AWRN Inaugural Meeting Report 9-10 May 2016

Over 100 members of the AWRN attended the two-day Inaugural Meeting kindly hosted by the Wellcome Trust in London and with financial support provided by BBSRC and UFAW for which we are very grateful. The meeting was a lively mix of talks, discussions, workshops and a highly successful, if mentally exhausting, ‘speed-networking’ session.

Prof Mike Mendl opened the meeting by giving a brief background to the AWRN, its aims and activities, and demonstrating the newly launched AWRN website. The website is an integral part of our activities and we will be relying on members to provide material including examples of research areas, recent research findings, pictures and photos, blog articles, membership directory information and more to keep it live and functioning as a valuable resource for members, and a public display of our exciting research and how it can be applied and implemented in the ‘real world’.

Next followed the speed-networking session in which Prof Laura Green got Network members to form two sets of country-dancing-style concentric circles and circle around spending 5 minutes introducing themselves, their research / area of work, why they did it and ‘why anyone should care’ to each other, before passing on to their next ‘partner’ when the ‘5-minute bell’ was rung! A highly effective and noisy way of meeting new colleagues and learning about what is going on in the animal network community in terms of research, policy, funding, charity and industry .

Prof Alistair Lawrence then gave a personal perspective on the state of play in UK Animal Welfare research and current challenges and opportunities, and presented a network analysis of the current connections between members, research areas, and institutes gleaned from pre-circulated questions and artistically illustrated using network analysis software. The graphics allowed one to identify clusters of links that already exist and also areas where new connections might be formed, and doubtless there is much untapped potential in this data visualization method that we remain to discover.

The next talk was by Prof Tim Benton, the UK Global Food Security Champion, who gave a thought-provoking presentation on the challenges of feeding the world’s expanding population, and possible ways forward. He questioned the wisdom of increasing livestock productivity, and the accompanying sustainable intensification that brings, arguing instead that changing consumption habits, focusing more on the production of grass-eating ruminants, and tackling food wastage would be more sustainable solutions. Animal welfare will be affected whichever route is followed and we need to be alert to the resulting opportunities and challenges.

The first day finished with a session on establishing networks and research collaborations beyond the UK. Dr Peter Johnson (USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture) spoke about US research on farm animal welfare and the multi-state committees that coordinate this work and bring researchers together, and Dr Sadhana Sharma (BBSRC) outlined the funding mechanisms that could allow UK and US researchers to meet and develop links. This was followed by a drinks reception and poster viewing.

Day two began with a stimulating session on the links between fundamental and applied research in animal welfare. Prof Melissa Bateson, talked about the role of fundamental research in developing new and better measures of animal welfare, including indicators that provide information on cumulative suffering across the lifespan. She also discussed how such measures can contribute directly to welfare improvement, for example by showing clearly that particular procedures have negative welfare outcomes, as well as by being developed into practical techniques that can be used for welfare assessment in the field.

Prof David Main spoke about the challenges of using the results of animal welfare research to actually improve welfare on-farm. Providing information to farmers is not enough. Instead, there needs to be a better understanding of the drivers that influence when and why people change practices and behaviour, and how these can be harnessed. The importance of expertise in the social sciences in this endeavour was emphasized.

Overall, a strength of animal welfare research is that it genuinely spans from the very fundamental to the applied, including implementation of research findings, with novel approaches being developed in all areas. By promoting communication between researchers, the AWRN hopes to facilitate interaction and knowledge transfer between the different parts of this spectrum.

A session on applying for BBSRC grant funding started with a clear description by Dr Lexie Spittle (BBSRC) of the grant application and assessment process and what to think about and do when applying. This was followed by a lively discussion led by Prof Jane Hurst on how animal welfare researchers might increase their chances of BBSRC funding success. Alongside the standard ‘grantsmanship’ issues, ensuring that expert collaborators in relevant disciplines were on board, and targeting applications at the annual January ‘animal welfare focus’ deadline emerged as important themes. The latter increases the number of animal welfare experts present at the associated grant panel meeting. Possible routes for increasing social science involvement in animal welfare applications were also discussed.

The meeting closed with a workshop on workshops led by Prof Richard Bennett. The AWRN will be funding 2-3 member-led workshops per year, and a 20 minute break-out session led to a myriad of suggestions for topics including grant application and assessment training workshops, workshops on integrating research and animal care issues in farm, lab, companion and zoo animals, and workshops on aquatic animal welfare, amongst many others. The AWRN will be circulating a call for workshop proposals and more details will follow shortly.

Overall, the meeting was full of stimulating discussions and ideas, and the interest, energy, and enthusiasm of members was evident throughout the two days emphasizing the great potential that the AWRN has to develop, promote and expand our research area. Now that we have all returned to the everyday challenges of work life, we need to keep up the momentum. In particular, please contribute content to our website and ideas to the Coordinating Group by clicking here.