Tag Archives: Activism

The uneasy academic and the importance of dipping outside your discipline: reflections on The Urban University conference

Uneasy Academic 20141011_144756

It’s important for academics to occasionally move out of their disciplinary comfort zones and to interact with academics and practitioners from beyond their own silos, experiencing approaches that are alien and hearing voices that are not repeating the normative values of their own subject area.  Time spent in this way can be both stimulating and mundane, enlightening and boring, exciting and frustrating.  Above all, unpredictable.  At an ecological conference I know what I will experience; drop me into one devoted to the arts or social sciences, and anything can happen.  It’s an uneasy experience.

With that in mind I spent the end of last week attending a conference at which I was the lone scientist speaker, and indeed one of the very few people with a science background in the audience, as far as I could tell. The Urban University was sub-titled “Universities as place makers and agents of civic success in medium sized towns and cities” and was largely aimed at urban planners, architects, policy makers, and social geographers.  Not muddy boots ecologists.  However I’d offered the organisers (the University of Northampton’s Collaborative Centre for the Built Environment) a 30 minute talk about the monitoring work we’ve been doing on the bird assemblage at Northampton’s new Waterside Campus, which I discussed in an earlier post. The abstract for my talk is below, co-authored with my colleagues Janet Jackson and Duncan McCollin, plus two of our undergraduate students, Jo Underwood and Charlie Baker.

I had hoped that providing a very different perspective on the role of an urban campus, one focussed on the biodiversity it can potentially support and the ecosystem services that stem from it, might be of interest to this broad-based audience.  In the back of my mind I also thought it might be fun to reverse roles and, for 30 minutes, make them the uneasy ones.  It’s always hard to judge but I got the impression afterwards that the talk was well received and it elicited some discussion and questions.

Overall it was a stimulating couple of days and (I think) I’ve learned a lot, or at least learned more about the approaches and priorities of academics and practitioners beyond my immediate field. The talks ranged from the rather abstract to the very practical, from theoretical discussions to local activism. Particular highlights for me were:

John Goddard‘s overview of the relationship between the university and the city, and the fact that many academics don’t feel a personal link, or responsibility, to the urban centre in which they work.

Allan Cochrane discussing the unintended consequences of a university’s economic and social power, including gentrification and studentification of local residential areas.

Robin Hambleton on universities as a corrective to “placeless power”, i.e. multinational firms that can facilitate enormous social and economic change in an area despite having no geographic connection to the place.  Of course the internationalisation agenda of most UK universities means that they may themselves be in danger of wielding placeless power overseas.

Michael Edwards recounting how UCL academics and students have engaged in local activism in North London, for example fighting destructive planning applications, and sometimes positioned on the opposing side to the university itself.

Wendy Cukier on the experience of her Canadian university’s role as a “changemaker”, and the value of the Ashoka U Changemaker Campus programme, to which the University of Northampton is committed.

Cathy Smith on the medieval origins of the original University of Northampton, which was dissolved in 1265.  By happy coincidence 2015 is both the 750th anniversary of that dissolution and the 10th anniversary of the current University of Northampton’s full upgrade to university status in 2005.

The conference strongly impressed upon me the fact that academics sometimes take their institutions for granted in the sense that they don’t reflect on, or even challenge, the role of higher education within their geographical location. There may even be a danger of this becoming more pronounced as, in the rush to internationalise and chase overseas student fees, we in fact forget the physical and historical roots of our institutions.

Above all the two days I spent trying to navigate these unfamiliar waters reinforced my belief that it can be very dangerous for academics to isolate themselves within their disciplines, no matter how comforting and familiar that may be.  If the only voices that you are hearing (audibly and on the page) are the ones that are telling you stories that you already know and understand (even if you don’t agree with them) then it can be very easy to drift into a kind of disciplinary complacency in which you take the (self) importance and role of your own subject area for granted, without any external perspective on how it might be perceived by those beyond your academic boundaries.

Taking the occasional disciplinary leap could involve as little as going to a seminar in another department, or widening your reading to include areas beyond your subject.  Attending and presenting at a two day conference involves a greater commitment of time and energy, but it’s worth the effort.  It’s an approach to academia that I’ve tried to follow over the past 25 years and I’d recommend it as a way of broadening perspectives.  Sometimes it’s good to feel uneasy.

Many thanks to the organisers of The Urban University conference, particualrly Sabine Coady Schaebitz and Bob Colenutt, for their hard work in putting together such a great couple of days.  Here’s the details of my talk:

Biodiversity monitoring on urban university campuses

Jeff Ollerton, Joanne Underwood, Janet Jackson, Charles Baker & Duncan McCollin

Biodiversity, the variety of species and habitats to be found in a defined area, is a critical component of the natural world, and the ecosystem services that it provides supports modern society in economically tangible ways.  Urban campuses have long been acknowledged as supporting significant biodiversity, as evidenced by the many universities that have written biodiversity action plans.  However there has been relatively little quantitative research published on the biodiversity of British urban campuses, and how that diversity changes over time, particularly with respect to large-scale infrastructure development.  Academics and students in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences have been collecting data on the biodiversity of Park and Avenue Campuses for more than 20 years, including plants, invertebrates, mammals, and birds.  This talk focuses on bird diversity as birds are an indicator group for assessing ecosystems, and are arguably the best understood group of species in the UK.  We present data on the birds that have been recorded on these campuses from 1993 to 2015, assessed in terms of their UK conservation status.  We then discuss the potential impact of the new Waterside Campus on the existing bird assemblage of the site, and present preliminary data showing how bird diversity has changed since building work began.  We end by discussing whether it is possible to maintain or even enhance bird diversity and abundance at the new campus.   The location of Waterside Campus, within the Nene Valley Nature Improvement Area and in close proximity to internationally important wetland bird sites, means that the University of Northampton has a civic duty to maintain the biodiversity of its campuses.

Note: in the end I actually didn’t include the data from Park and Avenue campuses, there wasn’t time to fit everything in!

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Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, University of Northampton

Our nature conservation laws need to be defended, not weakened

If you’ve not already heard, there’s a proposal going forward in the European Parliament to review (=weaken) the current EU Nature Directives.  If this happens some of the most important wildlife sites, as well as vulnerable species, could be at risk in the UK and the rest of Europe.

If you have any strong feelings about nature conservation, or if you simply want more information about what’s happening, then I’d urge you to visit the RSPB’s page where you can watch a video about the issue and/or complete a short form to add your voice to the consultation process.

This is important.

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Filed under Biodiversity, RSPB

Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists?

NPS workshop

Earlier this week I attended a two day research funding workshop intended to develop initial project ideas to address evidence gaps in the recent National Pollinator Strategy.  It was a productive meeting from which will hopefully emerge some important, focused science.  As is so often the case at scientific meetings, many of the most interesting conversations occurred after the end of the day’s formal work, in the pub.  There was a little bar stool criticism of some of the recent published work on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinator health, and specifically whether or not researchers engaged in this kind of controversial science should be polemicists, stirring up controversy, or even activists with particular agendas that they wish to promote.

Whilst I agree that there is a difficult line to walk between scientist as campaigner and scientist as neutral presenter of facts, I also think that polemicist/activist is quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the rhetoric is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded or even published – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as we would like to believe.

So should scientists, and specifically those, like myself, who are engaged with biodiversity science in all its myriad forms, be also engaged in campaigns and polemics?  Is this what wider society wants from its scientists?  How do other scientists feel about this?  I’d really be interested in your views.

In this blog I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take certain positions on subjects such as the impact of poorly conceived development on nature reserves, the fallacies of political spin, and future developments in UK nature conservation.  Those are positions that are predicated as much by my personal motivations as an “environmentalist” (a term I don’t like but which is widely understood and will do for now) as they are by my professional role as a university scientist who does research and teaches.  I am not a neutral observer, though I hope that I’m an objective one.

There’s a lot of questions that can spin off from reflecting on the role of biodiversity science and scientists in the modern age, which I don’t have time to properly explore but which I hope will emerge in the comments.  I was prompted to write this by a really interesting post by Joern Fischer over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog entitled “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask“.  In it Joern develops some ideas about the kind of science that we should be doing “for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world”.  I’d add that what is important is not just the science that we do, it’s how we present that science (the passion and the story telling) to a range of audiences, and also the personal positions we take on the issues that the science illuminates.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination

“These things aren’t to study. They’re to turn up very loud and say, hey, once upon a time, everything was just as easy as this”

May June 2010 Garden, River of Flowers, Cambridge 011

The title of this brief post is a quote by Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, from an interview that the BBC reported just this morning, regarding the forthcoming release of previously unheard Zeppelin material.  You can read the story and hear the interview here.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m not averse to sprinkling musical references into my posts, and this was a great quote that seemed to chime with something else I read this morning.  Over at the Small Pond Science blog, evolutionary ecologist Amy Parachnowitsch has a thought provoking post entitled “Save the bees, but maybe not this way“.  I’ll let you read it for yourself, but in a nutshell Amy is concerned about the scientific legitimacy of a “Save the Bees” campaign being crowd funded by online activist network Avaaz.org.

I share this concern and it worries me that whoever is organising the campaign is exploiting the genuine desire by people to “do something for the bees” without any regard for what exactly it is that’s “being done”.  It seems to me to be purely a campaign fund-raiser by people who don’t understand the issues or how science works, the message being: “These things aren’t to study. They’re to turn up very loud and say, hey, once upon a time, everything was just as easy as this”.

The organisers promise “the world’s first large scale, grass-roots supported, totally independent study of what’s killing our bees that decisively challenges the junk science of big pharma”.  As Amy notes, this is hugely offensive to independent scientists who are working on bee conservation issues (such as myself).  But without ever actually saying what they are going to do with the money, they’ve already had pledges of money from over 78,000 people!  If only raising funds for real research was that easy!

To reiterate what I said in the comments to Amy’s post, something that really worries me is that over-emphasis on pesticides and honey bees as single issues affecting “pollinator conservation” deflects attention from other factors which are at least as important, such as habitat loss. Colleagues and I have a manuscript in preparation at the moment showing that native bee and flower-visiting wasp extinctions in Britain began in the mid-19th century and reached their highest rate during the period 1929-1959, during a time of rapid agricultural intensification (but prior to the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides that is currently exercising many people).  Loss of pollinator diversity is an issue that has deep roots.

In actual fact, although wild bee diversity is declining in the UK, overall abundance seems to be stable as some species are doing extremely well, including a new natural colonist, the Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) which is spreading fast and is locally common.  But clearly greater diversity provides us with future insurance against losses of other species.

There are positive things that can be done for pollinator populations by every citizen, beyond giving money to crappy, pseudo-scientific campaigns, as I talked about in a recent post of mine.  So please don’t contribute to this Avaaz.org request, and use the money you save to buy some wild flower seeds and/or the Led Zeppelin reissues.  It will make the world a better place.

 

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Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Honey bees, Pollination