Scotland-Vietnam collaboration on climate change and coastal communities – Hanoi Workshop Day 1

This week Dr Natascha Mueller-Hirth, Dr Chris Yuill and myself are in Vietnam for the first workshop of our British Academy International Partnership and Mobility Scheme-funded project into climate change in coastal communities, for which we have partnered with Dr Nguyen Song Tung and her colleagues in the Institute of Human Geography in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

It has been nearly two years since I first visited the institute, when we sat and discussed how we might collaborate and agreed that climate change in coastal communities could act as a broad-based entry point. After much filling in of funding application forms, exchanging of emails and planning of logistics in the interim, it was very satisfying to be able to return to Hanoi with two of my colleagues this week to really begin the next step of our collaboration.

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Dr Nguyen Song Tung discusses biodiversity and climate change

Despite the common theme, I know from experience that bringing two different institutions and two different research cultures together can be challenging, so one of the key objectives of this first workshop is really to get to know what each other does and how we work, with a view to laying a solid foundation for future collaboration. And as useful as emails and conference calls are, sometimes there is still no substitute for getting everyone together in a room talking with each other.

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Dr Pham Thi Tram tells us about impacts of climate change on coastal communities in Nam Dinh Province

With that in mind, after a welcome from the Director General, Dr Nguyen Song Tung opened with a presentation on her research into management for biodiversity conservation in Xuan Thuy National Park in the context of climate change. Dr Pham Thi Tram then told us more about the impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of coastal communities in the same area – a part of the country about which we are going to be learning a lot more over the course of this week. For the three Scotland-based academics, these talks were hugely useful not only in giving us an understanding of the contexts in which our IHGeo colleagues work, but also in sparking ideas about areas of possible commonality and collaboration. For instance, although the problems faced in north-east Vietnam differ greatly from those faced in north-east Scotland in terms of nature and magnitude, Song Tung’s concluding points that ‘it is necessary to develop a suitable mechanism for collaboration amongst the authorities’ and ‘there is an overlap in tasks and responsibilities in different organisations’ could equally summarise for some of the Aberdeenshire challenges I’ll speak about later in the week.

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Group discussion

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. After an extensive and thoroughly enjoyable lunch we started the first workshop session, ambitiously titled ‘Climate Change and Social Research’ but rather more earnestly intended as a springboard to get us thinking about the different ways in which we can research the social dimensions of climate change and to what effect. This is something we will develop in more depth tomorrow, so for this afternoon I set the scene by talking through the different techniques I’ve used for some mixed-method research I’ve been doing into heat and greenspace in Taipei, using this as a lead-in to discussing the links between theory and methods. We then broke out into groups, and followed the time-honoured academic tradition of having a good long chat over some flipchart paper and pens.

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Methods, techniques and justifications

Seriously, though, experience has told me that when one is starting out in interdisciplinary collaboration like this (in the room we had human geographers, economists, environmental scientists, soil scientists and sociologists) it is really crucial to spend time properly understanding not only what we do, but also why we do it in the way we do. The fact both groups’ charts filled not only with techniques – GIS, interviews, remote sensing, statistical analysis, desk research – but also different drivers and motivations – influencing policy, data availability, personal skills – hopefully reflected the value of mapping out this bumpy terrain right at the start of collaboration. What we do once we’ve started to map this out will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

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Certainly a different view to the one we have from RGU

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On Fukushima Dai’ichi, radiation, and trust in data

Yesterday a friend on Facebook tagged me into a post linking to an article claiming that the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant continues unabated. My friend tagged me in because he knew I did research around Fukushima, and though I might be able to comment accordingly. The article in question is quite clear that the recent observations of high radiation, the ones which have garnered media attention, are due to extension of observation to previously un-accessed areas rather than a sudden spike in on-site radiation. In other words, the reason we are getting these readings now is because no readings have previously been taken at those locations.

As a social scientist, I believe it is important to show respect for – and take seriously – different conceptions of what constitutes an acceptable level of risk or uncertainty. The author of the linked article offers one such interpretation, which they are well within their rights to do. However, in response to some of the points in the article about ‘contaminated’ land, ‘radioactive’ produce and effects on the sea, in the interests of balance I offered links to some scientific actions being undertaken in Fukushima and beyond to assess radioactivity levels. What is crucial, I think, are actions coming from inside Fukushima Prefecture by people who themselves bear the ‘risks’ of radiation and do not stand to make significant financial or political gain from decisions taken on the basis of the monitoring data they collect. I spent the best part of an hour typing my response, so in the interests of sharing more widely have pasted below.

The first thing to be absolutely clear about is that the situation at the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power plant is going to be of concern for some time. There is still a lot of work to do to decommission the site completely and a number of issues which need to be resolved long-term around storage and disposal of waste. It would be disingenuous to say there is no radiation or that it is not a concern.

However, I think it is too much of an overstatement to say there has been a ‘cover up’ in Japan. There is a lot of citizen science monitoring being undertaken by people living in and around Fukushima Prefecture to assess radiation levels. For instance, UmiLabo catch fish from the sea and screen for radiation, publishing their results online (http://www.umilabo.jp/ – in Japanese), and Safecast are helping the proliferation of DIY Geiger counters (http://blog.safecast.org/). Plus there is a peer-reviewed paper that Prof Ryugo Hayano (Tokyo Uni and CERN) wrote with a group of high school students to assess external exposure in Fukushima Prefecture – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/articles/26613195/ If you’re interested to know more about what daily living is like in Fukushima Prefecture (which is half the size of Belgium), look at the #life_in_fukushima hashtag on Twitter which is being run and populated by citizens.

The linked article also talks about contamination of the sea outside of Japan. This is precisely what University of Victoria (fukushimainform.ca) and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (http://www.whoi.edu/CMER) have been measuring in the Pacific – again with support of citizen scientists as well as academics and public health officials. They are quite open about the fact that Fukushima radionuclides have been detected on the Western seaboard, but at levels they believe are *far* too low to pose health risks.

For a slightly less taxing take on the situation at Fukushima Dai’ichi itself, there is a manga which was written by a former worker at the plant which has just been translated into English (full version out soon). The writer, who goes by the pseudonym Kazuto Tatsuta, is very balanced in his assessment of the situation at the plant – see https://www.facebook.com/ichiefu/

So in sum, whilst it is true that Fukushima Dai’ichi itself has a long way to go, there is a broad range of monitoring, screening and observation that is assessing living, health and produce in Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. The key thing, in my view, is to keep in mind what the values, objectives and motivations of the people making the different claims are (which is where social scientists like me come in!), and to look at the evidence base they use to make these claims.

As a footnote, I’d like to point out that although I am not an environmental scientist, I have published peer-reviewed work on the social dimensions of risk communication in Fukushima. Please do get in touch via email – l.j.mabon@rgu.ac.uk – if you would like access to any of my papers. 

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Society and green space in Fukushima’s cities post-disaster

Originally posted on urbangreenadaptationdiary.wordpress.com, a new collaborative venture I have with Dr Wanyu Shih of Ming-Chuan University.

For the past few years I have been undertaking research in Fukushima. This does not mean I have been doing work at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Rather, my ‘field sites’ have been two cities in Fukushima Prefecture – Iwaki and Fukushima – each with a population of around 300,000 people. The purpose of my research has not been to form a judgement on nuclear power, but rather to understand what environmental change might mean for daily living. In this post I’m going to focus on one aspect of this work, the effect of the triple disaster on green spaces in Fukushima and Iwaki, and draw out some implications for the role of green spaces under conditions of major environmental change.

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First, though, let’s take in a bit of context. On March 11 2011 a very large earthquake and tsunami hit the north-east coast of Japan. This claimed the lives of over 15,000 people. It also set in motion a chain of events that lead to a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Dai’ichi Nuclear Power Plant, and triggered hydrogen explosions which carried radioactive material over Fukushima Prefecture and beyond. The levels of radiation that reached Fukushima City and Iwaki City were not high enough to necessitate any evacuations, but there was a need to undertake decontamination to remove some of the radioactive matter from the environment. This was especially true for Fukushima City, which because of the wind direction at the time of the accident received more radioactive contamination than areas to the south. From what my interviewees and subsequent collaboration with scientists has told me, the green spaces within cities – parks, forests at the urban fringe, roadside greenery – have been some of the more challenging areas to decontaminate. These findings can tell us much about the social dimensions of urban green space under environmental change.

The first thing my Fukushima fieldwork has told me is that access to green space matters. Or, more precisely, what matters is having green space that people feel is safe enough for them to want to access. Back in 2014 when I was doing my first round of fieldwork, municipal officials I interviewed told me they were getting a lot of questions about the radiation levels in the parks and forests around Fukushima City. In particular, there were very legitimate concerns from mothers with young children about the heterogeneity and indeterminacy of contamination over short distances, and from citizens who enjoyed getting out into the hills at weekends to exercise about whether radiation would be higher than in the city centre. I remember seeing some workers nailing a small sign onto a piece of grass to say there was a patch of higher-than-average radiation, which gave me quite a fright.

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This situation – of not facing formal restrictions on activity yet not being able to live daily life fully – was described by Japanese environmental sociologist Akihiko Sato as being ‘evacuated in daily life.’ The psychological implications of not feeling able to access meaningful green spaces within the city are clear. When we talk about ‘accessible’ green space in the context of urban environmental change, then, perhaps we need to think not only about physical access in terms of distance, entrance points, ease of mobility, but also about accessibility in a social and cultural sense. Does the park, forest, garden or whatever feel accessible? Could changes in the climate somehow make a green space feel more or less accessible over time? And how might one go about assessing this? If the more vulnerable members of society are to be able to derive the psychological and health benefits that being within urban green space provides (and that might help to build resilience to environmental changes), then they have to feel welcome and safe in that space.

How one goes about creating those conditions is my second point. The small ‘hotspot’ sign I saw was just one of a number of ways in which the prefectural and municipal governments in Fukushima and Iwaki are working to raise citizen awareness of radiation levels and decontamination efforts. There are the ubiquitous radiation monitors, online real-time data, and daily measurements broadcast on television and in newspapers. Perhaps because of the concerns I mentioned above, open spaces have come to be a key site for the radiation monitors. My colleagues Prof David Sanderson and Dr Alan Cresswell at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, who do very fine-scale measurement of radiation levels in Fukushima, like to regale me with anecdotal tales of how they’ve been able to use their results to show citizens that radiation levels are declining over tens of metres as a result of decontamination work. And then there are the excellent citizen science efforts for people to monitor radiation in the environment for themselves.

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But how does all of that relate to climate adaptation? Well, the work going on to monitor radioactivity in Fukushima and Iwaki’s open spaces is a good example of risk communication for urban green space, providing reliable and timely evidence in a manner understandable to citizens. What lessons might we learn about communicating the environmental conditions within green spaces, so that people can modify their behaviour accordingly? If information about the heterogeneity of hazard across a green space can be communicated, then it may be possible for people to alter their behaviours to reduce exposure, and/or to make an informed decision about what they do in that space. For example, we might be able to visually represent differences in temperature across a park through maps (Wanyu, I’m looking at you here…), provide temperature readings, or draw attention to areas less susceptible to flooding. Finding channels of communication, and voices who are respected and trusted enough to deliver the message, is of course a massive challenge going right to the heart of my own research.

The last thing I want to touch on is the value that protecting or restoring green space has in sustaining resilience before and after a disaster. Fukushima has long been famous for its delicious peaches, which have come to symbolise recovery after 2011. Right outside the NHK Fukushima headquarters, there was a big line of trees, each of them bearing scores of round pink-orange peaches. The message seemed to be that if the trees are once again producing delicious and edible fruit, then the environment and the people within it are on the road to recovery too. Indeed, many of the physical scientists I’ve interviewed and collaborated with openly admit that it is worth spending money to decontaminate green spaces where radioactivity is relatively low, because of the symbolism of moving towards recovery it represents. With a critical eye one could dismiss this as being a bit tokenistic, but I still think it tells us something important about the role that conservation or restoration of urban green space can have in motivating wider resilience and recovery. And then, of course, there are all the opportunities for interaction and ‘social capital’ building that urban green spaces bring – Misaki Park in Iwaki contains a Shinto shrine, for example.

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Iwaki and Fukushima’s recovery after the 2011 nuclear accident tells us a lot about what green space means to a city. Environmental radiation is a very different phenomenon to climate change, but from a social science perspective it tells much about what major environmental change might mean to our green and open spaces. The challenges of decontaminating urban greenery through taking off topsoil, scraping away leaf litter, and removing vegetation show us just how complex the urban ecosystems on which we rely are. Likewise, the risk communication work that is ongoing post-disaster reminds us just how complex people’s relationships to green spaces are, and how far-reaching the consequences can be if these relations are changed. As such, limiting the harm and damage we cause to urban ecosystems in the first place seems a vital part of climate adaptation.

Read more about the empirical research on which this post is based here: Mabon, L and Kawabe, M (2016) ‘Engagement on risk and uncertainty – lessons from coastal regions of Fukushima Prefecture, Japan after the 2011 nuclear disaster?’ Journal of Risk Research DOI: 10.1080/13669877.2016.1200658

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Yubari, Aberdeen and industrial decline

This is a piece I wrote for The Scotsman a couple of months back, on what Aberdeen and north-east Scotland can learn from the decline of coal and steel manufacturing in the south of Hokkaido. Given recent political events and the perceived role of post-industrial areas in swelling political trends, I thought this was worth re-airing. The US election result ought to be a real shot in the arm for NE Scotland as to the kind of trends we want to avoid as oil and gas (and associated jobs) decline.

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City Hall, Yubari

“Start planning now. That’s the most important advice I can give.” So a senior official from Yubari City in Japan told me. Many desks in his office sat empty, yellowed computers and piles of faded documents stacked where people used to work. The fluorescent tubes had been pulled out of half the overhead lights to save electricity.

What had I asked to provoke such a response? If I start the story, you’ll soon twig. Yubari is an administrative district in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Until about 1990, it was the de facto coal mining capital of the country. People came from all over to work in the mines, attracted by high wages and stable work. Then the coal ran out. Desperate to fill the economic void, city officials instigated a film festival (successful), skiing and tourism (moderately successful) and a theme park (utterly disastrous). These interventions were not able to stop the rot, and in 2008 Yubari became the first Japanese municipality to file for bankruptcy. Its population is now one tenth of what it was at the coal mining peak, and the legacy of flashy town halls, schools and hospitals left behind by the coal industry – for which the city authority has had to assume liability – continues to drain town resources.

Substitute coal for oil, and Hokkaido for Scotland, and the reason for my interest in Yubari becomes clear. I wanted to find out what one town which has already experienced the end of fossil fuel industries could teach my current home – Aberdeen. For the past five years I’ve been researching what the future of North Sea energy might look like as our oil and gas fields mature. My goal hasn’t been to establish how many billion barrels of oil are left or how many millions of pounds of revenue we might drag out, but rather how the pathway the North Sea follows from now on in affects daily living for the citizens of Aberdeen and its surroundings. And what I learned from Yubari was that if north-east Scotland wants to avoid storing up trouble, it needs to start acting now.

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Yubari

At the risk of being labeled reactionary, the recent oil price downturn has focused my mind. There have been previous lows from which the industry has recovered, and I know prices are better than they were six months ago. But this short-term view misses the point. It might not be this year or even this decade, but at some point North Sea oil and gas operations will cease to be viable. And when that time comes, north-east Scotland will need something to replace it. The current downturn is as good a point of departure as any for a discussion on what this future might look like.

I am not advocating shutting down all the rigs overnight, nor do I seek to trivialise the jobs that have been lost. Our society will need oil and gas for a while yet. Until renewable technologies can meet our energy needs it would be sensible to make the most efficient use of fields already in operation – like those in the North Sea – rather than looking elsewhere. Let’s not forget the UK has strict climate change targets too, which the North Sea and all the offshore engineering knowledge Aberdeen has accumulated over the last fifty years can help to meet. Offshore wind, wave energy and carbon dioxide capture and storage could all play a part in a managed transition for the North Sea, squaring our climate obligations with building a more sustainable economic base for the north-east and beyond. But to achieve this we need coherent and stable policy across all levels, and forward planning to ensure Aberdeen is able to grasp the opportunities that come its way,

I will resist the obvious comparison between Aberdeen and Detroit. The cultures, industries and politics are different. Even Yubari is a bit of a stretch. But with so many examples globally of what can happen when an industry on which a city depends has run its course, I find it concerning and frustrating that all the talk is about prolonging North Sea production seemingly into infinity. This is understandable with so many jobs on the line, but surely there has to be room to talk about what happens when Scotland has taken oil and gas as far as it can? As we academics say, it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

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Muroran

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Interdisciplinarity and the MEOPAR Annual Scientific Meeting

I would never like to call myself an ‘expert’ in anything. I saw Donald Trump do it once and it sounded crass and vulgar. I am certainly not an expert in interdisciplinary research by any stretch. But having worked on projects that are to a certain degree interdisciplinary for my entire academic career, I’d hope I at least now know what I don’t know, and know what I wish I knew when I started out.

Parliament Building, Ottawa

Parliament Building, Ottawa

It is this experience that formed the basis of the talk I gave last week, when I travelled to Ottawa in Canada to speak at the Interdisciplinary Forum organised by the Marine Environmental Observation, Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) Network. MEOPAR is funded through the Canadian federal Network of Centres of Excellence Programme, and consists of a group of academic, government science, private sector and civil society partners working together on a suite of projects with the common goal of reducing vulnerability and increasing opportunity in Canada’s coasts and marine environments. This is a massive and noble venture, one that was aptly described in plenary as a “huge vote of confidence from the Canadian public.” Having spent the best part of week in the company of MEOPAR’s members, from an objective outsider perspective I am quite happy to report that this faith seems to be being repaid. This does not just reflect the quality of research being produced, but also the way in which wider society is involved in its undertaking and presentation.

It did not take long for me to start worrying about whether I would have anything useful to say to Canada’s marine scientists. It had barely turned half past eight in the morning and there we were, all seventy of us sitting in room listening to a session about sea fog. I was told that MEOPAR makes a conscious decision to keep everyone in plenary during their science meetings, in order to encourage interaction and prevent fragmentation. Now, when we try this in the UK it tends to result in half of the room sitting with their laptops open responding to emails, and a further quarter taking the opportunity to catch up on sleep. But judging by the breadth of questions asked, it seemed here that most folk were engaging with the presentations. Alongside the technical and scientific questions which I barely understood, there were much more broad-ranging questions. Have you spoken with the helicopter pilots about fog? Have you thought about using historical weather accounts to extend your models further back in history? Is that why fishermen say the fog tastes salty?

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Prof Stephanie Chang presenting Resilient Coasts Canada results in plenary

I tried to get my head around why this was. Whether due to training, practice or familiarity, the MEOPAR scientists are really, really good at starting their talks by laying out what they are doing, why this matters to the whole scientific venture, and how this can benefit society as a whole. It doesn’t take long to do that, but very much helps a diverse audience to be able to understand the significance of – and engage with – the underpinning technical research.

It also helps that the MEOPAR researchers are an extremely friendly bunch. I would not like to speculate on why this is, but there seems to be a terrific atmosphere of collegiality among the different people and the various disciplines. This is especially true for the MEOPeers, the collective name given to the postgrads and post-docs working on the MEOPAR projects. On the plane home, I reflected that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so welcome at a conference before. People were constantly coming up to talk to me, inviting me to join them at mealtimes and introducing me to such Canadian delights as poutine and beavertails. And as I’ll mention in a minute, such collegiality spills over into the kind of relations that engender themselves to proper interdisciplinary working.

With Profs Barbara Neis (left) and Jackie Dawson (centre)

With Profs Barbara Neis (left) and Jackie Dawson (centre)

After two days of hearing about people actually doing the kind of interdisciplinary work I dream of doing in Scotland, I woke properly terrified on the morning of my keynote. Fuelled by fear and by a breakfast consisting of a Tim Horton’s doughnut and vanilla latte, I spent the best part of an hour imparting three points onto the assembled audience again and again and again:

  1. Interdisciplinarity doesn’t mean being able to do everything – especially not at the early stage of your academic career. Rather, I see it as using the topic you are working on as a ‘case study’ through which to refine your own specialisation, where the interaction with people from other backgrounds helps to make your own research more robust by pushing you to reflect on your own assumptions and consider different ways of doing things;
  2. Values matter, both your own personal values and the values of your discipline. I’ve been in many projects where it has become apparent that not everyone agrees on what the ultimate purpose of the research is, what the range of possible and acceptable outcomes are, and how the whole process of research ought to be carried out. Getting clarity on what your community’s values are at the outset of the process is an important part of understanding what you all want to achieve by working together, and how you can help each other reach that destination;
  3. Related to the above, personal relationships matter greatly. I have discussed this extensively in a previous post, but I really don’t think we give enough attention to the personal relationships that exist within research teams. Good relations are what are going to give you the understanding, respect and trust to have open and frank discussions within the research team – and believe me, you will need to have them. This is not something we really like to talk about in academia, though, so there’s a big challenge there in instigating conversations about how we all work together as people.

I have to admit that what made me particularly nervous ahead of my talk was that I would be sharing the billing for the day with Professor Jackie Dawson and Professor Barbara Neis, two leading figures in interdisciplinary coastal and marine research in Canada. Given their stature, as someone who is still very much a junior academic I felt properly intimidated. But I needn’t have worried. Both Jackie and Barbara were hugely welcoming and encouraging, and during our briefing meeting the day before I found out we were all facing broadly the same issues in our own research and would be speaking to the same kinds of issues from different perspectives. Perhaps the kindest thing I heard all day came from one of the participants, who remarked that when I talk about my research I “sound like a man who really loves his job.” I am not sure whether this is attributable more to my passion for research or to the sugar content in Tim Horton’s doughnut recipes, but it gave me a nice boost nonetheless (the complement that is, not the doughnut).

Introduction from Michelle Marteleira - Beijing 2015 reunion!

Introduction from Michelle Marteleira – Beijing 2015 reunion!

Whilst at the MEOPAR meeting I also had the opportunity to connect with some folks whose work I have greatly respected and admired for a long time. Namely, the team behind the Fukushima InFORM project, which uses citizen science approaches to track the arrival of Fukushima radionuclides on the west coast of Canada. Jay Cullen and his team provide a real service to Canada and also the whole English-language world through the Fukushima InFORM project. They not only demonstrate how low the levels of Fukushima radiation reaching Canada are, but also make available easy-to-understand summaries of peer-reviewed science relating to the Fukushima radiation situation through their project website. This has been a touchstone for me personally in helping me to understand the physical science basis underpinning my own work, so it was fantastic to finally be able to meet the scientists themselves.

Dr Jonathan Kellogg (centre) explaining Fukushima InFORM results

Lastly, I would like to say a big thank you to Michelle Marteleira from the Resilient Coasts Canada project, who facilitated my involvement after we met at a summer school in Beijing last year and discovered we shared an interest in social science research with coastal communities. (Early-career researchers, this is another reason why you should make time to get to know your peers as well as establishing yourself with the Profs and PIs. In a few years’ time, these are the people that are going to be your Co-Is and collaborators…) The work MEOPAR’s investigators are doing into resilience and vulnerability is exactly the kind of research I’m trying to develop in Scotland and east Asia at the moment, so I very much hope to have further exchange with their Response Core from now on into the future.

By the way, remember that offer I made to swap my UK passport for a Canadian one? It still stands, if anyone wants to take me up on it…

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