"The Southwood prize has brought a broader, more international, visibility to my research."

Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi Southwood Prize Winner 2013

Greenhouse gas: why nitrous oxide is no laughing matter for the environment

By Beth Brockett, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Carbon dioxide is the “face” of the greenhouse gases, but nitrous oxide (N2O) merits its own spotlight. The same “laughing gas” once used by dentists as an anaesthetic and used today by people looking for a quick, giggly high, turns out to be pretty bad for the environment.

Nitrous oxide (a molecule made of two nitrogen atoms and an oxygen atom) is over 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and accounts for 6.3% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. If nations are to meet their climate change targets, they need to pay attention to N2O.

While the gas is best known for its recreational uses, most of it is actually generated through farming, where microbes in the soil combine oxygen (from the air) and nitrogen (added to farmland) to create new compounds. This results in the leaking of N2O gas from the soil. As more nitrogen is added to the soil more N2O is emitted, so the best way to manage emissions is to control the nitrogen added via synthetic fertilisers, manures and slurries.

Won’t somebody think of the atmosphere?
Wellcome Library, CC BY-SA

This century, the world faces a challenge to supply enough nitrogen to maximise crop yields while reducing the release of excess nitrogen into the surrounding environment as pollution. It’s an issue I looked at in a recent report for the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology.

Nitrogen is an essential element for life, but it is mostly present as an unreactive gas, dinitrogen (N2), which only a few organisms can use directly. Agriculture was revolutionised in the early 20th century when the large-scale industrial synthesis of nitrogen fertiliser became possible. Food production increased and population growth followed; but huge amounts of nitrogen have subsequently been added to soils and the increase of N2O emissions is the inevitable result.

Nitrogen used in fertilisers has increased ten-fold since 1961.
FAOSTAT, Author provided

There are some scientific developments which could help to reduce nitrogen emissions while maintaining crop yields and so global food production levels. A few are listed here.

Instead of applying fertilisers equally across a field, precision farming allows farmers to fine-tune the location and amount of fertiliser spread by machines. This is based on soil and plant condition measurements and associated software-generated maps – optimising the yield and reducing fertiliser waste (pollution) and cost. In 2012, 20% of English farms used soil mapping to optimise fertiliser applications.

Infra-red satellites help farmers learn more about their land.

Plants could be bred to enable a reduction in nitrogen fertiliser. Most commercial plant breeding focuses on maximising crop yields under optimal plant growth conditions, which include a requirement for high levels of nitrogen (usually delivered via fertilisers). Some researchers have argued for programmes which focus on breeding plants that perform better under lower nitrogen conditions.

The final option is further away from realisation: the crops’ genetics can be altered to reduce the need for nitrogen fertilisers. Some plants such as legumes (e.g. clover and beans) work with bacteria to convert unreactive N2 from the air into a form that is available to the plant. Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have recently begun research that aims to transfer this capability into cereal crops.

These research efforts are part of an international focus to sustainably intensify agricultural production: increasing yields without adversely affecting the environment or cultivating more land. Nitrous oxide is critical to the debate on climate change, which means that farming is too.


Beth Brockett was the latest recipient of the BES POST Fellowship. Find out more about the Fellowship and apply now.

The Conversation

Posted in Agriculture, Climate Change, Emissions, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, POST Fellowship, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Securing the future of our natural capital: a 25-year strategy

A comprehensive 25-year strategy to protect and enhance England’s natural capital is required if the Government is to meet its commitment for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. Business as usual is not an option, with long-term trends indicating that our natural capital is in decline, presenting a profound risk to our future wellbeing and prosperity. New legislation, backed by close collaboration between the public sector, business and civil society, will be required to ensure that this strategy is delivered.

Those were the headline recommendations of the third and final report of the Natural Capital Committee, released yesterday and formally launched at the Royal Society last night. The report represents the culmination of three years’ work by the Committee – whose members include BES past-President Professor Georgina Mace and Council member Professor Rosemary Hails – which was established to provide expert advice to the Government on the state of natural capital in England, and how action to protect and improve it should be prioritised. As Oliver Letwin MP, Cabinet Office Minister for Government Policy, highlighted at the report launch, the Committee’s work is indicative of the extent to which the natural capital approach to integrating the environment and the economy has entered mainstream thinking.

Building on the recommendations of the Committee’s previous work, the report – Protecting and Improving Natural Capital for Prosperity and Wellbeing – outlines three key elements of a 25-year strategy: building blocks, investment and financing. Building blocks includes the information required to underpin the strategy, including methodologies for monitoring, valuing and accounting for natural capital, and a prioritisation framework to identify required investments, assessing targets, risks, and costs and benefits. Investment outlines a suite of cases that could form the starting point for a targeted “natural capital investment programme”, based on the strongest evidence of economic benefit. These cases are: woodland planting, peatland restoration, wetland creation, restoration of commercial fish stocks, intertidal habitat creation, urban greenspaces, urban air quality and improving the environmental performance of farming. Finally, financing identifies a number of sustainable funding options for this investment programme, extending beyond simple government expenditure to include a wealth fund derived from rents from non-renewable resources, and compensation payments from developers.

While the recommendations of the report are clear, how will these proposals be taken forward? Chairman Dieter Helm was keen to stress that the terms of reference of the committee were to provide advice and recommendations, but not to be policy prescriptive – how (and whether or not) the Committee’s proposals should be implemented would be a matter for the next government to decide following the general election. Speaking at the launch, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Liz Truss MP, welcomed the report and confirmed that a formal government response would be forthcoming in the second half of the year. However she did not commit to endorsing any of the recommendations, beyond reinforcing the view that environmental protection and sustainable economic growth did not have to be in conflict. There was however a broad consensus among the committee, also acknowledged by Oliver Letwin, that some form of new legislation would be required to implement a successful 25-year strategy, a suggestion also reflected in the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts’ current campaign for a Nature and Wellbeing Bill.

The report provides a clear set of actions for government, but what does it mean for ecologists? The BES is a partner in the Natural Capital Initiative, which aims to support decision-making that results in the sustainable management of our natural capital based on sound science, through fostering dialogue between sectors and communicating the evidence base (most recently at Valuing our Life Support Systems 2014). The Natural Capital Initiative has welcomed the report, stressing that bold action from government is required.

If a natural capital strategy is taken forward by the next government, ecologists will have a vital role to play in providing the independent scientific expertise required to underpin this plan and ensure that it is based on the best available evidence. At the report launch, Rosie Hails and Georgina Mace highlighted the need to develop better methods for pragmatically and effectively monitoring natural capital in a manner that is both co-ordinated and tailored to the needs of decision making. More research is also required to understand our natural systems, to identify non-linearity and potential critical thresholds, a theme identified in the Natural Capital Committee’s previously published advice on research priorities.

In the final six months of its term, the Committee will be hosting workshops and producing papers to explore the themes of the report in greater depth, and preparing advice for the incoming government. Will the political parties be prepared to back the recommendations of the report in their election manifestos? Without doubt, this question will be on the table on 9th March at People, Politics and the Planet: Any Questions? our political debate chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby at The Light, London. Book your ticket now to find out.

Posted in Defra, Economics, Ecosystem Services, England, Environmental Monitoring, Government, Natural Capital Initiative, Valuation | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Environmental Audit Committee calls for Fracking Moratorium

The cross-party Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has called for a moratorium on fracking for shale gas on the grounds that it would be incompatible with the UK’s carbon reduction targets, and that considerable uncertainties remain about the risks posed to the wider environment. The EAC has also recommended that an outright ban is imposed on fracking in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and ancient woodland. These recommendations form the primary conclusions of the Committee’s Inquiry into the Environmental Risks of Fracking, with the report of the inquiry released today to coincide with the debate in the House of Commons on the remaining stages of the Infrastructure Bill, which includes provisions to “streamline” access to onshore oil and gas reserves.

The report considers the risks of fracking both in terms of climate change and in the context of wider environmental pressures. On climate change, the Committee concludes that shale gas cannot be thought of as a low-carbon energy source, and therefore pressing ahead with large-scale investment in fracking would not be compatible with achieving the reductions the UK’s carbon emissions set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, especially given that large-scale production of shale gas would not be likely for another 10-15 years. The report goes on to outline a number of further environmental risks from fracking, namely: groundwater quality, waste, water supplies, air emissions and health, geological integrity, noise and disruption, and most pertinently for ecologists, habitats and biodiversity.

The report finds that fracking poses a number of risks to habitats and biodiversity: direct loss or fragmentation of habitat, noise and vibration, air and water contamination, light, and traffic associated with fracking operations. It is worth noting that this conclusion is based on just two submissions to the Committee’s enquiry, from the RSPB and the Woodland Trust, suggesting that more research is required to evaluate the possible impacts of fracking operations on the local natural environment. The Government’s current stance is that shale gas extraction would only be permitted in National Parks, AONBs or World Heritage Sites in “exceptional circumstances” where public benefit can be demonstrated, and that these sites and others are amply protected by the existing planning system. However in order to ensure that the most valuable sites for biodiversity are protected, the EAC recommends strengthening and extending this protection so that fracking is completely prohibited in protected areas including all National Parks, AONBs, SSSIs and ancient woodland, as well as any land functionally linked to these areas.

The report has been released on the day that MPs will debate fracking as part of the report stage and third reading of the Infrastructure Bill, a major package of legislation that contains a number of elements of importance for biodiversity and environmental protection. As such, a group of MPs on the EAC have put forward an amendment to the Bill that would place a moratorium on fracking, as well as removing the provision within the Bill for the government to “maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum”. A further group of MPs have tabled an amendment to take forward the recommendation to explicitly ban fracking from the protected areas outline above. The Labour Party has also suggested that there are thirteen “necessary conditions” that must be met before fracking should go ahead.

Shale gas extraction is an emotive topic, with today seeing anti-fracking demonstrations outside Parliament, and the leaking of a letter from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Cabinet colleagues demanding “rapid progress” on the issue. As such, the role of independent scientific evidence in informing debate and decision-making is essential, and the EAC has been criticised by some scientists for putting the “views of anti-fracking groups ahead of evidence-based scientific studies”. A recent review of the evidence by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded that the environmental risks of fracking can be managed effectively with appropriate regulation, yet this report did not consider impacts on climate change nor biodiversity. While a recent study has pointed out the potentially serious impacts on biodiversity of high density shale gas extraction in the Eastern USA, it is clear that further research is required to examine the potential effects in the UK context.

Posted in Biodiversity, Climate Change, Energy, Land Use, Parliament, Select Committee, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Crops: New POSTnote Launched

Yesterday saw a working breakfast at Portcullis House to launch the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s (POST) latest POSTnote, on the topic of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from crops. The event was organised by Beth Brockett, the latest recipient of the BES POST Fellowship, who co-authored the publication alongside POST Deputy Director and BES Public and Policy Committee member Dr Jonathan Wentworth.

POSTnotes are designed to distil current and emerging scientific issues into a digestible, policy relevant format that allows parliamentarians to quickly get to grips with complex topics. The considerable skill required – and well demonstrated by Beth – to effectively synthesise the state of scientific knowledge on a topic and communicate it in a clear manner was highlighted by the sheer breadth of discussion over the course of the morning. The meeting brought together seven experts in the field with MPs, Peers and their staff to explore the themes of the report.

POSTnote Launch 20th January 2015

POSTnote Launch 20th January 2015

Professor Dave Reay of the University of Edinburgh started the discussion by setting the issue of reducing emissions from crops in context. Crop production must be treated as a global issue – in the UK we import 40% of our food – and is subject to a number of pressures: increased demand due to population growth, land-use conflicts, and loss of productivity due to climate change. Dr Luke Spadavecchia provided further policy context, highlighting Defra’s role in reporting reductions in agricultural emissions – which account for 10-12% of the global total – under the Kyoto Protocol Encouragingly, he explained, greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as a whole in the UK have declined by 20% since 1990, largely as a result of a fall in livestock populations due to CAP reform, diseases and consumer preference. For emissions from crops, Defra’s current mitigation policy centres on industry led, voluntary schemes aimed at reducing inefficiencies first and foremost.

The next speakers drilled down further into the technical aspects of reducing emissions from crops. While discussion of greenhouse gases usually focuses on carbon dioxide emissions, in agriculture it is nitrous oxide (N2O) that is the primary contributor to global warming. Nitrous oxide emissions primarily arise from microbial activity following the application of man-made fertilisers, and John Williams of agricultural consultants ADAS UK Ltd outlined the importance of good nitrogen management on farms – optimising crop yield without over-applying fertilisers. Professor Simon Blackmore (Harper Adams University) then expounded upon the exciting possibilities of precision farming, which employs advances in digital technology and engineering to make crop production processes more efficient – and less energy intensive – through “intelligently targeted inputs”, from spraying herbicides at the leaf scale to targeting specific species with “weeding robots”.

The group then heard from The Organic Research Centre’s Laurence Smith, who outlined how agroecology – farming systems that focus on the long term protection of natural resources – can also offer tools for conventional farms to reduce inputs and improve soil carbon management. Professor Malcolm Bennett then offered a glimpse of the future, explaining the potential role of plants in reducing nitrogen applications, through selective breeding for roots with improved take-up of soil nutrients, to the long-term (and possibly unattainable) goal of producing genetically-modified cereals with the nitrogen fixing capabilities of legumes.

The range of emerging technologies and innovative research presented painted an encouraging picture of how we might meet the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from crops. But how do we ensure that this research translates into both the creation of appropriate policy frameworks, and into changing farming practices on the ground? BES President Professor Bill Sutherland concluded the session with a call for the better use, assessment and communication of evidence to support decision making by both farmers and policy-makers, as exemplified by the Conservation Evidence website. The ensuing discussion identified the need for genuine knowledge transfer between scientists, policy-makers, and importantly, farmers, to ensure both that the latest research is put into practice, and that researchers are addressing practitioners’ most pressing questions.

The BES POST Fellowship offers PhD students who are BES members a great opportunity to work at this interface between science and policy through contributing to a POSTnote or other report, and to gain valuable experience of working inside Westminster. Fellowships last for three months, and fellow receive a £5,000 bursary to cover living expenses. Applications for the 2015 Fellowship are open until Friday 10th April – apply now or contact the BES External Affairs Team for more information.

Posted in Agriculture, Emissions, Event, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, POST Fellowship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CaSE Cross-Party Debate: Politicians set out their stalls on science policy

With less than four months to go until the General Election, the UK’s political parties are beginning to flesh out their manifesto promises and establish the battle lines on key issues. On 14 January, science policy was on the agenda at The Royal Society for the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s annual cross-party debate. Chaired by space scientist and television presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the debate brought together Dr Greg Clark MP (Conservatives), Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities; Liam Byrne MP (Labour), Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills; and Dr Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrats) to face questions from the scientific community.

The debate demonstrated an encouraging level of cross-party consensus on the general principles of science policy in the UK. All three panellists agreed that science was an integral part of the country’s economy today, and would become even more important in the future. While only Julian Huppert outlined a concrete plan for increasing investment – with the Liberal Democrats committing to increasing funding at a rate of 3% above inflation each year for the next fifteen years – all the panellists reiterated their belief that investment in science should and would be increased. While Greg Clark pointed to Government’s recently released Science and Innovation Strategy – broadly supported by the other panellists – as indicative of his party’s support for science, Liam Byrne argued that Labour’s overall fiscal and economic policy would be more conducive to enhancing Britain’s scientific strength.

If all parties were in general agreement on their goals for science in the UK, there remained considerable divergence as to how we should achieve these goals, with the question of how best to fund teaching in higher education engendering the most polarised responses. Greg Clark suggested that the Coalition Government’s decision to raise tuition fees had been a success, with student numbers rising, including amongst those from poorer backgrounds. However Liam Byrne argued strongly that the system was unsustainable, and that Labour favoured a long-term shift towards a graduate tax. Julian Huppert accepted that the current system was a compromise, and that while he ultimately favoured the removal of tuition fees, this wasn’t currently feasible.

A noticeable thread running throughout the debate was the extent to which policy areas outside of the direct remit of the Science Minister impinge on science policy. Issues such as school-level education and immigration provided some of the clearest dividing lines between the panellists. On the question of how school-level education could be changed to benefit science, all panellists pointed to the need for more STEM specialists to enter and remain in the teaching profession. Of The recent debate over the decision by Ofqual to remove practical assessment from A-Level science examinations has been of particular interest to the BES, and Liam Byrne asserted that Labour would overturn the decision. Whilst acknowledging the importance of practical science, Greg Clark explained that this was an independent decision by Ofqual based on the previous lack of differentiation in practical assessment. The pressing need to address the gender imbalance in science was also addressed, with Greg Clark in particular stressing the importance of the sector itself taking the initiative – something the BES has done through its mentoring scheme.

The BES is committed to promoting policy-making based upon the best available scientific evidence, and as such the question of the role of science in informing policy decisions was of particular interest, particularly in a week when the Chair of House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has criticised the “dilution” of science advice across government. All three panellists concurred with the questioner’s recommendation that government departments should be more open in showing the evidence and working behind policy decisions, with Greg Clark promising to share the suggestion with Government colleagues. Liam Byrne pointed to the thorny issue of “badgers moving the goalposts” as a clear example of where this hadn’t happened, and also asserted the importance of having a Chief Scientific Advisor in every department. Julian Huppert supported this view, and also called for Ministers to be more explicit about why evidence isn’t always followed, and when value judgements are being legitimately made.

Ultimately, while the three parties differed in the policy detail, all the panellists were in broad agreement on the overall direction of travel for science policy of the UK. Will such a consensus be achieved when it comes to environmental issues? The BES, together with the Sibthorp Trust and CIEEM, are hosting People, Politics and the Planet – Any Questions in London on 9th March 2015, bringing together leading politicians to debate the environmental content of their party manifestos. Tickets are on sale now, with a substantial discount for BES members.

Posted in BIS, Chief Scientific Advisor, Conservatives, Education Policy, Event, Government, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Political Parties, Research and Development, Science, Science Funding, Science Policy, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is the Sun Rising on a New Era for British Farming?

Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, set out the Government’s goal for a productive and thriving UK farming industry when she spoke to the Oxford Farming Conference  yesterday. The Secretary of State characterised farming in the UK as a ‘sunrise… not a sunset’ sector of the economy, stating that ‘no ambition is too high for British food and farming’. In a speech that skipped briskly through the history of agricultural production in this country, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s import of the potato to the UK in the 1500′s to last month’s release of a report by Defra on the latest trials to cull badgers to control Bovine TB, a vision of future farming was introduced, but it was one in which nature was rather noticeably absent.

The Secretary of State outlined the value of the agricultural sector to the UK economy, some £100 billion annually, employing one in eight people. The production of food shapes the UK’s landscape, with 70 % of the UK’s land in agricultural cultivation: food is the biggest manufacturing industry in this country. With the population globally set to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050 and with the rise of an affluent middle class, with the demands for resources this will bring, the demand for food worldwide is expected to grow by 60% over the same period.

The Government see this growth as presenting an opportunity to British farming; to innovate, to expand and to improve production. Whilst acknowledging that the UK will never be self-sufficient in terms of the food we produce and consume here, Liz Truss suggested that there is scope to expand markets for locally grown produce. Central Government has committed to procuring all food that it purchases locally if at all possible, from 2017, for example. Food and farming was presented as an industry that is ‘at the heart of this Government’s agenda for Britain’s economic future’.

Yet it was concerning that there was no mention in the speech of the vital interdependence between agricultural production and ecology. Agriculture is of course a vital (provisioning) ecosystem service, depending fundamentally on healthy, well-functioning supporting services, such as soil formation, water cycling and nutrient recycling, and on biodiversity, such as pollinators. The Government’s own Natural Environment White Paper, clearly recognises the importance of a healthy, functioning environment to a productive and economically viable farming sector, stating that “a flourishing natural environment and a competitive, resilient farming and food industry [is needed] to contribute to global food security.” We would have wished to have seen this relationship recognised in the speech, absent as it was too from the Secretary of State’s first speech on the environment, to Policy Exchange, last year. The natural environment seemed to be characterised as, in fact, a source of ‘challenge’ to the farming sector, acting as a reservoir of animal and plant diseases, rather than a fundamental underpinning to the ‘opportunity’ that the Government wishes to harness in agricultural improvement.

Elsewhere in the speech, the Secretary of State mentioned two areas of work which are exercising the BES External Affairs Team at the moment and which will form a core component of our work in the coming weeks. The first, the relation between control of badgers and the incidence of TB in cattle, has been well documented on this blog. The Secretary of State was clear that the Government will proceed with their ‘comprehensive strategy’ to control BTb, with cattle movement controls, vaccination in edge areas and culling in areas where the disease is rife. The Government will do ‘whatever it takes to eradicate this disease’ and ‘even if the protest groups don’t like it’, bullish statements reflecting the statement made by the Government when the latest report on the badger culling trials was released just before Christmas.

The second concerns the REFIT of the EU Nature Directives: the review of the Birds and Habitats Directives to assess their fitness for purpose. This takes place against a backdrop of an instruction from the President of the European Commission to Commissioner Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, to explore streamlining the Directives into one piece of legislation. In this context, Liz Truss’ statement that she was ‘determined to see change at the European level’ and that, essentially, decisions should be made in Britain for Britain’s benefit, reflects the UK’s position as one of the Member States pushing for the REFIT to take place. That this could result in a watering down of the cornerstone of nature legislation across Europe, including in the UK, is a concern to many NGOs, including the BES.

As always, we welcome comment and engagement from our members and others on these and other issues.

Posted in Agriculture, Badgers and bTB, BES, EU, UK, Wildlife Disease | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Managing the Career Expectations of Doctoral Students: New Royal Society Guidelines

The Royal Society has released a new set of guidelines that aim to improve the management of doctoral students’ career expectations. The document, aimed at students, supervisory teams, careers and training services and higher education institutions (HEIs), lays out a set of principles and responsibilities that the Royal Society believes should be adopted to help ensure that PhD students’ career expectations are clearly understood by all concerned and effectively managed.

The central thread running through the guidelines is the need for all parties concerned to be up front about the fact that while there are now more STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Maths) PhD students in the UK than ever before, the vast majority of them will go on to pursue careers outside of academia. According to Professor Athene Donald, who chaired the working group responsible for the report, it is vital to “make sure right from the outset that students know that they are not walking into a job for life”. As such, it is essential that HEIs enable students to develop a broad skillset and facilitate them to gain a breadth of experience that equips them for jobs outside of academia.

Principles and Responsibilities

In terms of general principles, the report suggests that as well as developing specific research skills, STEMM PhD is concerned with acquiring generic skills of “independent, creative and critical thinking, team-working, communication, personal organisation and self-awareness to enable students to contribute at a high level across all sectors of employment”. In order to enable students to develop these skills in a manner tailored to their personal career aspirations, they should have access to information, advice and guidance on career options, and the opportunity to access appropriate training. Students should also be able to interact with employers from beyond academia, and gain experience of a range of working environments in order to enable them to make informed decisions about their future careers.

In order to achieve these outcomes, the Royal Society suggests a number of expectations and responsibilities, not just for HEIs and their supervisory teams and careers services, but for students as well. Students should take responsibility for managing their own career expectations and actively seek advice and information on career options. A key recommendation is that they should seek a mentor who is not their supervisor, possibly from outside the faculty or HEI, to provide impartial advice and guidance, with HEIs playing a role in identifying, training and recognising mentors. Supervisory teams should avoid focusing too narrowly on research results, but should support students in accessing appropriate training for transferable skills, and allow students time to explore career options and gain experience outside of their studies.

Responsibilities recommended for HEIs in general include making explicit to students the range of careers available outside academia and incorporating consideration of career options into skills training of PhD students.  For careers and training services specifically, it is suggested that they work closely with departments and labs to provide a tailored service for students, enabling them to gain a clear understanding of the career options training opportunities available, and an appreciation of the generic skills they are developing.

Opportunities for Learned Societies

The recommendations of Doctoral Students’ Career Expectations: Principles and Responsibilities suggest a number of ways in which learned societies can play a key role in supporting students and HEIs to meet their responsibilities and expectations. In the case of the BES, membership (currently free for the first year for PhD students) enables doctoral students to access opportunities to gain experience beyond academia, for instance through policy placements or by taking part in public engagement activities. Events and resources such as policy training workshops and the new careers advice webinar series also offer appropriate training opportunities for a wider student audience. The BES is also able to work directly with HEIs through training courses tailored to the needs of NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships.

With the Royal Society’s stakeholder consultation indicating a positive response to the report’s recommendations from students, academics and HEI managers alike, the Principles and Responsibilities report provides further onus for learned societies to ensure that their career development offer is effectively promoted, and an excellent opportunity to build on existing relationships with both PhD students and HEIs.

Find out more about the BES’s Careers Work or get in touch with our Education Team

Posted in Education, Education Policy, Royal Society, Science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Defra releases results of the second year of badger culls

The Coalition Government’s policy of culling badgers as part of a package of measures to control the spread of Bovine TB across the UK has been one the most controversial ecological policy issues of this parliament. Just before Christmas, Defra released the results of the second year of culling trials, with the Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss, reiterating that she is “determined to continue with a comprehensive Strategy that includes culling”, whilst also announcing the publication of a new Biosecurity Action Plan to help farmers minimise the spread of disease.

The second year of culling took place over a six week period starting in September 2014, again restricted to the two trial areas of West Somerset and West Gloucestershire. As the Randomised Badger Culling Trial and other studies have demonstrated, culling too few badgers can lead to an increase in bovine TB in cattle due to the perturbation effect, and as such the Government set targets for the numbers of badgers to be culled based on reducing badger density in each of the trial areas by at least 70%. In Somerset, the number of badgers culled during the six week period was 341, above the minimum target of 316, yet in Gloucestershire only 274 badgers were culled, well below the minimum target of 615.

In contrast to the previous year, the 2014 culling trial was not subject to oversight from an Independent Expert Panel. In 2013 the panel concluded that the culling trial was neither effective in achieving its targets nor in attaining acceptable levels of humaneness, and made a number of recommendations for how the cull could be improved. While the Government accepted the majority of the panel’s recommendations, it did not accept the recommended approach for assessing the effectiveness of culling using genetic methods. The 2014 cull was subject to an independent audit of the “processes, documentation, training and data collection” of the cull, with the auditor concluding that she was satisfied “that the data recorded is complete and accurate”. However, the auditor did not have access to the raw culling data held by contractors conducting the cull on behalf of the NHU, and as such did not assess the quality of this data.

In his advice to the Government on the outcome of the culling trials, Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens concluded that the Somerset result “indicates that industry-led culling can, in the right circumstances, deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits”, yet warned that “the benefits of reducing disease in cattle over the planned four year cull may not be realised” in Gloucestershire due to the lower level of badger population reduction. In the Defra statement accompanying the release of the results, the Government attributed the failure to achieve the culling target to “the challenges of extensive unlawful protest and intimidation”.

While the Government reiterated its intention to continue with a comprehensive strategy that includes culling, no details of future cull plans have been confirmed. However, it has released a joint Defra and industry Biosecurity Action Plan, which aims to reduce the risk of transmission of Bovine TB between cattle, and between cattle and badgers. The Action Plan aims to improve on and off farm biosecurity through a focus on five areas: knowledge and data, evidence, communication, education and training, and equipment.

The control of bovine TB and policy of culling badgers to reduce the spread of the disease is an issue that the BES will be looking at in more detail over the next few months. If you are interested in contributing to our work on this issue, please get in touch with the BES Policy Team.

Posted in Agriculture, Badgers and bTB, Defra, Ecology, England, Government, UK, Uncategorized, Wildlife Disease | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Government Announces new Science and Innovation Strategy

The Government has today formally launched its new science and innovation strategy, pledging almost £6 billion of investment and laying out its ambition to make “the UK the best place in the world for science and business”. Our plan for growth: science and innovation expresses the Government’s commitment to placing science and innovation at the heart of their long term economic plan, highlighting it as one of Britain’s clear global comparative advantages.

The strategy, which covers the period up to 2021, has six elements: deciding priorities, nurturing scientific talent, investing in our scientific architecture, supporting research, catalysing innovation, and participating in global science and innovation. Underpinning these six elements are five cross-cutting themes: excellence, agility, collaboration, the importance of place, and openness.

Two headlines from the strategy immediately catch the eye. First, under the “investing in our scientific architecture” strand, the strategy announces £5.9 billion of capital spending over the period from 2016 to 2021, what the report calls “the longest commitment to science capital in decades”. £2.9 billion will be directed towards the loosely defined “scientific grand challenges”, including confirmed investments in the new Polar Research Ship and Square Kilometre Array, and other previously announced initiatives including the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Materials Research and Innovation  and the Alan Turing Institute for Data Science.

A second key announcement is that Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Director of the new Francis Crick Institute, is to lead a review of the Research Councils, focusing on how they can “evolve to support research in the most effective ways by drawing on a range of evidence, including international comparisons and the views of the scientific business communities.” The review will report by summer 2015, with the full terms of reference to be published shortly. Perhaps surprisingly, this review follows just a year after the Triennial Review of the Research Councils, which concluded that the current structure of the Councils was fit for purpose.

Further significant elements of the strategy include a commitment to a “pipeline” approach to attracting and developing people to support the strategy, from investment in science and maths teaching in schools to the previously announced postgraduate student loans and support for women returning to industry following career breaks. Other points include a reaffirmation of the “eight great technologies” previously identified by the Government as key research priorities, an emphasis on catalysing innovation and building links between science and business, and investment in international partnerships.

While ecology might not feature prominently in the large-scale funding announcements, several ecological issues are alluded to in the report. Climate change and the depletion of natural resources are emphasised as key scientific challenges, whilst encouragingly bovine TB and ash dieback are both identified as challenges “where new evidence is required to facilitate good policy making”.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering offered a cautious welcome to the strategy, with Director Sarah Main commenting that whilst the strategy was “reassuring”, it “falls short” on a “commitment to ring-fence the science budget or to set long-term goals for science investment”. They suggested that three further themes would improve the strategy: stability, ambition and resilience.

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

Ecology and the General Election: What will be the key issues?

With the 2015 election looming, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on which ecological issues might figure highly on the political agenda over the next six months. While the environment faces a tough battle for attention with the competing demands of the economy, immigration and the NHS, the latest polls anticipate a close and unpredictable electoral race, and the UK’s political parties will be looking across the board to press home any political advantage.

In this context, last month’s evidence session of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry into Defra’s performance in 2013-14, provided an interesting insight into the wide range of topics that the Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss, and her predecessors over the last five years of the current government have had to address. As the Secretary of State was keen to stress in her evidence to the committee, many of these issues are necessarily long-term, and cannot be resolved within the term of one parliament.

By no means exhaustive, here are four environmental and ecological issues that may feature prominently in the lead up to the election.


On 2nd December, as part of the 2015 National Infrastructure Plan, the Government announced funding for over 1,400 flood defence projects at a total cost £2.3 billion; what has been termed “an unprecedented 6-year programme of investment”. However, the Committee on Climate Change – an independent advisory body for the UK Government – has warned that the majority of existing flood defences are not being satisfactorily maintained. With extreme weather events predicted to increase in frequency due to climate change, what would the impact be if we were to see a repeat of last winter’s flooding in the run up to the election?

Bovine TB

Undoubtedly one of the most controversial ecological issues of this Parliament, the debate over the most effective way to tackle the serious problem of bovine TB is likely to remain a live one over the next six months. While the Secretary of State reiterated the Government’s commitment to a “comprehensive strategy to deal with bovine TB”, including improvements to cattle movement controls and vaccination, most public attention has been focused on the hotly debated badger culling trials. The second year of these trials, conducted this time without oversight from the Independent Expert Panel, is now complete, with the results expected imminently.

The Public Forest Estate

When the idea of selling off a significant portion of the public forest estate was floated by the Government in 2011, it was met with strong public and civil society resistance, resulting in a rapid rethink. Following the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry, the Government’s Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement has set out the intention of creating a new public body with the triple aim of maximising the benefits of the nation’s forests for people, nature and the economy, yet the legislation required to create this body is yet to be put before parliament. How the next administration chooses to take this forward will be a key question in the Secretary of State’s inbox following the election.

European Union

With the increasing strength of the UK Independence Party, and the real possibility of an in-out referendum in the next Parliament, Britain’s membership of the EU is likely to be a hot topic over the course of the next six months. But what impact does the EU have on the natural environment? As well as the millions of pounds directed towards environmental schemes through the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK’s strongest protection for the natural environment comes from Europe, in the form of the Birds and Habitats directives – currently subject to a review under the EU’s deregulatory REFIT programme. Any change in the UK’s relationship with the EU would have a profound effect on environmental policy.

This list is far from exhaustive. Will climate change come to the fore in the build up to the UN negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015? How much traction will the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts’ call for a Nature and Wellbeing Act gain?

If you have a priority issue that you want to raise with the UK’s politicians, then join the BES, Sibthorp Trust and CIEEM in London on 9th March 2015, for “People, Politics and the Planet – Any Questions”, a pre-election debate on the environmental policies of the UK’s major political parties, chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby. What are your burning environmental policy issues? Tickets are on sale now, or why not tweet @BESPolicy with your question suggestions using the hashtag #EnvAnyQs?

Buy tickets now for “People, Politics and the Planet – Any Questions?”

Posted in Defra, Ecology, Event, Government, Parliament, Political Parties, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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