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An interview with Martine Barons

We're aspiring to do better for our local surroundings, for our people and for our planet through teaching and research. We spoke to Dr Martine Barons from the Department of Statistics, who researches decision support in food security at Warwick.

February 2016

A bee approaches lavenderWhat is your area of research expertise?

I’m researching decision support in the context of Warwick's Food GRP, formed to engage with policy makers and researchers. I’m looking at the statistical side of how you combine expert judgements together in a coherent and transparent way in order to support policy makers who focus on decision making in food security and pollination. These issues are connected to each other because if we don’t have enough pollinators, we won’t have enough plants, fruits and vegetables to feed ourselves. We’re trying to find out if we have enough pollinators, and if we don’t, what can we do about it?

Did you know that pretty much every tomato grown in England has been pollinated by a bumble bee brought in, in a box and released into polytunnels? We need to better understand our pollinators to ensure we get more out of the land we’re already farming to feed our expanding population.

What sustainability research are you working on at Warwick?

When the ban on using bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides came in, I decided that this might be an interesting topic to research. I’ve recently come back from a two-month trip to Australia where I met academics whose specialties ranged from estimating rare animal species that are very hard to count, to understanding bee diseases. Estimating data for pollinators is really tough and the data we have to go on is often very poor, so this trip was very useful.

Are you collaborating with any other departments or organisations?

Yes, I’m a mathematician, working in statistics with Professor Liz Dowler who’s a Sociologist and Dr Rosemary Collier who’s a Life Scientist! Our partners in Warwickshire County Council like their statistics and we work with the head of the Warwickshire Observatory too. I talk to biologists, statisticians and mathematicians, biosecurity experts and ecologists.

What food security issues are you looking at?

The Bishops of England and Wales wrote a letter challenging the government over the rise of the food banks over a year ago. Headed by Frank Fields, an all-party parliamentary group produced a report called Feeding Britain, exploring how cities can feed themselves and how they can support their citizens. We’re now working with the Feeding Coventry initiative, a pilot launched off the back of this report. We want to take forward the idea that you shouldn’t be throwing food away in the supermarkets and having hungry people at the same time. The Pod in Coventry is doing a lot with drama, working with and educating people about growing food, mental health and cooking.

Martine BaronsWho are you working with on food security?

We’re now building a decision support system for Warwickshire County Council’s officers so they can advise the councillors on policies that will bring people out of food poverty in the county. These councillors need to understand how we can make the cuts on a local level causing the least hurt to the most vulnerable people in that society. Our decision support system has to be nice and transparent, easy to use and technical behind the scenes, but able to churn out reports that can be presented in a way that’s easy for policy makers to use, even if they’re not mathematicians.

What would you like to see as a result of your research?

I’d love to see the demand-led demise of the food banks. With pollinators, I’d like to untangle the conflicting pieces of evidence and bring them together in a coherent way so we really understand what’s going on, and which policies will and will not help fix our pollinator problem. People propose single issue solutions, but it’s not that simple. It’s a multi-faceted problem that needs a multifaceted solution. Where you can and where you can’t compromise is a very important question.

What is the one thing that would help bring about the changes you’re aiming for in your research?

It would be genuine evidence-based decision making in policy. There are still gaps, but we can make use of what’s called expert elicitation, where experts estimate the data we need, but which doesn’t actually exist. The experts then show how certain they are about their predictions. In April we’ll be holding a formal, structured elicitation to fill in the parts of the pollinator system that we don’t have data for, engaging an elicitation expert and ten top pollination experts in the UK. This should result in a genuine working decision support system for policy makers such as DEFRA.

What can we do to support pollinators?

There are things like the Open Farm Sunday, the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society and the Hoverfly Society – lots of citizen science initiatives to take part in. We can make our gardens insect and frog friendly. Urban bees are doing well, because we plant flowers, but on farms we have large monocultures which cause unsustainable fluctuations in bee populations. The farmers need more planting of flowering weeds and wildflowers, something Coventry City Council does during the summer.


Image: On Approach to the Lavender Forest by Ingrid Taylar (via Flickr)