Hello and welcome to my blog! My name is Caroline and I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research project focuses on Striga - a genus of parasitic plants that devastates harvests by infecting food crops. I am exploring the defence reactions that can make host plants more resistant against Striga. Due to my ongoing battles with anorexia, I haven't made as much progress as I would have liked but I am determined to finish the course.

This blog charts the ups and downs of life in the lab, plus my dreams to become a science communicator and forays into public engagement and science policy....all while trying to keep my mental and physical health intact. Along the way, I'll also be sharing new plant science stories, and profiles of some of the researchers who inspire me on this journey. So whether you have a fascination for plants, are curious about what science research involves, or just wonder what exactly I do all day, read on - I hope you find it entertaining!

Thursday 11 December 2014

What can we learn from Badgers?

It's an issue that crops up in the media again and again.... Badger culling to prevent TB in cattle. Dr Rosie Woodroffe (Zoological Society of London), whose research sits right at the heart of the debate, had been invited by the Science in Policy group to describe her attempts to ensure the government's policy on this issue is based on sound science.
'If anyone at DEFRA knew I was giving a talk on how to influence policy they would be laughing their socks off' she began. During her ten years as a Government Advisor, Dr Woodroffe has campaigned compellingly for culling practices to cease. But this is no horror reaction to the killing of cute, furry animals; as an impartial scientist, her arguments are based on sound evidence that culling simply doesn't work. In fact, it actually seems to make the problem WORSE.

When this 'surprising' result was discovered in 2007, 'the ministers didn't want to hear it and didn't believe it', especially as the researchers themselves were at a loss to explain the result. Since then, it has emerged that removing such highly territorial animals encourages the remaining individuals to disperse, effectively spreading TB across a larger area.  Eventually in July 2008, her reasoning prevailed and the government dropped impending plans for culls.

But it seems that contentious policies, even those based on sure facts, have a lifetime set to parliamentary elections. After only being in power for 'ten minutes', the new coalition government announced plans to reintroduce badger culling in May 2007. It seemed that Dr Woodroffe was back to square one.

In such a situation, how can one influence policy? There is a depressing trend in campaigning where the willingness of a person to talk to you decreases as their ability to influence policy increases. Dr Woodroffe found a clever way to circumvent this however, by enrolling badger fan and former Queen guitarist, Brian May. MPs were then queuing up to attend her sessions! She also got on side The Badger Trust, a campaign group with a powerful voice that isn't afraid to get legal. For instance, when the Welsh Assembly introduced a plan in 2009 where badgers could be killed under the Animal Health Act , the Badger Trust took the case to court and won - the plan was scrapped. Interestingly, TB rates are falling quicker in Wales now than they are in England...

Perhaps most importantly, however, was her 'community- based' strategy as opposed to a 'top down' policy enforcement approach. According to Dr Woodroffe, badgers can divide rural communities to the point of 'civil war', particularly between farmers trying to make a living and those who appreciate seeing badgers scampering across their garden lawns. By talking to farmers and discussing viable alternatives, such as vaccination, Dr Woodroffe was able to make some headway. 'People are people and don't like being told what to do' she said. 'Being told not to do something may not necessarily be enough to stop people...they need to understand and believe the evidence for it'. Could this be a lesson for improving the profile of GM crops? Instead of targeting ministers and MPs, should we be engaging with the very bedrock of the agricultural community - the farmers and agriculturalists who would actually sow the seed into the ground?

Dr Woodroffe's combined approach bore fruit in March 2014 when there was an overwhelming vote - 214 MPs against 1 - to halt badger culling in England. But the issue is certainly not settled, with new plans for culling expected to be announced soon.

From this roller coaster journey, Dr Woodroffe concluded with some wise points of advice:
1. There are lots of routes to influence policy makers - and you can think outside the box! ( in her case, inviting MPs along to badger tagging sessions where they could handle the furry beasts was another good strategy!)
2. Influence can take a LONG time to achieve
3. The media can be helpful....or detrimental. According to Dr Woodroffe, the medias' desire to achieve balanced coverage meant that she was frequently featured in articles and press releases. And yet her message wasn't always faithfully replicated.....'I could give a talk and have the journalist from. The. Guardian and a farmer sat in the front row and the stories they would write would be 100% different' she said.

Although badgers may be a specialist topic, the lessons here are applicable to many Science policy issues. Does anyone know a celebrity that would support a GM Crop campaign?

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