Wednesday, 28 May 2014

(Re)Connecting science and professional practice

Sue Steer, land agent and Chair of RICS Countryside Policy Panel gives her thoughts on the recent landbridge workshop

My profession in general has not had strong links with the scientific research communities; apart from those surveyors employed in the old Ministry of Agriculture, who worked daily with scientists with access to an immense network of scientific knowledge.  This wealth of research information was largely gathered through the Experimental Husbandry Farms, which were strategically located nationwide to serve the different systems of agriculture. This network of knowledge, built up over many decades with the corresponding  means of dissemination  was swept away by the government in the interests of (short term) economy in the late 80s and 90s. There was a unanimous feeling of regret at the workshop that this system of coordinated  research, dissemination via the specialist land advisors to the farmers and land managers and back to the researchers (plus the opportunity to demonstrate results on the farms), had been so comprehensively dismantled. I read in Farmers Weekly this week that Defra are seeking to dramatically  increase the use  of private companies to undertake research ;  if this is correct it is likely to be detrimental to the research which does not have a direct financial return, (but should be carried out in the public interest).
An erudite Keynote Address by Professor Ian Crute , Chief Scientist, AHDB set the standard for the day, using examples of his own research he explained the challenges of establishing the direction of research with competing interests and tight funding. Many diverse interests can have common objectives and Ian considered that co-ordination of these common aims to help deal with the challenges and opportunities of managing land in a more sustainable way for the future was immensely important.  Jeremy Phillipson followed Ian with a useful summary of the Landbridge Project and the potential for rural professionals as key intermediaries.  The key is knowledge exchange which should be a two way approach with those working in the field feeding back to the researchers as well as vice versa. The question is how can this be done in a coordinated way as well as not just driven by the requirements for economic growth but in the interests of future well-being? This should be the role of government to consult widely and set research objectives and priorities even if it needs to enter into partnerships with private interests.
Two panels one of rural practioners and the other a specially selected group of researchers involved in the rural knowledge exchange field provided the workshop with a comprehensive overview of their personal experiences and in projects which they are involved. All the presentations were valuable and demonstrated the wide range of activities being undertaken and approaches to knowledge exchange.  I hesitate to single out one presentation however, in view of the focus on Scotland this year, I feel justified in mentioning Julie Fitzpatrick’s talk on the history and work of the Moredun Research Institute. It was established by a group of forward thinking farmers in 1920, to help find solutions to improve the health of livestock. Those involved with land management and farmers are still very much involved with the work and coordination with the scientists and pay an annual subscription. It struck me as an excellent model of knowledge exchange.

1 comment:

  1. These are useful thoughts and I wish I could have been at the workshop myself! I agree in principle that knowledge exchange has to be about two-way flows of knowledge, which includes from farmers to researchers, but in my experience this particular flow is relatively rare. At most, it is likely to occur with more junior researchers employed on research projects to interact directly with farmers, but the further through your research career you go, the more distant you often end up from the farmers themselves (my main regular learning from farmers is through my subscription to Farmer's Weekly now). It is a challenge to think how this can be solved. Also, in terms of flows of knowledge from researchers to the land managing community, this tends to occur through representative organisations rather than directly between researchers and farmers, and so these organisations play a crucial role. Moredun is a particularly interesting example, given that it is partly subscription-based. I'd be interested to know what proportion of its funding comes this way, and whether it does research in the "public interest" despite this private funding source?