"The Field Experience Grant supported British and Russian academics and students in Far East Russia."

Markus Eichhorn Grant Recipient

The Soil Health Inquiry – clearer than mud

By Amy G. Fensome, Policy Intern

On 2 December the Environmental Audit Committee opened an inquiry into soil health. The aim of the inquiry is to ascertain the importance of healthy soil to society, how to measure and monitor soil health and what actions could be taken to maintain or improve soil health.

The British Ecological Society contributed evidence to the inquiry as did the National Trust; Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH); the Soil Association, the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast; Soil First Farming and Newcastle University and a further 59 organisations and individuals.

With their distinct remits it is unsurprising that these organisations provided documents that each had their own “flavour”, with slightly different priorities and approaches to the questions at hand.

For example, Newcastle University provided a detailed overview of some of the more academic background to soil health and monitoring such as definitions, methodological considerations and an overview of existing strategies.

Soil First Farming came from the perspective of farmers, pointing out that there are farmers who voluntarily put soil health at the heart of their business but that there are others who have different priorities (such as minimising costs) who may resist enforced changes to their management practices.

The Soil Association took a different approach entirely and highlighted three priority issues (the need to increase soil organic matter, restoration of peatlands and fens, the problems posed by growing maize) and the actions required to tackle them.

Drawing on the expertise of a number of BES members as well as an in-depth review of the literature, the BES response was very thorough, including a detailed overview of potential indicators and suggestions for how Government could develop a strategy for the future.

Despite the differences between these documents, there appears to be a great deal of consensus. We have reviewed some of the above submissions and pulled out a few of the key ideas that emerged for each of the inquiry questions.

How could soil health best be measured and monitored?

A reliable measure of soil health can only be obtained by measuring physical (e.g. structure), chemical (e.g. pH) and biological (e.g. earthworms) indicators.  Monitoring should take into account spatial and temporal scales and include all land types.

What are the benefits that healthy soils can provide to society? 

Soil is fundamental to life (at least non-marine life). Food security depends on healthy soil as does access to clean water. Soil regulates nutrient cycling and atmospheric composition including carbon and is therefore important in terms of global change dynamics. Soil is home to a wide biodiversity which supports aboveground biota.

What are the consequences of failing to protect soil health for the environment, public health, food security, and other areas? 

Ultimately, poor soil health will lead to an inability to provide sufficient food and clean water as well as further degradation of the atmosphere and biodiversity. Poor soil quality leads to soil erosion which leads to silting of lakes and streams with devastating consequences for organisms in those environments. Poor nutrient content of soil will necessitate increased chemical inputs on agricultural land. Loss of organic matter also reduces the ability of soil to absorb and hold water contributing to flood risk.

What measures are currently in place to ensure that good soil health is promoted?  And what further measures should the Government and other organisations consider in order to secure soil health?

The consensus view is that existing legislation, in so far as it stands, is inadequate. Whilst a strategy for safeguarding soil was developed by Defra in 2009 and Defra’s white paper “The Natural Choice” (2011) included a goal that by 2030 all soils in England should be managed sustainably and degradation threats tackled successfully, there is little legislation that backs this up. There are some requirements within the CAP that promote positive action for soils but these are limited to agricultural soils and according to Soil First Farming, uptake is minimal.  As CEH points out, these regulations only relate to agricultural soils.

The actions and strategies suggested by each organisation were extensive but key points include: more research (baseline data, relationship between soil properties and functions), incentivise good practice, make soil health a significant consideration in spatial planning and establish a UK wide monitoring network.

What role (if any) should soil health play in the Government’s upcoming 25 year plan for the natural environment?

There is agreement that soil health should be a significant aspect of the upcoming plan but there should be cross compliance with the 25 year plan for Food and Farming.

What next?

It is apparent from reviewing the written submissions that within a vast and complex area of research, there is consensus on many of the inquiry questions. The most varied responses were those relating to suggestions for future strategies that might encourage better management of soils as a resource. The deadline for written submissions closed on the 28 January. The next stage is for the committee panel to invite expert speakers to provide oral evidence.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reviewing the Research Excellence Framework: Government launches call for evidence

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

The UK Government has launched a call for evidence for its review of the Research Excellence Framework, the latest in a number of consultations on higher education and research policy.

Since May’s election, the Conservative government has been determined to make its mark on the higher education and research policy landscape. The Nurse Review of the Research Councils and forthcoming creation of Research UK, the higher education green paper and proposals for the Teaching Excellence Framework, and now a review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF): policy changes have been coming thick and fast.

The government’s intention to reassess the REF was first outlined in the autumn Spending Review, and was officially launched on 16 December by Science Minister Jo Johnson. The review will be chaired by Lord Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy, and will seek to ensure that quality-related (QR) research funding “is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research, and reduces the administrative burden on institutions”.

In its current form, the REF takes place every 5-6 years, and aims to assess the quality of research produced by higher education institutions in order to inform the allocation of QR research funding. The most recent REF, undertaken by the UK’s four higher education funding bodies in 2014, saw submissions from 154 institutions under 36 subject categories for peer review by appointed panels of experts. Submissions were assessed for the quality and impact of the research, and the research environment, to be graded on a four-point scale.

So what is up for grabs in Lord Stern’s review? The terms of reference make it clear that the government is committed to maintaining the dual support system of research funding, with the REF continuing to drive the allocation of QR funding. Likewise the frequency of the REF, at 5-6 year intervals, is deemed appropriate and will be maintained.

Where the review will seek to make changes, in the Government’s own words, is to ensure that “future university research funding is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research and reduces the administrative burden on institutions”. Importantly, it is emphasised that any revised system must carry the confidence of the UK academic community and other stakeholders: as science policy expert James Wilsdon writes, “the REF has become a condensation point for wider concern about the burden of audit, management and bureaucracy in academic life”.

The Stern Review therefore offers an excellent opportunity for the academic community to make heard their views on the REF. Where does it work well? What could be improved? Last week the Government launched a call for evidence as part of the review, outlining nine questions it is seeking to address. The questions are wide ranging, asking how the REF processes could be changed to assess research more efficiently and accurately; whether some elements of the REF could be reported at a more aggregate level; how institutions use the REF in decision-making and strategic planning; how interdisciplinary research could be better recognised; and what impacts the REF has on the work and behaviours of individual academics.

We will be contributing to the Royal Society of Biology’s response to the call for evidence, and are keen to hear from as wide a range of BES members as possible to inform our contribution. This is a crucial issue for the ecological research community, as it is for all UK-based academics, and we want to make sure your voice is heard.

If you’re reading this as a BES member and would like to share your views on any of the questions posed in the call for evidence, or more broadly about your experience of the REF, please get in touch with Jackie Caine, Policy Manager at jackie@britishecologicalsociety.org.

Download the call for evidence questions

Posted in BIS, Government, Research and Development, Science, Science Funding, Science Policy, UK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Modernised Defra – Liz Truss announces the departmental plan

By Jackie Caine, Policy Manager

Yesterday the Environment Secretary Liz Truss gave a speech at the Institute for Government on reforms to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), explaining plans to make the department ‘more integrated, more open, more modern and more local’.

The room was packed as many were keen to see how the Minister planned to deliver Defra’s vital work with a Department that has been hit by some of the largest budget cuts in this and the previous Parliament.


Defra works with 33 agencies and public bodies, including the Forestry Commission, Natural England, advisory bodies and National Park Authorities, and the crux of  Truss’ plan is to integrate the work of these agencies, structuring their work ‘around river catchments and  landscapes’. Plans and budgets will be created at this scale for each area of the environment, rather than according to the agency or organisation.

This will be welcome news for many who advocate the ecosystem approach in decision making, and is perhaps driven by the Ministers’ recent first-hand experience of the widespread flooding late last year.

Greater integrated working across Defra is central to the reforms, but Truss stated that Defra heavyweights Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) will maintain their legal independence, something she emphasised in later questioning. They will however share some back office functions, including IT, HR and communications.


Truss rightly identified that ‘Defra touches the lives of every individual and every business in the country’, and is keen to shape more local, people orientated services. She wants individuals to have more information and tools to be able to make local level decisions. She recognised that this means having more Defra staff on the ground who are able to make decisions and resolve local issues without passing them up the line.  Many environmental issues are the responsibility of local authorities, and linking these up with the Defra plan and NE and EA activities at the catchment area may be difficult. Truss recognised this issue and said that Defra’s plan should enable other organisations, such as local government authorities, to work with them more effectively.


Perhaps the most relevant announcement for ecologists is that of the new ‘Environment Analysis Unit’, which will bring soil, water, biodiversity, flooding and farming data together. The integration of soil health alongside other environmental factors in decision-making  was something the BES were keen to highlight in our recent Soil Health inquiry response, and we hope that the Environmental Analysis Unit will have real impact on the way the environment is incorporated into land use and planning decisions.

The Minister is keen on open data, stating Defra will release 8,000 datasets by June. They are also increasing capital investment by 12% resulting in a 30% increase in investment in IT, science and facilities.

Good news?

The Minister was optimistic and enthused about the work of Defra, and many will welcome the more joined up, landscape approach to Defra’s work. This is of course one way to do more with less money, but it also makes sense to join up Defra functions as much as possible.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, with Truss admitting that it will take years for many of these processes to be put in place, and that a department never really stops reforming if it is to keep up with the modern world.

The Minister’s plan is set against a background of boosting productivity, wanting to drive competitiveness and ‘minimis[e] the burdens of regulation’. She would not be led on questioning about the forthcoming EU referendum and what this may mean for environmental regulation in the UK.

And what about the 25 year plan?

We’ve welcomed Defra’s 25 year plan for the environment (and a separate one for food and farming), but information on this has been thin so far. Truss stated that Defra will launch a framework for the environment plan in the spring, with the final results expected at the end of the year. They will be using a platform called ‘Dialogue’, a live discussion app that enables contributors to have their say. The Minister has said that the area plans and budgets will be integrated with the framework for the 25 year plan for the environment, and the governance reforms will make it  easier ‘to bring in talents and finances from other organisations’. Truss didn’t mention integration of the 25 year plan for the environment with the plan for food and farming, but we hope with this renewed focus on joined up activity, that this will be on the cards.

Stay informed

The BES will be keeping a close eye on how Defra implements this reform, and we will be in touch with members to ensure that ecologists have a say in the 25 year plan for the environment. For the full speech text see the Defra website, follow tweets at  #truss and hear the Minister speak further about the work of Defra at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recent inquiry.

Posted in Defra, England, Environment, Event, Government, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Science Minister underlines importance of the EU at CaSE Annual Lecture

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

At Wednesday’s Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Lecture, Science Minister Jo Johnson gave a strong endorsement of the importance of European Union membership for UK science. Concluding a speech outlining the Government’s vision for science, he argued that “while there is nothing in our EU membership that limits our ability to work with other countries, the onus is now on those who want to leave the EU […] to explain how they would sustain current levels of investment and collaboration.”

In the storied surrounds of the Royal Institution, the Minister addressed an audience of 400 representatives of the scientific community, outlining his laudable aim to “make Britain the best place in the world for science, engineering and innovation”. Yet he clearly acknowledged that this goal was not something the UK could achieve in isolation, emphasising the vital importance of international partnerships to scientific research. He pointed to the UK’s success in obtaining EU research funding, also highlighting the value of free movement for researchers and students, and the fact that research publications involving international collaboration – as over 50% of UK papers do – have much greater impact.

In the autumn Spending Review, scientific research funding was protected in real terms, to rise with inflation over the course of this Parliament. This was a broadly positive settlement in the context of significant spending cuts across government; a point the Minister was keen to stress. In his speech he also made two new funding announcements: doubling the Newton Fund for international research to £150 million per year by 2021, and launching a new £30 million Science Capital Fund for science centres in partnership with the Wellcome Trust. He also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to implementing Sir Paul Nurse’s recommendation to improve research co-ordination through the creation of Research UK.

Yet the funding and organisation of scientific research – policy for science – is just one part of science policymaking. Science for policy­ – making sure decision-makers are equipped with the right scientific evidence for making decisions, is also crucial, and the Science Minister is responsible for managing the relationship with the Government Office for Science, which aims to deliver this goal. Yet while the “science budget” has been reasonably well protected by the current Conservative government and its Coalition predecessor, departmental budgets for “science for policy” have been subject to substantial cuts.

Analysis by CaSE in 2014 showed that in 2011/12 half of Government departments cut research and development expenditure by over 20% compared to the previous year, often out of proportion to their overall spending reductions. So in the Q & A session after the CaSE Lecture, we asked the Minister how he will support Government departments across the board to retain their capacity to generate and use scientific evidence to best inform policy decisions.

In response he assured us, and the audience, that the Government has set up a structure to monitor departmental science spending, with the Chief Scientific Advisor playing an important role, and able to step in if departments are making excessive cuts that threaten their scientific capacity. Yet while the existence of this structure is welcome, the scale of cuts to departments such as Defra – which has lost roughly £1 billion from its budget since 2010, and will be subject to a further 15% reduction over the course of the Parliament – has inevitably led to the loss of important research projects.

In the context of this funding pressure, Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has outlined in the department’s Evidence Strategy the need for “greater participation from, and collaboration with, external partners and providers of evidence” to inform government policy. With their role in synthesising and communicating evidence, as well as advocating for government investment in research, it is clear that learned societies such as the BES have an increasingly important role to play in this collaborative endeavour.

Posted in BIS, England, Event, Science, Science Funding, Science Policy, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Science policy 101, or what I learnt after a week at Westminster

By Nathalie Pettorelli, Institute of Zoology

Houses of Parliament (Maurice/Flickr)

Houses of Parliament (Maurice/Flickr)

Doing ecological work with relevance to the policy world but frustrated to see how your work is overlooked by this community? Interested in getting more opportunities to interact with parliamentarians and feed scientific evidence into the legislative process, yet struggling to see how? This was me, a year ago; and this is why I applied to the Royal Society pairing scheme.

I’m a conservation biologist working at the Institute of Zoology, exploring ways to better understand and predict the impact of global environmental change on biodiversity using satellite data. The nature of my job is intrinsically linked to tackling research questions relevant to natural resource management, and the Institute’s mission is to produce research outputs relevant to society: how to best bring scientific evidence to decision makers was always going to be a recurrent question in my mind. Years of watching my colleagues dealing with the same issue told me that getting a foot in the system and expanding my network in that community are probably key to engaging policymakers engaged with the work I do; the scheme looked like a fantastic opportunity to do so.

The scheme runs annually, pairing around 30 research scientists with UK parliamentarians and civil servants. The pièce de résistance is the ‘Week in Westminster’, in which the scientists are invited to take part in workshops, hear from invited speakers and spend two days shadowing their partner. In my case, that also meant attending a session at the House of Commons; being able to meet with the chairs of the Environmental Audit and Science and Technology Committees and ask questions about how Committees work to their clerks; and having the opportunity to decipher how Parliament works by talking to the library and the Public Bill Office staff. The visit is then reciprocated, and your partner is invited to spend time with you at your institution. The whole point of this scheme is to give policymakers and research scientists an opportunity to experience each other’s worlds.

A lot of information was passed on to us during the week we had in Westminster, including a lot of good tips, which I thought were definitively worth sharing with people who may find themselves in the state I was in a year ago. This list is of course non exhaustive, and doesn’t include what I would have recommended before joining the scheme (such as keeping in touch with Wildlife & Countryside Link activities, reading the BES Policy Blog, contacting your BES Policy Team and making sure you join the BES Conservation Specialist Interest Group), but hopefully you’ll find it useful.

  1. Make sure you know how Parliament and the Government work. You need to get a good understanding of Parliament’s structure and how Bills are passed to identify the best ways to feed evidence into policy. It took me the whole week to understand the differences between the various types of Committees, who can propose a Bill, and what the Chamber Business Directorate And I can safely say that I’m probably far from being knowledgeable on the topic even after a week of harassing my partner with zillions of questions. There are various relevant resources online, see e.g. this by NERC or the “How Parliament works” section on the Parliament website. However, training opportunities on the topic are relatively scarce (one notable exception being the BES POST fellowship, open to PhD students) and I believe way more could be done to equip ecologists like me with the knowledge required to effectively interact with Parliamentarians.
  2. Get up-to-date with the latest news. I used to think that following the activities of some key MPs with interest in the environment and departments such as Defra was the way to keep up-to-date with what was going on in the policy world. After that week in Westminster, I realised that this was a bit simplistic. Much of the work of the House of Commons and the House of Lords takes place in Committees, and many are on social media. Select Committees are of particular interest, as their role is to check and report on areas ranging from the work of government departments to economic affairs. Inquiries are opened by Committees on a regular basis, and require experts (like us) to submit evidence; the results of these inquiries are public and many require a response from the government. Which ones do I follow on twitter after that week in Westminster? The Energy and Climate Change Committee; the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee; the Environmental Audit Committee; the Petitions Committee; and the Science and Technology Committee (from the Commons).
  3. Have a go at submitting written evidence. If you spot an inquiry that is of interest to you, consider submitting written evidence. Parliament has produced some pretty straightforward guidelines as how to do so, and submitting evidence is by far the most straightforward way to feed scientific evidence in the legislative process. As an aside, Committees publish most of the written evidence they receive on the internet, and these links can be used to demonstrate the impact of your work in REF assessments. Do bear in mind that material already published elsewhere (such as a peer reviewed paper) should not form the basis of a submission, but may be referred to within a submission, in which case it should be clearly referenced, preferably with a hyperlink.
  4. Talk to your MP. Before November last year, I would have never considered this to be a priority. I simply couldn’t see how such a move could be useful or even how I would start a conversation with my MP (how do you find their contact details? what do you say?). Turns out I misjudged the importance of this step, and how easy it is to do it. MPs, like yours, are constantly asked to take position on a myriad of issues which are mostly very far from their expertise. Their support system to acquire relevant knowledge can be pretty basic, especially so if he/she sits in the opposition, while the demands on their time are just gigantic. So, knowing someone that can help them understand critical issues is a real asset. On top of that, there is a political will to capitalise on science and technology as motors for our economy, which means that MPs are interested in promoting STEM careers among students in their constituencies. Many MPs are consequently quite interested in helping bring more scientists into schools. So how do you contact your MP? It’s pretty straightforward, you can find their details online. What to say when you contact them? Anything that opens up an opportunity for dialogue is a good one: maybe you are interested in getting his/her help with an educational project of yours? Maybe you wonder whether he/she would be interested in applying to the Royal Society pairing scheme with you? Opportunities for developing a relationship are numerous; just give it a go.
  5. Join a cross-parliamentary group. As well as taking part in formal parliamentary business, MPs may take part in informal work at Westminster, such as working with All-Party Parliamentary Groups. These groups are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament; they are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. These groups represent an easy way for scientists to network in the science-policy sphere while getting a grasp of the legislative process and the Dos and Don’ts of Parliament. Admittedly, there a lot of them, although their level of activity is highly variable. Having asked the BES Policy Team who they would recommend, it seems like the Biodiversity Group and the Agroecology for sustainable food and farming Group are particularly good first bets.

Find out more about how to apply to the Royal Society Pairing Scheme, and the BES Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme.

Posted in Government, Parliament, Science, Science and Technology Committee, Science Policy, Select Committee, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A view from inside Defra: lessons from the BES Shadowing Scheme

By Dr Jenni McDonald, University of Exeter

The task of safeguarding the natural environment in the UK falls firmly at the feet of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Their responsibilities are vast, ranging from the food we eat to the air we breathe. The decisions they make can have consequences for many.

As a post-doctoral researcher, existing in my own research bubble, I found it difficult to understand the connection between research and policy.  Political decisions are a key way through which research can have a substantial impact. However, I was completely in the dark about the workings of this influential department.

The BES Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme provided an unprecedented opportunity for me to spend two days shadowing senior policy-makers in the UK. So, in early December 2015, I ventured into the heart of this department to get a glimpse into the working life of Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Adviser, and Fiona Harrison, the Deputy Chief Scientific Advisor, to gain an understanding of the UK policy environment.

Schedule Overview

Day One: My first day at Defra started with an informal chat with Ian Boyd’s team and Fiona Harrison about the upcoming days meetings. I then shadowed Fiona at meetings with managerial staff and evidence and analysis teams. I was also fortunate to have one-to-one meetings with other department members to find out about different job areas and research processes.

Day two: On my second day I shadowed Ian Boyd to get a feel for the working day of the chief scientific advisor.  Arriving at 8.45, Ian’s working day had already started an hour earlier. I shadowed him at over 13 meetings and with no stopping for lunch it was a packed day. There were meetings with heads of directorates, advisory committees, executive agencies, evidence staff and I was even permitted a privileged brief venture into the Royal Society. Nine and a half hours after I started, my day finished at 6pm.

So what was the general feel of this department? It has to be said, I was at Defra the week following the spending review from which Defra saw significant cuts to their budgets. Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere amongst staff was one of uncertainty.  Although decisions were yet to be made, my impression was that Defra will be more integrated across research areas and will be looking to optimise collaborations in the future. It will be interesting to see how this develops in future years.

So how does research integrate with policy? There are lots of ways such as executive agencies, external committees, advisory groups and externally funded research. But what are the research processes at core Defra?

  • Defra is made up of many directorates, each containing an evidence and analysis team. The teams consider all dimensions of research, and also span many different areas from flood risk management to biodiversity.
  • There’s not just the value of science that is a factor when it comes to developing policy, but also the economic and social aspects. Consequently, evidence teams are multidisciplinary, composed of economists, social researchers and natural scientists.
  • The reality of spending government money is that everything has to be costed and projects need to be economically viable. This is easier said than done when dealing with the natural environment, as policies will likely be at an impasse if the benefits can’t be valued.

Fulfilling a scientific role at Defra appears to be ideally suited to a T-shaped scientist, with a broad, shallow knowledge of a wide range of scientific topics plus expertise in a single area. These kinds of adaptable scientists would be well suited to applying themselves to the multiple research areas within Defra.

Outside of Defra how can my research have impact? From everyone I spoke to the message was clear. For research to be effective in policy its impact needs to be considered from the start, and proposals need to be shaped with a specific scientific outcome in mind. This ensures research can have maximum impact at completion stage. Consequently research needs to be co-designed, co-developed and co-delivered with policy makers.

Overall, I left this world of acronyms and managerial mazes with a better understanding of the connection between research and policy. Moving forward, for research to have maximum impact it needs to be communicated to those who can use it. This currently requires researchers to be proactive in seeking opportunities to engage policy-makers. I hope there will be increasingly more space for researchers to have these conversations with policy makers in the future.

Dr Jenni McDonald took part in our Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme in December 2015. The scheme is open to early to mid-career ecologists, and we will be opening applications for 2016 placements in the next few months. Find out more.

Posted in BES, Chief Scientific Advisor, Defra, England, Government, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flooding in the UK: ecological impacts and an ecosystem approach

During Christmas and New Year, the news in the UK was dominated by one topic: flooding. Across the north of England, north Wales, and parts of Scotland, homes and communities have been devastated by extreme floods, with river levels reaching record highs in many areas. December 2015 was the warmest on record across the UK, an extraordinary 4.1°C above the long-term average, and the wettest on record in Scotland, Wales and North West England. Over 16,000 homes have been flooded, with insurance claims for damages expected to reach over £1.3 billion.

As expected, the political ramifications of the floods have been significant, with arguments swirling over whether or not the Government has invested sufficiently in flood defences, the effectiveness of natural flood management vis-à-vis hard engineering approaches such as dredging, and the role of climate change in causing the floods. A National Flood Resilience Review has been launched, and the Environment Agency has called for a “complete rethink” of the UK’s approach to flood defence.

The impact of extreme events on freshwater ecosystems

Understandably, and correctly, the main focus of the debate so far has been the impact of flooding on human lives and livelihoods. But what is the ecological impact of severe flooding? This topic was addressed in detail in our 2013 Ecological Issues report, and accompanying policy brief, on The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems.

Freshwater ecosystems are rich in biodiversity, and also provide a wealth of ecosystem services from which humans benefit, including the provision of fresh water, huge recreational and aesthetic value, and flood control. Disturbance, in the form of floods or droughts, are a natural part of these ecosystems, and play an important role in creating and regenerating habitats. However, extreme climatic events, of the level seen in the UK this winter, may cause irrevocable damage to ecosystems, potentially even shifting them into an alternate state.

Climate change means that these extreme events, which push ecosystems beyond the threshold of normal disturbance, are set to become more frequent. In fact, as our report states, the increase in the number and severity of extreme events are likely to be “the most profound effects of climate change on freshwater ecosystems”. While it is impossible to ascribe any single weather event to climate change, the Met Office has concluded that, “it is entirely plausible that climate change has exacerbated what has been a period of very wet and stormy weather arising from natural variability”

Extreme flood events have a number of negative impacts on freshwater ecosystems. Floods increase surface run-off, exacerbating erosion and introducing more soil, organic matter and pollutants into water courses, whilst erosion within the river channel is also increased. Previous studies have shown that plant biomass and the abundance of both vertebrates – such as fish – and invertebrates can be dramatically reduced by extreme floods. For example, populations of the freshwater pearl mussel – an endangered species found in the north of the UK – can be significantly affected by extreme floods, which remove mussels from river beds and increase riverine pollution.

While some extreme events may force ecosystems over a threshold beyond which a different, simpler community of species forms, in many cases a process of natural recovery will take place. However, this resilience to extreme events is greatest where active natural processes proceed relatively unhindered; where freshwater ecosystems have been degraded by human impacts, be that through pollution or physical damage to habitats, the ability of the system to recover will be highly compromised. Management strategies that seek to improve connectivity of habitats, and provide refuges available to species during flood events will increase ecosystem resilience, and the consequent recovery of the vital services to people that freshwater systems provide.

An ecosystem approach for people and nature?

The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems makes it clear that extreme floods of the type recently experienced in the UK can have negative consequences for both ecosystems and people. However, in much of the media debate following the floods, people and nature have been set in opposition; presented as an “either/or”. This false dichotomy was underlined this week by David Cameron, who told the House of Commons Liaison Committee that an “attitudinal change” was required in our approach to flooding, away from “trying to balance up the effects on nature on the one hand and protecting property on the other”, towards a primary focus on “protecting human lives”.

Yet elsewhere in the same evidence session, the Prime Minister hinted towards an approach to flood management that did not put people and the environment at loggerheads. He suggested solutions including looking “at the way whole drainage and area systems work”, “slowing the water down”, and “upstream attenuation ponds and farming practices to try to hold on to the water”. These ideas go some way towards the ecosystem approach to managing freshwater ecosystems highlighted in our report. This approach integrates assessment and management of land, water and living resources, and requires consideration of how human actions affect the interconnected components of an ecosystem.

An ecosystem approach to flood management would seek to work with the environment to manage land and water in ways that benefit people and ecosystems. There is growing, if still incomplete, evidence, for the ability of natural flood management approaches – slowing water down, encouraging infiltration and harnessing natural processes – to mitigate the flooding impact of extreme events, whilst also supporting healthy, resilient ecosystems: a potential “win-win” situation.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t still an important role for more conventional flood defences, or that there won’t be cases where difficult trade-offs have to be made in order to protect homes and businesses. There is no single solution to complex challenges such as flooding; more research is needed as to the efficacy of different flood management techniques, and to better monitor and understand the impact of extreme events on freshwater ecosystems. However, it is clear that an evidence-informed (rather than anecdote-led), integrated approach, working across catchments and with, not against nature, offers a more sustainable solution to dealing with the devastating impact of flooding.

Download Ecological Issues: The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems

Download The Impact of Extreme Events on Freshwater Ecosystems executive summary and policy brief

Posted in Aquatic Ecology, Climate Change, England, Flooding, Scotland, UK, Wales, Water | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friends and foe? Reflections on the House of Lords inquiry on GM insects

By Professor Michael Bonsall, Professor of Mathematical Biology, University of Oxford

Insects are both friends and foe.  The pollination, decomposition and aesthetic values of insects are enormously beneficial. Yet insects also inflict massive economic losses and disease burden across the planet. Over half the world’s population live in areas where vector-borne diseases are prevalent: malaria, spread by female Anopheline mosquitoes, still infects over 200 million people each year leading to about ½ million people (mostly kids under the age of five) dying annually from this disease. Similarly, agricultural pests lead to massive economic losses – for instance damage and control costs for diamondback moth are estimated to be $4-5bn each year.

More than ever we need methods for controlling and limiting the devastating impact of these insects. Numerous tools already exist and are rolled out through integrated control programmes but new twists on old techniques are growing. In essence these new approaches involve genetic modification to insect genomes that at an ecological level either aim to replace or suppress a population.

This sort of GM insect biotechnology has wide ranging ecological, ethical and economic implications and through July – December last year I had the opportunity to act as the science advisor to the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee inquiry on GM Insects.

Based on a recent POSTnote on GM Insects and Disease Control, the Committee decided to take a more detailed examination of the science and policy around GM insects. A call for written evidence was drafted in the summer and 30 submissions were received. Witnesses were selected and oral evidence was taken through October and early November on the science, public perception and regulatory aspects of GM insects – the British Ecological Society submitted written evidence and, as witnesses, both Sue Hartley and Rosie Hails gave evidence (in different capacities and different sessions).

The inquiry report was published just before the Christmas recess. It made a number of recommendations (to which a Government response is expected – but the boldest was to call for a field-scale trial on GM insects – to test both the science and the regulatory environment.

The science is rich and multi-faceted: a whole host of approaches for modifying insects that act in a self-limiting (e.g. through induced lethality) or self-sustaining (e.g. gene drive) way to suppress or replace a population are at various stages of development.

However, it would be wrong to simplify this science to the broad epithet: GM insects. Each technology and application has to be evaluated on its own merits and limitations. The ecological consequences of population suppression (driving a population to local elimination) differ from the ecological consequences of driving a modified trait through a population. The recommendation for a field-scale trial is aimed at unpicking some of this science.

Yet equally important is challenging the regulatory environment. Implementation of EU regulations hampers the development of all GM technologies – the current EU directive on the deliberate release of GM organisms is based on evaluating the risk to the environment: human health and wider biodiversity. Basically, it asks – does the modified organism cause more damage (to biodiversity and/or human health) than current control interventions. However, inadequate functioning of this legislation has stifled innovation and restricted the use of all GM technologies in Europe.

Ecology is centre-placed in enacting this sort of risk assessment. Most important, is the question of what is the current environment (let’s call it: status-quo) into which a GM organism (such as a self-limiting population-suppressing insect) is to be released? It is understood (but often neglected when we think about using GM approaches for insect control) that we impact our environment with a whole of host of activities that affect biodiversity and/or human health. We currently use broad-spectrum insecticides and pesticides for controlling agricultural pests and disease vectors that are not without environmental risks (to biodiversity and/or human health).

So actually properly operationalising these risk regulations needs to pay greater attention to the ecology and status-quo for insect control – it is one reason why the Lords report calls for a field-scale trial.

This call for a field trial is also a super opportunity to engage on a broader debate about the biotechnological advances in these sorts of GM insect technologies. During the evidence sessions, the House of Lords Science & Technology committee repeatedly received lots on public perception and responsible innovation. Responsible innovation is a call-to-arms to avoid the sort of GM debates that surrounded the development of GM crops. Each GM organism (and GM insect) technology is scientifically different and distinct that each should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis within the appropriate environmental frame of reference. All of this necessitates carefully stepping through the thorny issues of responsible innovation.

Each receiving environment for a GM technology has value – understanding this value, the status-quo and how the release of alternative control strategies (such as a GM mosquito for malaria control) will impact really does require an informed public debate (actually this debate should be in the place where the control will happen). It is doubtful that this report should be viewed as moral blackmail about these GM insect technologies. But it is morally abhorrent and reprehensible not to intervene to reduce the cost of human misery and (unnecessary) loss of life from infectious diseases and agricultural pests. The ecological sciences should be at the heart of this call for responsible public debates as these GM (insect) technologies in all their guises unfold over the next few years.

The views expressed in posts on this blog are personal to the author and are not necessarily shared by any sponsors or owners of this blog or any other person or entity involved in creating, producing or delivering it and no such party shall be held liable for any statements made or content posted. 

Posted in Ecology, GM, Health, House of Lords, Research, Select Committee, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lords recommend Field Trial for GM Insects

Last week while the British Ecological Society was busy at our Annual Meeting in Edinburgh, the Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published their report on GM Insects, an inquiry to which the BES submitted written evidence from our members, and was invited to present a witness, BES President Professor Sue Hartley, who gave evidence on public perception and engagement.

The BES doesn’t take a position on whether GM technology is ‘good or bad’, rather we are interested in how ecological science can help us understand more about both the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. We want to ensure that the public, and our members, are aware of what the science can tell us, and how interdisciplinary research – bringing together ecology with social sciences and ethical considerations, can provide holistic, evidence informed policy making.

GM Insects Report

The Lords report found that while GM insects have considerable potential to control insect-borne disease and agricultural pests, they are no ‘silver bullet’, and should be used ‘as part of a complementary approach to pest and vector control management’. The report also concludes that the regulatory system within the EU is ‘failing lamentably’, and better international guidance on regulation of GM insects is needed.

The Committee goes on to recommend several actions to Government, including a GM insect field trial funded by Innovate UK and Government departments which incorporates testing of the research, regulation and policies, alongside a programme of public engagement. They also ask Government to commit to working with the EU to address how the regulatory system could be improved.

Ecological Considerations

As the UK Government now reflects on their response to these recommendations, we revisit the details in our written response and Prof. Hartley’s evidence to explore the ecological consequences of GM insects.

The Committee recommend a ‘field trial’ of GM Insects. More research is certainly needed into the real-world effects of GM insect releases; we recommended that these trials are incorporated into a tripartite approach of modelling, lab work and field trials, building a  feedback loop into which technologies can be improved and ecological impacts more fully understood.

The Committee report tends to focus on the potential of ‘gene drive’; however there are several different types of GM insect technologies, including Homing Endonuclease Genes (HEG) and Release of insects carrying a dominant lethal (RIDL); these technologies have different modes of operation and therefore may result in different ecological impacts.

The ecological impacts of GM insects (both direct and indirect) will vary, not only according to the technology used, but also the reproductive behaviour, habitat, life cycle and ecology of the insect and the geography of the target population. Therefore the ecological consequences of the release of GM insects should be ascertained on a case by case basis. The ecological considerations of gene drive, a self-sustaining GM technology, are distinct from the self-limiting release of sterile males; in RIDL for instance, impacts will largely depend on the number of insects released. With gene drive, one release could be sufficient to change an entire population. In both cases, the change in population is likely to have further indirect impacts on inter and intra-specific competition within the community.

We perhaps know most about what the ecological impacts of RIDL are; papers have been published that look at the interspecific competition, transient dynamics and migration effects of RIDL insects. However this body of knowledge is still small and much more research is needed, including the aforementioned combination of lab, modelling and field work.

Public Engagement

The Committee  ‘envisage[s] that appropriate public engagement strategies will have a critical role to play in the development and progression of GM insect technologies’, and recommends that public dialogue is begun when the aforementioned field trial begins. BES witness Professor Sue Hartley spoke about the importance of effective and sincere public engagement during the hearing. She stated: ‘It is important to recognise that the public can engage very effectively, even though they may not understand the science fully, because there are still the wider cultural, socioeconomic and value criteria that the public can engage with.’

GM discussions can never be restricted to solely what the science tells us- public opinion and values are, and should be, an integral part of the discussion, and we are pleased to see this recognition by the committee.

With that in mind, we will soon publish a write up of the ‘BES GM Debate’; a public event that was part of the Annual Meeting Fringe, which brought together five perspectives on GM technologies and their application, with lots of insightful questions from the audience.

Any Questions?

If you have any questions about GM technology and its application in insects, please list them in the comments section below.

Posted in House of Lords, Insects, Science, Science Policy, Select Committee, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating thirty years of the St Kilda Soay Sheep Project

By Kate Marshall, Press Intern

Feral soay sheep have wandered the wilds of Scotland’s St Kilda islands for millennia, becoming one of the country’s most famous natural icons. A large part of the sheep’s fame has come from a long-term scientific study, The Soay Sheep Project, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Commemorating the project’s huge and enduring impact on ecology this week was a special session of talks at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting in Edinburgh. The session heard expert ecologists looking back over the project’s successes, as well as looking ahead to what other long-term studies can learn from it.

Soay Sheep (Tim Cook/Flickr)

Soay Sheep (Tim Cook/Flickr)

In her plenary talk, Professor Josephine Pemberton, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Edinburgh, looked at the simple, yet scientifically valuable, opportunities that the Soay Sheep Project has provided for her research.

Pemberton began her research on St Kilda’s sheep in 1994, and since then has led a multitude of studies along with her collaborators (involving remarkable determination in the field to catch them!)

Soay sheep are one of the most primitive breeds of domestic sheep, probably remaining unchanged for thousands of years. Originating from the island of Soay, dating back to Viking times (9th and 10th centuries AD), they probably arrived on St Kilda with the first human settlers about 4,000 years ago.

The sheep have no predators, so interact with only plants and parasites and are isolated in their island environments. Pemberton explained that this provides a simple ecosystem in which to perform long-term studies of individuals and allow a great diversity of questions to be addressed.

These studies have ranged from untangling basic ecological questions, such as how weather and population density affect individuals, to genetic puzzles, such as uncovering the genetic basis of horn size.

In her genetic studies, Pemberton praises the value of a special tool developed by the International Sheep Genomics Consortium (ISGC) – an SNP chip that quickly and easily allows identification of an individual’s genome.

Horn size. Horns are important weapons in males during the rutting season, when they compete for mating opportunities. Some are lucky enough to have long horns, while others grow inferior stubby and wonky horns, and some hapless individuals have no horns at all.

Intriguing research by Pemberton and colleagues have not only revealed the genetic architecture underlying horn size (a single locus on Chromosome 10), but have also linked the fitness of individuals with the genome they carry.

While long-horned individuals have the most offspring, the unfortunate ones with stubby or no horns have the least breeding success. But long horns also carry a cost: sheep with these horns are least likely to survive. Surprisingly, individuals with an intermediate horn size survive best and still produce many offspring, so have the highest overall fitness.

Temporal trends. Pemberton’s team are left scratching their heads about why the size of the sheep on St Kilda seems to be declining along with an increasing population size.  One possibility is that the North Atlantic oscillation (NAO) – a climatic phenomenon where the atmospheric pressure at sea level fluctuates in a random way – has produced a current climatic environment that explains these trends.

Ageing. As well as genetic and basic ecological questions, Pemberton and her team have also revealed for the first time that, similarly to us, ageing (senescence) seems to occur in soay sheep. For example, the weight of young and adults decline in the second half of life. Intriguingly, different traits deteriorate at different rates in different individuals, possibly because some are more susceptible to ageing than others.

Pemberton emphasized that these discoveries show the importance of long-term studies on individuals, because they can provide crucial insights into changes that occur over an animal’s lifetime in relation to its particular circumstances.

In his introductory talk, Professor Ben Sheldon from the University of Oxford, who has led research on a similarly long-studied population of great tits (Parus major) in Wytham Woods, Oxford, suggested five main reasons why the Soay Sheep Project has been so successful (also excellently reviewed in a blog post by Professor Ken Wilson here).

  1. Simple – but not too simple – study system
  2. Integrated, broad scientific themes: population dynamics, life history evolution, evolutionary genomics and genetics, parasite-host interactions
  3. Good leadership with a clear vision and acquisition of consistent funding
  4. Continuous recruitment of ‘rising stars’ in research
  5. A foundation for many successful research careers

Sheldon also described how other long-term studies of individuals can learn from the Soay Sheep Project, to take advantage of the scientific opportunities that such studies can provide.  For example, he suggests collecting the genomes of individuals across populations on broad spatial scales to reveal whether evolutionary changes occur at the same time.

Sheldon also raised the important point that the majority of long-term studies have focused on a limited range of animals – just birds and mammals – and called for a greater diversity of study species, particularly as methods improve and technologies advance, such as lightweight tags for tracking and genetic tools.

Among the many challenges that such research faces, one is to justify how it is relevant to society – an argument that is increasingly, and somewhat understandably in the current economic climate, determining success in acquiring funding (e.g. Sheldon cited the use of great tits as a biocontrol agent).

The Soay Sheep Project has undoubtedly been a scientific success story and one that will pave the way for future long-term studies on individuals. As these develop, it is important to foster communication among experts – as we have seen here at the BES Annual Meeting – who can identify and thus quickly resolve the challenges that such studies face.

Posted in BES Annual Meeting, Biodiversity, Ecology, Evolutionary Ecology, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment