Welfare Biology Academic Outreach—A New Approach
Over the last year, groups working to build the field of welfare biology and grow interest in improving wild animal welfare have focused efforts on outreach to academics. The intention behind this outreach was to get welfare biology projects off the ground, provide funding opportunities, and assess interest improving wild animal welfare within the academic community.
The rationale for conducting academic outreach was if a robust body of research within welfare biology is necessary for conducting significant stewardship projects to reduce suffering in nature, then one approach to helping wild animals is working to establish welfare biology as a field.
Utility Farm was one of three groups conducting academic outreach on welfare biology in 2018, along with Wild-Animal Suffering Research and Animal Ethics. Utility Farm’s approach was to reach out to academics doing related work, and schedule conversations with them to discuss their work and welfare biology, and attempt to build relationships with these academics that might lead to further productive discussions about the topic. We primarily reached out to biologists, entomologists, zoologist, and ecologists. We did not offer funding to academics, although in our conversations, we discussed how funding might impact academics’ interest in or ability to do related research.
What lessons can we learn from academic outreach in 2018?
Utility Farm’s outreach yielded some results, but they did not justify the time spent working on the project. We reached out to 92 scientists, had extended conversations about welfare biology with 26, but were only able to leave this process with 3 strong relationships, and with only one with only one relationship with someone who we felt had become value-aligned. All three of these individuals were PhD candidates. While we are excited to see academics begin to be interested in welfare biology, this approach took too much staff time to seem like a feasible way to move forward.
In fact, looking at our process, and summarizing it into distinct stages, it quickly becomes clear that this sort of approach is unlikely to work with more established academics at all.
Our engagement rate rapidly dropped off with tenured and established academic staff, which suggests that either our method for outreach was not a productive one, or that these academics are unlikely to adopt a new perspective on their field. While both might be a factor, the latter is likely a significant barrier to establishing welfare biology as a field in the short-term.
However, we were much more productive working with younger researchers, particularly PhD candidates. Anecdotally, we found PhD candidates to be more receptive to welfare biology as a field, more interested in continuing a conversation about it or our relationship with them, and more open to shifting their values.
What’s next for Utility Farm’s academic outreach?
As part of our strategic planning process for 2019 and 2020, we realized that our approach to academic outreach needed to be rethought entirely. Our barriers are not only that established academics are less likely to be interested in hearing about a new approach to welfare biology, but that we risk being seen as making suggestions about how work should be done within fields we do not work in. Naturally, this is poorly received at times.
Moving forward, we intend to focus our direct outreach on PhD candidates, postdocs, and possibly honors societies and similar programs at undergraduate institutions. We are moving toward recruiting PhD candidates as staff, and having these staff focus on writing on, speaking about, and promoting welfare biology within the broader academic community.
This approach will likely take a lot more time than, for example, directly funding a welfare biology research project. But, funding a project directly has unclear results. We do not know what the highest priority projects would be in the short-term, or what would do the most to establish the field. And, we think it is likely that the project of building an academic field is much more likely to be successful if it is done in collaboration with academics doing related work, and if it is promoted by those within academia.
We hope to have our new program running by early 2019, and will be working to recruit academics working in related fields. If you know scientists, PhD candidates, or undergraduates interested in welfare biology and pursuing a career in the sciences, please refer them to us.