Sunday, 23 April 2017

Week 29: (17th April to 23rd April 2017) or "A Shared Future: Early Career Researcher Conference"

It is a formidable, if not unsurmountable challenge; that of seeing into the future. Those enticed with such an agenda have often invested heavily in crystal balls and scrying mirrors. In the unmapped backstreets of most cities, palms are first shaken, then fondled, and then read. The body owning the palm in question will later emerge back into reality in receipt of some elaborate foretelling, either overjoyed or pained about their prospects. With some degree of certainty that always astounds me, millions traipse into small corner shops every weekend and lighten the weight of their wallets in the belief that they will return the next day and collect an altogether more hearty wedge of banknotes.

The future of the British Society of Soil Science needs no crystal ball nor scrying mirror, for there exists an event altogether more beseeching. This week, Lancaster University hosted the British Society of Soil Science's Early Careers Researcher conference. In attendance were the next generation of Soil Scientists. For two days, the future of the society congregated in positive, inspiring discourse about the engaging work currently taking place within the discipline.

In so many ways, this conference was just like any other. Lanyards, draped around necks, were blazoned with names and affiliations; screens were brandished with academic posters; blood-red chairs floated around circular tables in unoccupied spaces, waiting patiently to harbour new friendships and partnerships. Business cards were busily migrating from pocket to pocket. Mouths were speedily ventilating research; sending complex knowledges skimming through the air and skipping over the films of herbal teas and buffet lunches.

In so many other ways, this conference was exceptional. The programme did not boast of world-leading experts nor did it flamboyantly label any particular talk as keynote, as some conferences often do. The atmosphere within the main discussion chamber was calm and cordial. I had the tremendous pleasure of chairing a session of oral presentations on the first day. There I would stand, offer the audience a taste of the upcoming talk, and pass the microphone like a baton in a relay to the presenter. Each and every time, I glanced into their eyes and saw neither dread nor foreboding, but a genuinely rhapsodic scientist, eager to narrate the splendid tales of their research.

And what great diversity our eyes and ears were treated to. We all rode aboard a great carousel of science. The wonders of soil underpinned each and every talk, but we would often ride out - far out - into the world of drones and dung, radishes and rye, seeds and synthetics, worms and weeds, always returning at the end to the soil.

The conference fell on the 70th anniversary of the British Soil Science Society. According to the BSSS Auger Magazine (December 2016, Page 18):

"The first meeting of Council took place on 4th June 1947 at the Institute of Archaeology, Regent's Park, London. Before this date, there was the first Ordinary Meeting of the Society at the London School of Economics, Houghton Street, Aldwych, London which saw 50 people attending on Tuesday 15th April 1947. A presentation was given by Dr R K Schofield on 'A New Approach to Problems of Soil'."

"It seems that the idea for the British Society of Soil Science was originally discussed at a meeting of the British Empire Section of the International Society at the Bonnington Hotel, Southampton Row, London on 28th March 1946 and then formally accepted at a further meeting on 13th December 1946. The provisional committee of the Society met at Rothamsted on 7th January 1947 where a set of rules and recommendations were made for submission to the next meeting of the Society."

I had read this some time ago, in a special feature article within The Auger (a society magazine I receive). I realized that 70 years has not yet eradicated the 'problems of soil' that Dr Schofield must have addressed in that first meeting. In some corners of the map, soils are degrading faster than ever before. But with speculation from some that Pedology is "dead and buried", the problems are not solely confined to the soil alone but the way we do soil science. In my own work, the biggest bug-bear is that studies of soil erosion and soil formation, for example, are rarely presented together; with the former receiving much of the attention. But, as I suggested in my own presentation, a bank balance is always calculated based on outgoings and incomings. In this context, the sustainability of our soil must consider rates of erosion but also the rates of formation too. Uniting both rates together to form a soil productive lifespan is just one way to revive the role of pedologists in contemporary soil science.

Flavouring our conference were the spices of scholarly wisdom, notably the wisdom of Professor Phil Haygarth (Lancaster University), Professor Margaret Oliver (Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Soil Science), Professor Mike Goss (Editor-in-Chief of Soil Use and Management), Professor Liz Baggs (President of the BSSS), Paul Newell-Price (Consultancy, BSSS) and Mary Ockenden (Lancaster University). From the art of grant writing and publishing in Soil Science, to the multiple careers one can achieve from a PhD in the discipline, this was not just a conference to highlight the student's current research, but one which invested the time to explore their future career.


"Why are you doing this PhD?"

Professor Mark Reed had not travelled all the way from Newcastle University to ask each of us that question, but to get us to think collectively, as early career researchers should ponder every now and again, what makes us do what we do. Why am I doing this PhD? As Mark quite rightly said during a session on 'Research Impact', there are times during this three year journey of discovery when you realize that this is not only the best job, but the only job for you.

So very often I have written about the individualistic nature of doing a PhD. Its execution is self-governed, self-reliant and self-determined. Naturally, therefore, it is easy to forget the great plexus of people that enmesh you. This week, I learnt - above all else - just how tessellated I am within a wider society of pedologists; the British Society of Soil Science. It is a sharing society.

I won 1st Prize for the Best Student Oral Presentation but not wholly for my own contribution. After all, I could have executed the very same talk in a different building, rattled out the same string of atrocious puns and even answered the same questions to thin air, but it would not have won a prize. It proves, I think, that the truly wonderful accolade a speaker can receive is not the opportunity to speak per se, but the opportunity to share with others, be it knowledge, data, passion or vision. It is by sharingrather than just speaking, that ideas are exchanged, revised, enhanced and acted upon. It is through a shared vision, a shared belief, and a shared hope that the British Society of Soil Science will continue to prosper into the future.

Cluster by cluster, I watched as my fellow Early Career Researchers departed the conference room on Thursday afternoon; the next generation of Soil Scientists were beginning to disperse once more. As the final few bid me farewell, a room that had been packed with the energies of an inspirited future began to transform back to a very realistic present. A dropped business card. An empty cup. A forgotten pen. It was my turn to depart. Clutching my spade, I walked out; more determined than ever before to dig deeper, wider, and to aim higher than ever before. Not for myself, but for the future of the British Society of Soil Science.

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