One of the best parts of my job is that I get to travel to many different countries and interact with great scientists from around the world. Developing my career as an academic in the UK, I was exposed from the start to science without borders. Our group at Cambridge was heavily involved in EU-funded projects, and that meant hosting European scientists on their frequent project visits, or longer-term on research studies. Visitors from outside Europe were also commonplace, and I guess I assumed that a) this is the way it is, and b) this is the way it always will be. The political changes in the last 12 months have greatly changed the outlook in terms of the UK's position within European science, and also now the US's position as a powerhouse in global scientific leadership and cooperation. As the UK heads towards Brexit, I don't think anyone is quite sure where that leaves UK scientists positioned. Will they still be able to be part of EU-funded projects, maybe as observers/non-funded collaborators only? What about the freedom of movement to and from EU academic institutions?
For the US, the funding outlook is at best, blurry. There has been a great deal of focus on the new attitude of government towards all aspects of science, and budget cuts look inevitable. Couple this with tighter control of access to scientific institutions, and heightened border control, means that reduced ability to collaborate and cooperate also looks inevitable. I have gained immensely, both professionally and personally from time spent on internationally-funded studies, time spent in various international institutions and from time spent hosting international visitors. I would argue that these activities are all essential not only for science to progress, but for friendships between countries to develop and endure.
Although the outlook is rather negative, I have also had some extremely positive, 'international' experiences recently that leave me hopeful. Firstly, last December, I got to attend the 4th Global Conference on Animal Welfare, hosted by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in Guadalajara, Mexico. It was great to see that animal welfare is truly becoming a global issue, and not just one for 'rich' countries. And following on from that, as part of my ISAE duties, I was able to secure funding to allow 14 scholars from developing countries to be able to attend the ISAE Congress in Denmark next month. For the first time, we will have attendees coming from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Egypt. We also have India, China, Brazil represented. I'm excited to meet them all and make new friendships and, hopefully, some new collaborations. We need to work together.
Had a great trip back to the UK this month, which encompassed rather too quick visits back to family in Ipswich and Sheffield and the 50th Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology in Edinburgh. The last time I was in Edinburgh was the 25th Congress in 1991, which was also my first one as a researcher, 10 months into my PhD at Cambridge. Since then, I've managed to get to 18 congresses around the world, been ISAE Treasurer, Junior Vice-President, President and Senior Vice-President, and chaired the organization of the 45th Congress in Indianapolis. I truly love this academic family and these meetings continue to be one of the highlights of my year, both professionally and socially. Applied ethologists are genuinely lovely people (only one or two exceptions!), and even though the annual congress is "work" and tiring, it is also a re-energizer. This meeting was extra special because of the 50 year significance, which made it the largest yet at just under 550 participants, including quite a few who have not been for a few years. I worked out that I managed to interact with about 150 people, both old and new, but there were still some that I lost in the crowd and will have to wait until next year to catch up with! The big take-home from this Congress I think was the increasing attention being paid to emotional state in animals. Mike Mendl and Liz Paul organized a one-day workshop prior to the meeting on this topic and ended up with about 330 attendees! I couldn't make it, as I had a ISAE Council meeting, but I did send along a poster on the use of HRV for measuring emotional state. Other great news items for me was Jean-Loup Rault getting the New Investigator Award - I was on Jean-Loup's PhD Committee - and also the decision of Council to award the 2020 Congress to Bangalore, India. This is a big deal, as it will be the first time ISAE has been to Asia (other than Japan) and I am excited that I will be visiting a country that is number 1 on my bucket-list!
Since getting back, I've been busy getting on top of the usual email mountain and also carrying out a study looking at the effect of a cooling system on lactating sows during heat stress. The heat applied was 95F (35C), which given the current ambient temperatures in the farrowing house of about 32C, did not necessitate inputting too much extra heat to hit the target. Many of the indoor pig units in the US are equipped to deal quite well with the winter thermal extremes, but not so much the summer ones. Our system (I'm working alongside Dr Schinckel and Dr Stwalley from Purdue and Dr Johnson from our group on this one) looked very promising, and watch this space for more details as the project progresses.
I had the good fortune to be invited to participate at the 9th Boehringer Ingelheim Expert Forum on Farm Animal Well-Being, which was held in Montreal in the first week of June. Much of the content revolved around the cattle industry, which is only a small part of my research focus, but it was an interesting mix of talks from welfare scientists, veterinarians, social scientists and other stakeholders. It gave me chance to catch up with a few colleagues from within N America, and helped to remind me that applied ethologists are great people to hang out with, which was something I needed to be reminded of after a difficult couple of years in Indiana.
Anyway, the biggest take-home message for me was the continued disconnect between some within animal agriculture and the consumer. Again there was the message from some that we need to educate the public so that they fall in line with our way of thinking and suddenly become converted to the merits of what may be termed 'intensive' animal production. The way our farm animals are housed and managed is under scrutiny like never before, but to dismiss consumer concerns as the product of an ignorant society that needs education, does them and farming a disservice. A number of the talks and the discussion mentioned one of the all-too-frequent videos of shocking abuse filmed under-cover on a dairy farm in British Columbia, and there is still a reluctance in certain quarters to condemn the farm before condemning the film-maker and the film-maker's objectives or agenda.
Livestock industries are, I believe, working extremely hard to improve all aspects of animal care, health and welfare. But, there has to be total buy-in, there has to be transparency, there has to be third-party verification and there has to be self-reporting/self-policing. Consumer trust is so hard to build up, but so easy to destroy. The damage done to the whole industry by farms allowing such employee behavior and animal treatment is too great to allow blind eyes to be turned. Be proactive not inactive or reactive.
My old Cambridge colleagues Prof Don Broom (my PhD advisor) and Dr Irene Rochlitz (fellow grad student and post-doc) have produced a 54-page report on the welfare implications of foie gras production. The report is comprehensive and basically summarizes all the non-biased information on foie gras production with respect to bird welfare. There are 31 animal welfare-related conclusions including:
That's just a sample....
If you do eat foie gras, take the time to download and read the report.
The report was presented before the Belgian parliament in December, and before the French parliament yesterday. With a little help from Pamela Anderson, the presentation before the French got that bit more publicity! Don Broom doesn't get a speaking role in the video, but is on screen to Pamela's left as you look at it.
Of course animal welfare causes are dear to the hearts of quite a few 'celebrities', and there is always the danger that celebrity detracts from the substance of the message, but sometimes when the message is in danger of being ignored, you have to embrace the celebrity endorsement.
The full report can be accessed towards the bottom of this page: