A cautionary tale …

wastwater_sampling

I was asked for a picture of someone sampling diatoms to include in a presentation this week and dug out the image above, one of my favourites, taken by my son Edward when he joined me on a sampling trip to the Lake District some years ago.   It shows me collecting diatoms from the littoral zone of Wastwater, with the Wastwater Screes in the background.   I like the composition, which captures the grandeur of the location and have used it several times.   Unfortunately, the Environment Agency did not agree with me.   They did not quibble with the aesthetics but refused to use it on a leaflet about diatoms because I was not wearing appropriate health and safety gear.   Seriously.

Let’s put this in context: I work for myself and have no employees.  It is in my own interests to keep myself healthy and safe.   If, when sampling the shallow margins on a warm summer’s day I choose to go barefoot and not wear a lifejacket or gloves, that is a decision that I can take, based on my on site assessment of risks and hazards.   The Environment Agency is a large bureaucracy that has to adhere to health and safety legislation and minimise the risk of being sued for negligence in the event that a member of staff has an accident whilst out sampling.   That creates a very different mindset and, inevitably, a rather top-down and inflexible approach to these matters.

We have had run-ins over the years with the Environment Agency over the years on these issues, usually involving the tier of management just above those who still remember the last time they wore a pair of waders.  One of the most bizarre occurred just after a consortium I was leading had started to develop a Water Framework Directive-compatible method for ecological assessment.   We needed samples from all over the country and these were to be collected by biologists working for the Environment Agency and sister agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  We budgeted for training workshops to make sure that these biologists knew how we wanted the samples to be collected; however, at our first meeting after the budget was confirmed, we were told that the biology teams did not have time to attend these training workshops.

We thought on our feet as the meeting progressed: we could, perhaps, produce a training video that could be distributed to laboratories instead of gathering them in one place.  That sounded like a good idea but we had no idea how to go about this, or what it would cost.   On the way back home I browsed WHSmith’s magazine racks at a train station and bought a copy of “What Video” magazine, which had a 30 day trial copy of Adobe Premiere on the front cover.   I then got together with Marian Yallop, a member of our team from Bristol University, and we spent a day collecting diatom samples in the River Wylye in Wiltshire whilst a colleague from her department videoed us.  I then used Premiere to splice these clips together and put them into PowerPoint presentations that took viewers step-by-step through the principles and practice of sampling diatoms.   You can see those PowerPoints (now somewhat dated) by following this link.   We spent about the same time on these presentations as we would have done organising and delivering workshops, so I thought that this was a good outcome, and that we should have generated some goodwill as a result.  I was, however, in for a bit of a surprise.

Our project manager was pleased with the outputs, as was her counterpart in SEPA.  However, a couple of weeks later, the official response filtered down to us: the presentations could not be used as we had not adhered to all of the Environment Agency’s health and safety procedures whilst collecting the samples.   Our cardinal sin was not to wear gloves, a practice that we (and SEPA) regarded as a decision to be made by the sampler based on their own appraisal of the site but which the Environment Agency regarded as non-negotiable.  Some acrimonious emails and telephone calls followed.   Eventually, just before all of that hard-earned goodwill evaporated completely, a compromise was found, with a confessional slide being introduced at the start of the presentation.  We managed to wave two fingers at the establishment by titling the slide “This slide was inserted by the Environment Agency” lest anyone thought that it was our idea.

Since then, the presentations have sat on the DARES website and people from far-flung parts of the world have come up to me to say that how helpful it was to see diatom sampling being performed, rather than just reading about it, so I think that the overall outcome was positive.   But there is a useful lesson for us all tucked away for those of us who deal with large bureaucracies such as the Environment Agency.  You always have to remember that most of the people who deal with your reports and outputs work at a sufficient distance from the project not to realise how contractors have moulded their work around shifting circumstances.  These people will cheerfully undermine any goodwill that you have built up at the slightest hint that outputs do not fit perfectly into established procedures.  It is probably not a deliberate attempt to sabotage a hard-won outcome on their part, but it happens.  You often need a thick skin in this business.  And gloves.  Even when you don’t think that they are necessary.

sampling_diatoms_in_ganges_sep16

Sampling diatoms from the River Ganges at Rishiketh, September 2016.

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The decline and fall of a CD-ROM

I’ve just looked back at a paper I wrote for a symposium in 2004. It described a CD-ROM I was helping to develop at the time for the UK’s Environment Agency, to help their analysts to identify diatoms.   The tone of the article is upbeat and positive, eulogising the potential for interactive CD-ROMs for identification.

So much for that.   The Environment Agency has just deleted our key from their publications catalogue.   In so doing they fulfil one of the prophecies in my paper.   The software, quite simply, evolved faster than we were able to respond.   We had a bold vision for a modular project, developing from a first release with about 300 common diatoms found in rivers into, eventually, comprehensive coverage of all diatoms found in Britain and Ireland. We had recognised, too, that the software would have to evolve to keep track of other developments in hardware and software. However, within about a year of the release of the CD-ROM, the Environment Agency’s priorities shifted and (more significantly) funding became much tighter.   Funding for the additional modules never happened.   More importantly, there have been changes in the licensing agreement for the software that we used to develop the key which means that our package would need to be modified if it were to be sold as a user-friendly entity again.   The publications team at the Environment Agency did not consult us before deleting the CD-ROM but, even if they had done, I doubt that there would have been funding available to cover the time needed to upgrade the package.

This saga illustrates some of the pitfalls of using new media. I have, on my bookshelf, a facsimile edition of Frederich Hustedt’s flora of freshwater diatoms from central Europe, first published in 1930. Many of the taxonomic ideas are now out of date but the illustrations and descriptions are still useful, 86 years after firs publication. By contrast, our CD-ROM was obsolete within a decade.   The whole idea of a CD-ROM, indeed, sounds rather quaint in 2014 and, to emphasise the point, I am typing this post on a laptop which does not have a CD-ROM drive.   The latest versions of the Lucid software are aimed at online keys and the prospect of using an iPad or even a mobile phone as a platform for identifying organisms is tantalising (and ,indeed, already possible for some groups: see the Field Studies Council publication website).

The same issues about upgrading and maintenance will apply as much to a website as to a CD-ROM. As soon as I stop paying my subscription, my own websites will disappear, along with all the information stored on them.   Large institutions such as the Environment Agency and national museums ought to be more resilient but I fear that it would only take a small shift in an organisation’s priorities or a change in key personnel for an active website to become fossilised or archived.

The good news is that all of the information except the keys themselves are available on the web, courtesy of Steve Juggin’s website at Newcastle University and that there are plans to develop a new online diatom flora of Britain and Ireland, hosted by the National Museum of Wales.  And, of course, if all these fail, I will still have my trusty copy of Hustedt’s Flora.

diatom_CD-ROM_cover

One aspect of the CD-ROM that will not be missed: the grim cover of the CD-ROM. Not a single diatom in sight.

Reference

Kelly, M.G., Bennion, H., Cox, E.J., Goldsmith, B., Jamieson, B.J., Juggins, S., Mann, D.G. & Telford, R.J. (2006). An interactive CD-ROM for identifying freshwater diatoms. pp. 153-161. Proceedings of the 18th International Diatom Symposium (edited by A. Witkowski). Biopress, Bristol.

A journey down Memory Lane

On the way back from Latitude I called in to see my daughter’s new flat in Lincoln and realised that it was just a couple of hundred metres from a rather ghastly 1970s monstrosity of a building that played a small but significant role in my professional life.   In its current guise Aqua House, Lincoln is occupied by Anglian Water but back in 1991 it was the local office of the National Rivers Authority (NRA), the predecessor to the Environment Agency.

I had just returned from two years teaching at a university in Nigeria to take up a National Rivers Authority fellowship at the University of Durham.   During my time in Nigeria, I had known several development professionals and they were always emphasising the importance of consulting the beneficiaries in order to tailor aid and development programmes to their needs rather than imposing well-meaning “solutions” conceived by “experts”.   The key phrase was “bottom up”; “top down” was virtually an insult.

aqua_house_lincoln

Aqua House, Lincoln. The River Witham is on the right hand side of the picture.

Having been tasked for my fellowship with developing new approaches to assessing ecological quality, it made perfect sense for me to go on the road and talk to some experienced NRA biologists to get their views on what was needed.   I visited Nottingham and Lincoln on this trip, along with a couple of other laboratories on other visits. At Lincoln, I met Chris Extence and Bill Brierley and we had a lively chat for an hour or so.   The message that came out loud and clear from them, as well as from several of the other biologists I spoke with, was that, in RIVPACS, the NRA had an effective means of assessing organic pollution. There would be no point in trying to re-invent the wheel and develop an algal-based method that could do this.   However, they did comment on the inability of RIVPACS to detect the effects of inorganic nutrients.   Several had noticed, in the course of their visits to rivers to collect invertebrate samples, a gradual increase in the quantities of filamentous algae that they were seeing.   A means of quantifying this would let them make more systematic observations that would complement, rather than overlap with, data from RIVPACS.   That in turn, set me thinking and led, eventually, to the development of the Trophic Diatom Index.

I do remember that these road trips to consult biologists at the sharp end of environmental regulation were tolerated rather than encouraged by my supervisor at the time.   His attitude was that we should tell the NRA what they needed rather than ask what was wanted.   It was an attitude typical of academics of the day and, I am afraid to say, still very common.   Until just a few years ago, biologists who worked for the NRA, the Environment Agency and similar bodies spent far more time in the field than the average mid-career academic and had a tremendous amount of knowledge about their local rivers as well as an understanding of the broader legislative framework that is necessary if you are to convert “data” into “evidence” that can be used to drive improvements.  I am fairly sure that, without those trips to Lincoln and other NRA offices back in 1991, I would have spent the next two years tilting at windmills.