Now we are 5: AWRN past, present and future


Article by Network Lead Prof Mike Mendl (University of Bristol)


We are now 5 years old and it’s worth briefly reflecting on what has been achieved over the past half decade. From a standing start in January 2016 we have grown from 0 to nearly 800 members. Researchers from over 100 academic institutions make up 71% of our membership, with the rest comprising stakeholders from industry, government, research funding bodies, charities and other NGOs. In all, AWRN members represent an impressive 245 different organisations, and include a growing number of international researchers who provide bridges to networks and research groups in their own countries.


Alongside four successful ‘in-person’ annual meetings (who’d have thought we’d need to use that qualifier), plus last year’s online grant-writing workshop, we have also funded 16 member-led workshops on a diverse set of topics including ‘measuring positive welfare’, ‘the economics of animal welfare’, ‘novel methods of human behaviour change for improving animal welfare’, and ‘cross-fertilisation between neuroscience and animal welfare’. These have proved very popular, allowing researchers and stakeholders with a variety of interests to get together, discuss the issues, and develop new ideas and collaborations. They also book up fast – so look out for registration information for upcoming workshops.


Several of these workshops have been organised by early career researchers (ECRs), focusing on pertinent issues such as career progression and ways of increasing confidence and resilience. We hope that AWRN will continue to provide a supportive environment for ECRs – the future of our discipline – and to that end we are developing a mentorship scheme and have recently started hosting monthly virtual meet-ups for ECRs, the first of which in December 2020 was attended by over 45 researchers.


Other notable achievements include the successful advertising, evaluation, awarding and completion of £200,000 worth of BBSRC seed funding grants aimed at increasing contact and collaboration between animal welfare researchers and relevant industry bodies. We were asked to advertise these in October 2019 with the proviso that all money had to be spent before the end of February 2020! That this was achieved is remarkable and a testament to members of the AWRN Coordinating Group and others involved in administrating the scheme, and to the bevy of nascent collaborations between animal welfare researchers and industry that were able to take advantage of this opportunity at such short notice. This was a very impressive illustration of the innovative and impactful research that our community carries out together with its stakeholder partners. I wonder how many other research communities could have responded so fast.


Other examples of AWRN-coordinated responses include driving up animal welfare researcher applications to the BBSRC Pool of Experts from 0 to 22 in one week, and providing responses to government consultations on the 2018 Animal Sentience Bill (probably to be revisited), and on pig and poultry welfare recommendations and guidance.


Altogether, AWRN has grown up fast during an exciting and productive first 5 years. We now enter the 3rd and final year of the second phase of AWRN, with gratitude to our funders - BBSRC and UFAW - for all the support they have provided. At the end of this second phase, I will have been AWRN lead for 6 years and have decided that it will be high time for someone else (younger and more energetic!) to take the reins. Following consultation with the Coordinating Group, it has been agreed that Dr Gareth Arnott (Queens University Belfast) will take over from me as AWRN lead. Gareth has been a stalwart and very active member of the Coordinating Group for some years and his energy and dynamism will be exactly what the Network needs for its next phase of life.


Of course, we face challenges as we move forwards, the most immediate of which is how to fund AWRN and all its activities over the next few years. To that end, Gareth has led an application for BBSRC responsive mode funding to continue AWRN for another 3 years from January 2022. Proposed new objectives include developing a Kick-start funding scheme for pilot work to drive forward novel animal welfare research ideas, and an ECR development scheme including mentoring and lab placements, alongside our core networking, meeting and workshop activities. We will of course need to think about other funding options should the application not be successful, and we welcome suggestions and ideas from the membership.


So, we look forwards to another year of AWRN events and activities including upcoming workshops and, we hope, an annual meeting that, Covid allowing, we might even be able to hold in person later in the year (a mask-wearing, socially-distanced and low volume speed-networking session would be odd indeed!).


The success of the Network is down to you, its members, and I am very grateful for the enthusiasm that you’ve shown in generating ideas and suggestions for activities, and participating in and organising events, over the years. I also want to thank the unstinting work of the Coordinating Group who have given up their time for free to help evaluate applications, organise meetings, chair sessions, give presentations and do many other things behind the scenes to help things run smoothly. In particular I thank Anna Trevarthen, now standing down from the Coordinating Group, for stepping into the role of Network Manager at the very start of the AWRN while Poppy Statham was on maternity leave, and overseeing initiation of the website, our first activities, and numerous other birth pangs. Last, and most, I thank Poppy herself for all the amazing work that she has done as Network Manager since taking over from Anna. Her expert organisation of, input to, and calming (in person or virtual) presence at all AWRN activities has been indispensable. Without Poppy, I very much doubt we would have such a smoothly functioning, efficient, and successful AWRN.