I was fortunate to have the opportunity to give one of the keynote talks at Community Resource Network Scotland’s Annual Conference at the end of October. Attending the conference was a very informative and eye-opening experience for me, not least because it reminded me of how privileged and inaccessible the space can be in which academic debate takes place.
The theme of the conference was the ‘Circular Economy’, and it brought together a range of organisations – governmental, commercial, and third-sector – involved in resource re-use and waste reduction. The reason I was there was to introduce the work my colleagues and I at Edinburgh are doing with regard to the vision for a low-carbon future in Scotland (i.e. the R&Dialogue project), both with a view to engaging with potential participants and also to learn about what’s going out there. As I’ve mentioned on these pages before, the interest of the UK section of R&Dialogue in reuse, energy efficiency and social enterprise comes from my concern that a focus on supply-side energy technology solutions alone misses the question of what we as a society are hoping to achieve through decarbonisation.
I was hugely nervous before presenting. As I’d been reminded in several research interviews in the weeks preceding, academics – despite what we might tell ourselves – are generally rubbish at speaking to non-academic audiences, and there was no reason to suspect I would be any different. My fears were compounded by the fact I was sandwiched between two very engaging communicators – Frazer Scott from Zero Waste Scotland and Bobby Gavin from Valpak – so all I could do was try my best and be honest about the limitations of what academic research can hope to achieve. I was very relieved to see a few nodding heads in the audience as I spoke, and was delighted to see that nobody was sitting with their laptop open checking emails as sadly seems to be the norm at academic meetings these days.
My talk out the way, I was able to attend many of the plenary sessions, where without exaggeration I learned more about the harsh realities of affecting social change (and also the fantastic opportunities) than I have in the last six months of reading and writing papers. I heard about re-use in Orkney and the challenges of working in the kind of rural, remote communities that make up much of Scotland. I heard about the success stories of Moffat CAN (including aquaculture!) and MARC Recycling and Removals in Dalkeith, and also the hard graft and difficulty along the way that has made these projects what they are today. And I heard about food banks in Aberdeen, a far cry from the ‘oil and energy benefit everyone in Aberdeenshire!’ story I often hear when energy is discussed in relation to north-east Scotland.
Sitting in on these presentations, it was hugely encouraging to see that things are actually happening out there. At the same time, though, it made me feel pretty hopeless. These are people putting in phenomenal amounts of time and energy to try to create models of societal organisations that really are sustainable, and what do I do? Work in a world where success is measured in terms of how many articles you can publish (written in language impenetrable to the vast majority of the population and hidden away behind paywalls or deep in the bowels of the internet) and how many thousands of pounds of public funds you can get to do projects whose success is measured by how many of these inaccessible papers you can write – all the while flying round the world to talk to rooms full of other people just like me.
I was, however, heartened to spend the whole lunch hour and afternoon coffee break being chased by people from different organisations who wanted to give me their business cards or tell me about their projects. I tried in my presentation to be as open and honest as possible about the limitations of the UK Dialogue (set outputs as mandated by the EU, need for us as academics to write papers, difficulty of influencing policy even from our position), but many people still seemed interested – initially at least – in finding out more about how they could get involved. Perhaps, then, there is a role for academics in the very real and urgent project of moving towards a more sustainable society. Maybe it’s the case that, as long as we are open and transparent about what we can and cannot do, universities and research institutions have a value in lending the time and expertise to document successes and failures in a way that people otherwise wouldn’t have the time to do. Without over-stating what participation in academic research can achieve, this sort of bearing witness to what is going on in the ‘real world’ might be a good compromise between providing real value for participants and meeting the expectations of an academic career path.