are being seen as a valuable 1 stop shop from people who want to engage with UK research. So last spring, we hosted two major fact finding visits from Brazil, and we were able to identify some of the potential common research interests and bring on board some of the most relevant people from the UK. I’ll be there next month to explore further potential collaborations about sustainable land management, and to check out one of the research farms there, so that we can better build collaborations across continents using data on crops, livestock, soil, water, weather and so on. These data don’t mean much by themselves, but they are vital to build models and understanding to needed to develop tools and approaches to allow farmers to cope with the increasingly variable weather patterns we are all facing. Also, research is a social activity; it's important for us to meet people, work together, learn from each other, come up with new ideas and feel part of things. For me, it''s a huge part of what makes my job so enjoyable.
My first reaction to the Brexit vote was shock, which is now giving way to anxiety, about so many issues. But here I want to focus on two issues seen as largely rural and fringe.
It's notable that in the Brexit debate 'environment' was largely presented in terms of 'regulations' that we can finally be relieved from. The alarm among environmental organisations is justified. European Directives are the basis of much of our environmental practice, notably the Habitats Directive, the Birds Directive and the Water Framework Directive. It's also been pointed out that Brexit has the potential to derail the Paris climate agreement. We need to transfer the Directives into national law to stand a chance of protecting what we have. The environment is seen as a fringe issue in politics, but the numbers engaged in environmental activities from watching Countryfile upwards are huge. I have now joined the RSPB and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust so that I can now count clearly as one of these people.
The other issue is food security. We currently produce less than 2/3 of the food we consume; given the likely pressures on global food production from extreme weather, this is not the ideal time to leave a continental scale free market in food. We must surely increase levels of home grown food production of we are not to face sudden crises in the future. This means valuing food, and valuing the land it is grown on. The downward pressure on food prices is making UK farming less viable, and the pressure on peri-urban areas is to build, not to farm.
And, of course, these pressures have been here anyway - its just we can no longer expect the EU to give us the support we need. As the Brexiter campaigners have said, we need to gain control. I agree. We really do need to gain control - control from the current, short-term political games that are wreaking so much havoc while the longer term issues are ignored.
Ahh. I think I get Donald Trump. Earlier today I read an article in the Guardian, which said the Donald Trump had said, 'There is no drought." The article continues: 'Trump accused state officials of denying water to farmers so they can send it out to sea “to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.”'
Instead of thinking, more lies and nonsense, I though, wow. What a masterstroke. There is no such thing as a real problem, a real issue, that can't be blamed on government / environmentalists / migrants, that can't be resolved by a little pressure in the right places, that hasn't been exaggerated or distorted by the experts. It's not as if the usual suspects have solved the drought / the economy / the migrants, maybe it's time for a different approach. So what if it's based on statements that are not true? Can he really do worse than the others? And what do these so-called experts know anyway?
Politics, 2016 style, has embraced the idea that truth is relative, a point of view, to be used whenever convenient. Of course it's not just the US; both sides in the Brexit debate have been found telling porkies. But the one that struck me recently was not lie at all, it was the claim by the Brexit campaigners that a recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies was not valid because the Institute had worked for the European Commission. Yet more and more research can only be funded with stakeholder support and engagement. This means that the the 'bias' whistle is increasingly easy to blow, even by members of a Government which has consistently urged academics to work with, and by part-funded by, stakeholders. We are all biased now.
The idea that research generates truth which is to be respected by non-specialists seems increasingly quaint and so-last-century. I started work in what is now the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in 1991, and remit was quite clear, to produce high quality, public domain, evidence to support decision making by policy makers. Even when I led work on GM crops, the quality of evidence was rarely questioned per se; the key debates were about how the evidence should be interpreted and used. Now scientific evidence is merely a point of view, and the creation of that evidence is a political act. Indeed, are we reaching the point where being an academic is a political act? It wouldn't be the first time, after all.
Last month, the global temperatures broke all records, 1.35 degrees warmer compared with the averages between 1951-80, with the rise particularly high in the Arctic (see map below, found here)
If this carries on, the global weather patterns this year may be outside what we are familiar with. major sudden changes in weather are bad news for world food production, as well as for storms. I confess to a brief feeling of satisfaction that we may hit a climate emergency just as Trump is having his presidential campaign, but even there I wonder if he might even benefit, as yet again the world conspires against the US. But I cannot pretend things are much better here, where the whole EU debate is based into a power play between two leading politicians and wild guesses about the risks to businesses; the social, legal and environmental protection that has been won in the EU is summarised as "red tape", to be dumped as soon as possible.
How did we get here? Of course, it's complicated. But I do look at the media, the choices they make, and how they affect our world view. We get daily reports of the FTSE100, and the BBC news flagship "Today" has business leaders asked politely about their views of the world. The idea of other viewpoints getting equivalent attention does not seem to compute these days. Also, the presentation of the natural world in the media is becoming more and more trivialised, with celebrities being ferried around the world to stare wide-eyed at the wonders of the world around them. The environment, it seems, is there to serve and glorify us, and the main form of action needed is to see it for yourself while it is still there.
The alarm bells are ringing, loud and clear. But they are drowned out by so many other noises competing for our attention, and we've heard them before and life seems to carry on. Naomi Klein points out that "this (climate change) changes everything", but the rise of an alternative politics will take time. But what we CAN do is talk about how to promote resilience against extreme weather in our homes, our communities, our work.
I've just returned from the Yangtze delta of China, where I was checking out the research site for our new research project. This is not my first time in the area; I was at the nearby Hangzou when I first visited in 1988. What was once a beautiful area is now the fastest growing area in China, if not the world, in terms of population and economic activity. Nothing in the UK prepares you for it; the cities are now huge, with tower blocks rising among the lower rise buildings like daffodils on a spring lawn. Ningbo, our host city, has a population of around 6 million, while Nanjing, where I landed, has around 10 million, falling by half at the spring holiday when people head back to their villages. The cities are linked by motorways and a terrific high speed train network, criss crossing the landscape at different heights so as not to take up valuable land. The railway stations serving the high speed line are new, set out of the city centres, and designed like airports, complete with departure and arrivals areas at different levels, full security, and lots and lots of space. But one thing does not change; the hospitality of our hosts. I was collected at the airport, delivered to the taxi back to the airport, and ferried around, wined and dined with grace and good humour.
The study site is being developed into a international Critical Zone Observatory on urbanisation. It's a small catchment at the edge of the city, which is the founding town of the coastal Ningbo region. It's surrounded by mountains, with a few streams threading through the narrow valleys. My preconception was that the area would be agricultural, with a few houses. Far from it; most of the valley floor is already urbanised, and the farming is essentially allotments. Once dedicated to rice, these terraces now grow vegetables and herbal medical plants. The landscape is already highly instrumented for water and soil, while the field experiments looking at rice growing will be placed just outside the main catchment.
Our study looks at the potential benefits and problems of moving from farming based on chemical fertilisers to one based on using organic wastes from the cities or from pig farms. At first I couldn't understand how this was relevant here, but the city mayor explained that the development plan for the region was to turn it into a centre for ecotourism serving the nearby cities, coming for the scenery, the heritage (there is a 9th century dam across the river, holding back the incoming tide coming up the 20 km or so from the coast), but mostly enjoying locally grown organic food. We had a sample at a large restaurant, and I would certainly go back.
I find it amazing that this area works at all, that all these millions of people can take security of food, water and energy for granted. Food especially, as so much is grown by small farmers. The Chinese government understands the need to develop closed loop systems where possible, using urban wastes back on the land; the key risks are problems from recycling pollutants including heavy metals and antibiotics, issues that our project will focus on. The project (and others just starting now) demonstrate the coming of age of Chinese science, and it's a privilege to be involved. Sometimes I worry that the speed of change can overwhelm what science can contribute to making our societies more sustainable. But that's just defeatist ...
All of a sudden, soil is in fashion. Soil science has been in decline for many years, but interest is rising rapidly. The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons has launched an inquiry into soil health. Not surprisingly, the White Rose Sustainable Agriculture Consortium has submitted evidence, that it turn builds on the experience we are gathering from our research at the Leeds University Farm. But there are so many things going on in the soil world, following from last year's International Year of the Soil (shown by these giant posters at the FAO headquarters in Rome last year), and the appearance of targeted research funds, through programmes like the Soil Security programme that supports much of my work.
I reckon several things have come together to make this happen. Soil science is developing rapidly thanks to new technologies. Advances in identifying genome sequences are allowing us to see what's living in the soil, and in identifying complex biological chemicals (metagenomics) shows us what they are doing. Stable and radioactive tracers allow us to track the progress of carbon and other materials through the soil, while new sensors, the mighty Nanosims (see below, images of a soil micro-aggregate, showing the locations of different labelled isotopes, from this paper) and even 2nd hand medical scanners show soil structure and processes in ways that were never possible before. The black box (well, brown sludgy mess) is opening up, and scientists are suddenly keen to get involved.
Such new technology is allowing serious money to be made by advising farmers on their soil using big data. Even IT companies like IBM are developing systems that support farmer decision making by monitoring soil, weather and crops. And the need for soil science has never been higher; the current extremes of rainfall and drought, the rising cost of fertilisers and the withdrawal of some agrochemicals means that soil has to be actively managed for sustained crop production.
If you want a career challenge in a rapidly developing area of science of fundamental importance to the whole of humankind, well, you could do far worse.....
Our sheep think it’s spring. Helen Miller and I own a few sheep, and when I went to feed them yesterday, the mood had changed. After huddling down against the rain and snow, two f them even came on a walk with me, with the youngest jumping and skipping, bounding along. It’s not just the sheep. Hawthorn buds are opening up, some cheery trees have shed their petals. And it’s not even the end of January.
2016 has started very badly. The floods in northern England and southern Scotland may have subsided from the front pages of the newspapers, but everywhere remains waterlogged, preventing a lot of normal farming; the homes and shops will take months to clear, and the Tadcaster bridge remains down. Cuts in support for renewable energy in the UK are resulting in cutbacks just when other countries are piling in. And by the end of the year we could see UK out of the European Union, and the US led by Trump.
All of this makes it even more important to improve the resilience of our food supplies. Looking after soil is an important part of this process. I was in Dundee on Friday at the James Hutton Institute, where my long-time colleagues and friends Cathy Hawes and Geoff Squire have been working on a new long-term agricultural experiment. The photo of waterlogging on one half of a potato field, managed conventionally, compared with the much more normal-looking organic field, tells you all you need to how about how big an impact this kind of work could make to coping with very wet weather. But the real trick would be to somehow extend this improvement in soils to “conventional’ intensive cropping.
Progress is being made. The MycoRhizaSoil project is now in its second year, with larger plots now sown with combinations of wheat varieties, cultivation treatments and inoculation with soil fungi, to explore how farm practices can be tweaked to improve soil quality. SoilBioHedge is also well established, that explores the potential for using the increased biodiversity in field edges to improve the soil further into the field. And I’ll be in China soon as part of a new project that seeks to use urban wastes as agricultural inputs. It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it all helps.
Les Firbank is an agro-ecologist based at the University of Leeds