6 April 2017

Two Lancaster University researchers are helping to change the way academics work with the food industry to help us feed a growing population sustainably.

Dr Shane Rothwell and Dr Katerina Psarikidou have started work as Lancaster University’s first N8 Agrifood Knowledge Exchange fellows.

Their role is to facilitate links between academic researchers and those involved in producing and delivering our food, and they want to do things differently.

Knowledge Exchange involves making sure the results of academic research gets used in the real world, but it has traditionally been done top down, according to Shane and Katerina.

“We are trying to challenge how knowledge exchange is done,”

“We want to get away from the old approach where academics said to farmers and other stakeholders, this is what we have discovered in our research, make use of it,” said Katerina, an expert in local food systems and mobility at Lancaster’s Department of Sociology.

“We want to engage stakeholders in producing research rather than them just being the passive recipient,”

Shane, a researcher in plant physiology and soil science in the Lancaster Environment Centre, agrees enthusiastically.  “Instead of just doing the research that interests us, that we think is useful, our approach is to identify relevant stakeholders in food systems and ask them: ‘What are your key issues, what can we do together to answer those questions?’

“And it’s not just a case of them telling us what they need and that’s it: they are involved in the whole process from designing a project to carrying out the research.”

Shane and Katerina both have extensive experience on working on research projects with stakeholders: Shane mainly with farmers, and Katerina with local food producers and distributors.

One of their first jobs is to map out expertise across Lancaster University that may be of use to stakeholders wanting to improve the agri-food system, whether in plant science, computing or the social sciences.

“Our aim is not only to share knowledge better between academic and non academic actors but also amongst academics. We have to work across disciplines to produce more effective agri-food research,” said Katerina.

Shane and Katerina are members of a network of Knowledge Exchange fellows based at the eight research-intensive northern universities that make up the N8 Agrifood consortium. They meet monthly and are in regular email contact. It gives Shane and Katerina access to a huge range of expertise and facilities to help answer stakeholders questions.

They are already developing a series of projects. Shane is focussing on crop nutrient management, and is helping to set up an industry based soil health forum, engaging with farmer networks.

“We will be running a workshop where the participants are half academics and half farmers: together they’ll frame a group of questions to work on,” said Shane. “Another project we are trying to get up and running is developing a knowledge exchange platform working with small holder farmers in Africa.”

Katerina is interested in exploring innovation and food security through the eyes of different stakeholders, particularly at a grass roots level. She is collaborating with N8 partners, Sheffield and Newcastle universities, investigating how to enable people in deprived city areas to access healthy and sustainable food through an online platform that aims to reconnect producers and consumers.

She is also working with Durham University on a research and knowledge exchange project involving Incredible Edible Todmorden.

And she wants to explore the very concept of knowledge exchange: what is it, is it a good or bad thing and how can it be done differently?

“In the summer we are organising a working group at the conference of the European Society of Rural Sociology to bring together and hopefully generate debate among academics interested in such questions.”

Shane and Katerina would really like to meet Lancaster University academics with diverse research interests in the area of Agriculture and Food and to hear from organisations involved in the food system who might like to link up with researchers. Please do not hesitate to contact them on s.rothwell1@lancaster.ac.uk or a.psarikidou@lancaster.ac.uk