"A BES Grant helped me start a new project, and funded a research assistant for the summer."

Matthew Spencer Research Grant recipient

Call for political parties to ‘Act for Nature’


The RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts have challenged political parties to ‘Act for Nature’ by committing to a Nature and Wellbeing Act. The Nature and Wellbeing Act Green Paper, which was published yesterday, outlines an ambitious package of measures for tackling the decline in the natural environment and increasing people’s access to natural space for the benefit of their health and wellbeing. The organisations state that nature “underpins every aspect of our existence” and “offers immense benefits to our mental and physical health, and this needs recognition”.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, said: “We know that nature is good for us but we also know that nature is in trouble and that our children rarely play in natural places. In this Green Paper, we demonstrate that our national wealth and our national health depend on action to protect nature, and so do many of our most wonderful species and habitats. That’s why the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts are challenging all political parties to introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Act in the next Parliament—only by valuing, protecting and connecting people with our natural world will government achieve its social and economic plans.”

The Green Paper calls for all political parties to back the recovery of nature through manifesto commitments in the run-up to the next general election in May 2015. Action would be taken to better value nature and put it at the heart of policy-making, protect and restore nature by establishing a ‘national ecological network’, and connect everyone to nature by increasing the extent, accessibility and quality of natural green space near homes.

Targets for the in-coming government include a 10% increase in populations of key species and for 80% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) to be in good condition by 2040. The Act would also establish an independent body with statutory powers for holding Government to account on how the country’s natural assets are being utilised.

The conservation organisations state that there is compelling evidence which shows just how much people need nature:

The Green Paper also cites escalating inactivity and obesity, the impact of climate change on urban areas and countryside productivity, a growing risk of flooding, and the unsustainable exploitation of natural assets putting a brake on economic progress and development as further evidence for the need for a Nature and Wellbeing Act.

Dr Tony Juniper, author and campaigner, said:  “Nature is neither an optional extra nor a barrier to development. Healthy nature is a vital prerequisite for our long term health, wealth and security. That is why we need a new Act of Parliament, to help reverse historical trends and to restore nature in a generation.”

Prime Minister David Cameron famously announced that he was committed to achieving the “greenest government ever”. However, the Coalition Government’s action on the environment was recently delivered a ‘red card’ by the Environmental Audit Committee for failing to make satisfactory progress in any of the ten policy areas identified, including biodiversity, air pollution, and mitigating flooding. However, political support for the Green Paper received a boost when the Liberal Democrats announced a set of manifesto proposals which included the introduction of a Nature Bill.

The campaign to achieve cross-party consensus for nature and wellbeing legislation in the next parliament will continue up to the general election. Environmental organisations are hoping that the adoption of a Nature and Wellbeing Act will herald a new era of government in which nature and the environment is consistently considered across all areas of policy.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, England, Environment, Government, Liberal Democrat, Organisations, Political Parties, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Where’s the evidence? A systematic approach

In June, Defra published for the first time a comprehensive evidence strategy covering the whole of the department and its network of agencies and Non-Departmental Public Bodies. In his introduction, Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor, stated that the strategy will “require changes in the way we commission, collect and use evidence with greater participation from, and collaboration with, external partners and providers of evidence”. Included within the strategy is a recurrent emphasis on innovation, including finding ways to make better, more efficient use of the data and evidence that already exists.

Last week saw a room full of policymakers, academics and knowledge exchange experts gather for a NERC workshop highlighting one way in which Defra’s evidence strategy is being put into practice. The workshop introduced the use of evidence reviews as a method for facilitating evidence-based policy, concentrating on the work of the Join Water Evidence Group (JWEG), which brings together teams from across the Defra network to make better use of the available evidence in land and water management.

What is an Evidence Review?

“Evidence review” is an umbrella term for a range of methods for collating and synthesising evidence. In its most basic form, this may comprise a simple literature review, traditionally the most common approach to providing an overview of a topic. However, an increasing recognition of the potential for bias and subjectivity, and a lack of transparency, in conventional literature reviews has led to a growing interest in more systematic approaches that can better inform decision making and meet the evidence needs of policymakers.

Drawing on an approach developed to asses medical interventions by the Cochrane Collaboration, a full systematic review aims to conduct a thorough search of both published and grey literature according to a pre-defined, transparent and replicable search protocol and screening process. This map of research is then subject to a critical synthesis and analysis. In applied ecology, the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence has led the way in adapting this methodology for environmental research, and publishing systematic reviews on a host of topics.

While a full systematic review meets the “gold standard” for rigour, objectivity and transparency, it is also time consuming and resource intensive. To that end, the UK Civil Service has developed two related methods that follow systematic principles, but can be carried out more quickly and less expensively: the quick scoping review, and the rapid evidence assessment.

Quick scoping reviews are best employed to investigate emerging or low risk topics, retaining the use of a pre-defined search protocol but with a limited scope and focusing on describing rather than critically analysing the existing evidence. A rapid evidence assessment plots a middle path, retaining the rigour and transparency of a systematic review, including the use of grey literature and an appraisal of the relevance and robustness of the evidence found, but limiting the breadth of the search and depth of critical analysis.

Evidence Reviews for Policy Making

As Defra, and other Government departments, seek to maximise the efficient use of the evidence from existing research in order to inform policy and decision-making, it appears that systematic reviews will play an increasingly important role. At the workshop, Dr Alexandra Collins, NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow, outlined a number of reviews already commissioned by the Joint Water Evidence Group, on topics as diverse as the impact of the “Yellowfish” project in engaging local communities to improve the water environment, and a comprehensive systematic review of the effectiveness of on-farm measures to improve water quality. While JWEG is leading the way on the use of evidence reviews, this approach is increasingly popular across the Defra network.

With Defra commissioning evidence reviews through a competitive tendering process, there are burgeoning opportunities for institutions and individuals equipped to carry out systematic reviews to increase the impact of their research and play a crucial role at the science-policy interface.

Download the Joint Water Evidence Group guide to producing quick scoping reviews and rapid evidence assessments (beta)


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The Future of England’s Forests: What next for the Public Forest Estate?

The future of England’s forests has been a hot topic of debate in recent years. 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 resistance from the public and civil society, and resulted in a hasty U-turn. In response, the Government convened an Independent Panel of Forestry to review the direction of forestry and woodland policy, and at the start of 2013 set out its response to the Panel’s recommendations in the Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement.

Almost two years have passed since the government set out its three key objectives for forestry and woodlands policy – protection, improvement and expansion – and its intention “to establish a new, separate Public Forest Estate management body to hold the Estate in trust for the nation”. What progress has been made since then? How close are we to seeing the formation of this new management body? And how will the Government ensure that this body is able to maximise the benefits of the nation’s forests for people, nature and the economy in equal measure?

These were just some of the points of discussion at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity on 21 October. Chaired by Barry Gardiner MP (Labour, Shadow Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries), the meeting asked the question: “How should the Public Forest Estate be managed to achieve optimal benefits for people and biodiversity?”

Dan Rogerson MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for water, forestry, rural affairs and resource management) opened the meeting by reiterating the Government’s forestry priorities: protecting the nation’s trees, woodlands and forests from increasing threats such as pests, diseases and climate change; improving their resilience to these threats and their contribution to economic growth, people’s lives and nature; and expanding them to increase further their economic, social and environmental value. Resilience was a key theme cutting across all of these priorities.

The minister’s opening remarks were followed by a number of perspectives on the management of the Public Forest Estate. Professor Ian Bateman (University of East Anglia) outlined how increasingly comprehensive data on land use and the value of ecosystem services can enable better decision-making. Focusing on the question of expanding the forest estate, Professor Bateman illustrated how accounting for the non-market values generated by forests, from recreation to catchment management, could direct expansion towards areas where it could have most benefit for people, nature and the economy – predominantly on the fringes of major conurbations.

Justin Cooke (The Ramblers) emphasised the need for public access to be placed at the heart of the new Public Forest Estate, and that resources needed to be appropriately directed to enable this, whilst Austin Brady (Woodland Trust) highlighted the need to think beyond “forests” to encompass trees in the wider landscape, and also the opportunity for the Public Forest Estate to be a potential showcase and test-bed for payments for ecosystem services.

Finally Simon Hodgson (Chief Executive, Forest Enterprise England) outlined current progress towards the establishment of the new body, which is currently focused on reviewing current legislation and working with legal advisors to establish the basis for an organisation with a triple purpose – delivering benefits for people, nature and the economy.

While the ensuing discussion was wide ranging, a few recurring points stood out. First, raised by both the Woodland Trust and Caroline Lucas MP (Green) was the question of why the Public Forest Estate was not explicitly excluded from provisions under the proposed Infrastructure Bill that permit the transfer of public land to the Homes and Communities Agency. While Dan Rogerson reiterated that the Government had no intention of transferring any of the Public Forest Estate in this manner, and that an amendment to the bill was not necessary, it was clear that this did not fully address the audience’s concerns.

Second, the degree to which the language of natural capital and ecosystem services permeated the debate, and indeed the Government’s stated plans for the management of the Public Forest Estate. Professor Ian Bateman’s presentation was a perfect example of how taking into account non-market values of the services nature provides can lead to better environmental decision making.  However, it was noticeable that considerable uncertainty remains around the application of this approach in day-to-day practice; whilst the reorganisation of the Public Forest Estate is seen as a great opportunity to test tools such as payments for ecosystem services, there were few concrete examples of how this would work.

The Government’s commitment to following the recommendations of the Independent Panel on Forestry and establishing a new management body for the Public Forest Estate with a genuine triple bottom line represents a real opportunity to ensure a sustainable future for England’s forests. However, with the legislation required to create this body looking increasingly unlikely before the 2015 General Election, ongoing scrutiny is required to ensure that the new body lives up to its potential.


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EU Climate targets: What’s the deal?

Last week Brussels was host to a heated EU summit aiming for an agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions across Europe. Campaigners were hoping for a deal that would see Europe take a leading role globally on climate policy. In the early hours of Friday a deal was agreed whereby greenhouse gas emissions will be cut across the EU as a whole by 40% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.

The deal, which was described by Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey as “a historic moment”, was revealed in a tweet by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy.

EU nations have also agreed to increase the use of renewable energy to 27% of total energy production and increase energy efficiency to at least 27% compared to a 1990 baseline. The renewable energy target is binding at EU-wide level, but the later target will only rely on the voluntary action of nations.

French President, François Hollande, said the deal would send out a clear message to the world’s big polluters, such as China and the United States, to agree global legally-binding greenhouse gas emissions at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris next year.

Ed Davey said “Europe has sent a clear and firm message to the world that ambitious climate action is needed now… it lays down the gauntlet to the world to come forward with ambitious climate targets.”

The summit was characterised by arguments between nations such as Poland, which is heavily reliant on coal-powered plants for energy and was concerned about the financial burdens arising from nationally-binding targets, and those such as Germany, that were willing to push for a higher target of 50% emission reduction by 2030, as well as binding targets to force countries to cut their energy consumption.

The UK Government were opposed to nationally-binding targets for renewables, with a Downing Street spokeswoman reported as stating that “it’s important that you’ve got flexibility over your energy mix.” Under the new deal, from 2020 the UK will no longer be legally required to generate a certain proportion of its energy from renewables. Current legally-binding targets require the UK to generate 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Trade union and business leaders had called for EU leaders to agree strong climate and energy targets, threatening that nearly one million potential jobs would be at risk from weak targets. Bernadette Ségol, the leader of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) which represents around 60 million workers, said “the lower the target, the fewer the jobs that are created. Governments opposing ambitious and binding targets are wasting an opportunity to reduce Europe’s shameful levels of unemployment. Politicians risk throwing away up to 823,000 new jobs that could be created by more ambitious targets.” ETUC had previously called for emissions to be reduced by at least 40% and a European objective of 30% renewable energy.

Some environmental organisations have condemned the deal as being too weak. Oxfam EU said “it is shocking that business leaders called for more ambitious targets than those agreed by EU leaders”. Greenpeace EU described the targets as “too low” and said they were “slowing down efforts to boost renewable energy and keeping Europe hooked on polluting and expensive fuels.”

Experts have said that the 40% emission reduction will not be enough to avoid the risk of dangerous climate change. Prof Jim Skea, a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commented that the 40% target will mean future EU leaders will need to make a three-fold cut in emissions in just 20 years which is unlikely to be credible.

The new European Commission is expected to translate the 2030 climate targets into EU legislation next year. With the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 expected to finalise agreement on climate protection to replace Kyoto Protocol, it remains to be seen if world leaders will be capable of setting ambitious targets that aim to avoid a course of dangerous climate change or if they will settle for politically-achievable compromise.


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The Infrastructure Bill: working for or against biodiversity?

The Coalition Government’s Infrastructure Bill is continuing its controversial passage through parliament. The main elements of the multi-faceted Infrastructure Bill concern proposed changes to planning legislation in England and Wales, as well as additional provisions for nationally significant infrastructure projects, town and country planning, and the control of invasive species.

However, aspects of the Bill have drawn sharp criticism because of the potential for adverse impacts on the environment. Particular concern has focused on Clause 21, which would permit the Secretary of State to transfer the “designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body” to the Homes and Communities Agency – a non-departmental public body that funds new housing in England. In a widely circulated 38 Degrees petition, critics of the Bill allege that Clause 21 has been introduced to make it easier for public land, perhaps including the Public Forest Estate (PFE), to be sold to developers with limited community involvement whilst bypassing the planning system. With over 250,000ha of land across England, the PFE is vitally important for the preservation of woodland biodiversity. This is especially pertinent given that the most recent indicator for woodland birds shows a 28% decline since the 1970 baseline.

The Government has since published a rebuttal of this “uninformed and misleading speculation”, stating that Clause 21 will not be connected to the new public body which is to be established to manage the PFE. The Government commented further, stating that “the underlying policy intention [of Clause 21] is to make it easier for surplus and redundant brownfield land to be sold and help build more homes.” Dan Rogerson MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Water, Forestry, Rural Affairs and Resource Management, also defended Clause 21 at a recent All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Biodiversity event on the future management of the PFE after Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, challenged the impact the clause will have on woodland biodiversity.

Regarding invasive species, the Bill would empower local authorities to require landowners to control or eradicate invasive, non-native species from their land. Similar legislation is currently in place for dealing with pest species such as rats. However, in an open letter to the Government published in Nature magazine, 24 leading scientists have called for this aspect of the Bill to be re-written as “in its present form, it could lead to an irreversible loss of native biodiversity.”

The concern of the signatories of the letter pertains to the Government’s definition of invasive, non-native species. The Bill states that “a species is ‘non-native’ if it is listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 9 [of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981], or in the case of a species of animal, it is not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state.”

This definition could therefore be used to classify species once found in the UK but now extinct, such as the European Beaver (Castor fiber), as being non-native and thereby prevent or challenge their reintroduction. It is also unclear what the future status might be of species that naturally migrate into the UK from Europe as a consequence of climate change.  Schedule 9 also includes a number of species that were once extinct in the UK and have since been reintroduced, such as the Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and White-tailed Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla), as well as some BAP priority species like the corn crake (Crex crex).

The Government state that the premise for the inclusion of these powers is to tackle the threat that invasive species pose to native biodiversity. However, it is clear that the Bill in its current form is failing to convince that these new powers will actually work for biodiversity rather than against it.

The Infrastructure Bill started its examination in the House of Lords, where it is currently at the Reporting stage. The opportunities for amendments to the Bill in the Lords are drawing to an end, with a final round of detailed examination expected to take place on 3 November. Following a third reading in the Lords, the Bill will pass through to the House of Commons where further debate and examination will take place with the potential for amendments to be considered.

Posted in Biodiversity, Birds, Conservation, Environment, Forestry Commission, Forests, Government, House of Lords, Invasive Species, Land Use, Parliament, Planning, Planning Policy | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Improving Defra’s National Pollinator Strategy: Government Response

Back in March Defra released the draft National Pollinator Strategy for consultation. The broad aims of the strategy, to “safeguard pollinators and their essential pollination role, reflecting their importance and the many pressures they face”, were initially received as a welcome step in the right direction for the future protection of pollinators. However, in their report on 16 July, the Environmental Audit Committee highlighted a number of potential improvements to the strategy, including most notably a change in attitude of the Government. The Government has now published their response to the Committee’s report.

The Committee’s report, which provided a collection of very strong recommendations for Defra to work on, has been met by a resilient response from the Government which reaffirms their initial position on many aspects of the Strategy.

Much of the Committee’s criticism was directed at the government’s stance on neonicotinoid pesticides. In 2013 MPs memorably voted down proposals to ban three neonicotinoids despite a recommendation from the Committee for precautionary measures to do so while the full effects of the pesticides were investigated. The European Commission subsequently imposed a two-year ban on using the pesticides on bee-attracting crops, despite UK opposition. The Committee’s report called on Government to “draw a line under the neonicotinoid ban by making it clear that the UK accepts the European risk assessments underpinning the ban.”

However, in their response the Government state that they disagreed with the Committee’s conclusions about the rationale for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides and rejected the call not to challenge the EU neonicotinoid ban when it is reviewed in 2015. The response states “we opposed these [EU] restrictions because our assessment was (and remains) that the evidence did not point to risks to pollinators that would justify the proposed restrictions.”

The Committee were also highly critical of Defra’s reliance on industry to fund vitally important research. They highlighted concerns that commercial industries were being empowered to generate research that is intended to contribute to a review of the ban on neonicotinoids. The Committee echoed the reservations of many witnesses, fearing that the research might be seen by the public as “biased”. The Committee called for the Government to ensure that independent controls are in place to monitor research and that the results are peer-reviewed and published without delay.

The Government’s response to this matter stated that they have emphasised the need for commercial industries to follow EU rules on research done for regulatory purposes and that they acknowledge the “value in having the key regulatory studies in the public domain” and are “considering how this could best be done”.

The Government has, however, stated that it agrees with the Committee’s call for the Strategy to set a baseline for monitoring the plight of pollinators, the need for clarity about Integrated Pest Management, and the importance of public engagement.

Yesterday a general debate on the National Pollinator Strategy took place in the House of Commons Chamber. The debate, which was scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee, was opened by Sarah Newton MP who stated that “there is absolutely no doubt of the need for a national pollinator strategy”. The Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth later said that she would like the government to ensure that they “do not override some decisions on the basis of a reliance on commercial rather than scientific research” and to also “put greater emphasis on taking pollinators into account in its planning guidance”.

Dr Alan Whithead, Labour MP for Southampton Test, urged “a rapid passage towards a final national pollinator strategy”.

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Conservation, Consultation, Defra, Ecology, Economics, Environment, Government, Parliament, Pollinators, Science Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making the UK “the best place to do science”


The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), of which the British Ecological Society is a member, has this week launched three policy briefings which together comprise a “toolkit” for government to achieve its aims of making the UK the “best place to do science”. Based on consultations across the breadth of the science and engineering community, the toolkit outlines key actions that could be taken over the course of the next Parliament to enable the sector to “operate at its full potential”. The toolkit consists of three policy briefings covering Science and Engineering Investment, Science and Engineering Education and Skills, and Science and Engineering in Government, outlining priority and supporting actions that could be taken in each area.

With respect to Science and Engineering Investment, the policy briefing centres around an overarching action of committing to a long-term investment strategy for science and engineering, constituting an “upward trajectory for government investment” that “exceeds predicted growth as part of a 10 year framework for investment”. UK government investment in science and engineering research and development is currently below the OECD average, and the briefing argues that raising investment to a level comparable with other nations within a stable framework will “enable the UK to reap the economic and societal rewards of its strength in science and engineering, driving UK innovation and creating skilled and valued jobs”.

The Science and Engineering Education and Skills briefing focuses on three main areas: 5-19 education, higher education and the STEM workforce. In terms of 5-19 education, the major priority identified is policy stability, enabling schools to focus on teaching young people rather than needing to adapt to complex system changes. Other priorities include the requirement for all primary schools to have science subject leaders, and the inclusion of practical skills across all secondary science curricula.

In higher education, the major action identified is a commitment to providing sufficient funding to meet the additional costs associated with science and engineering courses. A further priority is reform to postgraduate funding to ensure that the system is fair, accessible and conducive to producing a highly skilled workforce. In terms of the STEM workforce, the briefing outlines the need for a proactive commitment to ensuring diversity, including unconscious bias training for Research Councils UK grant awarding boards and panels, and immigration policy that supports science and innovation policy through enabling and encouraging highly skilled migration.

Finally, Science and Engineering in Government outlines a number of actions that could be taken to strengthen the use of an evidence-informed approach to policymaking across the whole of government. In order to embed independent scientific advice at the heart of policymaking, the briefing recommends that the Government Office for Science and the post of Government Chief Scientific Adviser are relocated to the Cabinet Office, and that all departments appoint their own Chief Scientific Adviser. The briefing also places an emphasis on transparency, asking that the government publish all responses to consultations to allow greater clarity in understanding how policy decisions have been reached, and also that all publicly-funded government research is made freely and easily accessible online.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering Toolkit will be sent to the leaders of all political parties represented in the House of Commons, asking them to set out their relevant manifesto commitments. The responses will be published on the CaSE website before the end of the year.

You can view the full toolkit on the CaSE website.

 

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Protecting Scotland’s Biodiversity: Monitoring in Action

On 2nd and 3rd October, over 100 scientists, policymakers and conservationists gathered at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh for Protecting Scotland’s Biodiversity: Monitoring in Action, the second Scottish Biodiversity Conference. A joint meeting of the British Ecological Society, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and the Science and Technical Group of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, co-sponsored by the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, this year’s conference focused on the technical and scientific challenges related to monitoring and data collection arising from the refresh of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.

Professor Bill Sutherland, President of the BES, set the scene on the Thursday evening with his introductory lecture: Conservation Scotland: New Problems and New Solutions. Central to Bill’s talk were two core themes that would re-emerge throughout the conference: the need to be able to put the evidence emerging from monitoring and ecological research to better use through making it more integrated, accessible and easy to interpret; and the opportunities afforded by new technologies, from drones to mobile apps, that enable greater citizen participation in monitoring, and offer new scope for filling gaps in our knowledge.

The first session of 3rd October set out to “demystify monitoring”: why do we need it, and what happens to all that data? Ed Mackey, of Scottish Natural Heritage, outlined the cross-agency Scottish Environmental Monitoring Strategy, which aims to improve coordination and prioritisation in order to more effectively address gaps in monitoring effort and inform policy. Ed and his SNH colleague Paul Watkinson then highlighted two ways in which monitoring data is being put to use: to draw conclusions as to the state of the environment in Scotland through the collation of biodiversity indicators to asses ecosystem health, and through the innovative new Natural Capital Asset Index, which provides a simple way of communicating the state of Scotland’s natural capital.

Collecting and curating the data is vital, but how does this effect on biodiversity conservation on the ground? The next session explored this question through three case studies. Mark Eaton, of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science demonstrated how monitoring has enabled the RSPB to set conservation priorities, test and refine solutions and evaluate effectiveness, with examples of species success stories including the corncrake and red kite. However he also highlighted the ongoing gaps in data that hinder assessments of progress towards conservation goals, as illustrated in last year’s State of Nature report.

 

 

One potential way of filling in these gaps was showcased by Rob Ogden of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who outlined the potential of eDNA techniques to revolutionise monitoring by extracting and identifying DNA samples from the environment, and thus decreasing our reliance on a diminishing supply of identification expertise. Finally Andrew Bachell of SNH raised some of the problems with current metrics and methods for monitoring and assessing favourable conservation status, arguing that the current system tells us little about species and habitats outside of protected areas, and does not align with landscape and ecosystem scale policy priorities.

 

 

After workshops exploring key topics in more detail, the final plenary session of the day returned to the question of the exciting new frontiers in monitoring opened up by digital technologies, and set a hopeful tone for the end of the conference. Tom August for the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology examined the pros and cons of citizen science, which while offering huge benefits in terms increased amounts of data and public engagement, also carries with it difficulties in terms of data verification and biases. Tools to cope with these challenges are being developed by the Digital Conservation strand of the dot.rural project, including the use of automated systems for verification and participant feedback, highlighted by Danny Heptinstall. Finally Scott Newey of the James Hutton Institute presented a timely reminder of the pitfalls of relying on technology, outlining some of the limitations of camera trap methods.

So what next for biodiversity monitoring in Scotland? The monitoring challenges are legion: the gaps in our knowledge and the limited resources available to fill them, the pressure to make data more accessible and able to inform policy, and the need to more effectively integrate existing monitoring schemes to better track change across the environment. Yet where there are challenges, there are also solutions. Running throughout the conference was a palpable sense that through an increasing openness to collaboration and dialogue, and the embrace of innovative new methods and technologies, Scotland is increasingly equipped to rise to the monitoring challenge.

If you are interested in engaging with biodiversity policy in Scotland, why not join the BES Scottish Policy Group?

Posted in Biodiversity, Biodiversity Strategy, Conference, Ecology, Environmental Monitoring, Scotland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Who, the What, and the How of Policymaking in Scotland: Reflections on the Introduction to Policy in Scotland Workshop

What exactly do we mean by “policy”? What role does science play in its formulation? How can scientists effectively communicate with policymakers? What do policymakers want from scientists? And does this work the same way in Holyrood as it does in Westminster?

All of these questions and more were answered – some with more difficulty than others – during the BES Scottish Policy Group’s inaugural “Introduction to Policy in Scotland” workshop held in the stunning surroundings of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland on 2October 2014. Resisting the temptation to spend the whole day panda-watching (that’s what coffee breaks are for….), over thirty ecologists, working in both research and practice, but predominantly in the early stages of their careers, gathered for an eye-opening insight into the world of policy.

The morning saw our panel of expert speakers offer a suite of unique perspectives based on their considerable experience working in policy: Graeme Cook, Head of Research and Enquiries at the Scottish Parliament Information Centre; Neil Ritchie of the Scottish Government; Maggie Gill, Professor of Integrated Land Use at the University of Aberdeen and former Chief Scientific Adviser for Rural Affairs and the Environment to the Scottish Government; Ian Bainbridge, Head of Science at Scottish Natural Heritage; and Andy Myles, Parliamentary Officer at Scottish Environment Link. While each offered different insights into the policy process, a number of common threads ran through their insights.

Front and centre throughout the day was an emphasis on communication. If cutting-edge research or crucial evidence is not communicated in an effective and appropriate way, it will fall on deaf ears. For ecologists engaging with policymakers, this means mastering the art of simplifying complexity. Policymakers neither want nor need extensively detailed information. They want digestible, bite-sized chunks that summarise the most important information in a short, accessible manner – a two-page briefing, not a two-hour scientific lecture. They need conclusions, not a lengthy methodological treatise.

Second, it is vital that scientists spend some time familiarising themselves with how policy works. An awareness of the differences between government (developing and implementing policy) and parliament (legislating and scrutinising the work of government) is vital, as is knowledge of the different political processes and the appropriate channels to engage with. In Scotland, environmental policy is largely devolved to Holyrood, where parliamentary committees are strong and offer an accessible means of engagement. On occasions, engaging directly with parliament or government may not be the most effective way to influence; working with learned societies or NGOs can provide another route.

However, it is important to recognise that science is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to policymaking. It is not simply the case that communicating the evidence effectively and finding the right route in will lead to a change of course. Science is a key part of the policy-development process, but so are ethics, political philosophy, societal values and political judgement. As such, engagement between scientists and policymakers cannot be a one-way process, and creating fora for genuine knowledge exchange, where the two groups can build relationships and learn to see the world from one another’s perspective is crucial. Science advisers in particular can play an important role in bridging the gap between scientists and policymakers.

Post-lunch, and post-pandas, participants reconvened to think about how they might put these lessons into practice, working on a group exercise to develop the outlines of a policy briefing for MSPs on the topic of synthetic biology and then reflecting on their own personal action plans and areas for development, with additional inspiration from two BES  members who have seized the opportunities available for engaging with policy: Rob Brooker, Chair of the BES Scottish Policy Group, and Danny Heptinstall, the most recent recipient of the BES POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) Fellowship. The attendees left enthused and inspired, with a sense that engaging with policymakers is both possible and achievable.

The BES Policy Team offers a number of ways for BES members and other ecologists to engage with policy. You could join our Scottish Policy Group, add your details to our expertise database, apply to one of our training schemes or just get in touch to find out more. You can download the presentations from the workshop here.

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“Bridging the Knowing-Doing Gap”: Lessons for Engaging with Policymakers

The thorny challenge of addressing the mismatch between the ecological knowledge generated by scientific researchers and that applied by practitioners – be they conservation organisations, policymakers or businesses – has been widely recognised, but remains a work in progress. How do we bridge the knowing-doing gap?

A new special profile in the Journal of Applied Ecology seeks to advance this debate through a series of papers first presented last year at the British Ecological Society’s centenary celebrations at INTECOL, in a symposium entitled “Putting applied ecology into practice: knowledge and needs for the 21st century”. The symposium sought to provide a platform for practitioners to share their insights into what they require from applied ecological science and to highlight successful examples of its practical application.

In his editorial, Philip Hulme outlines some of the barriers to effective knowledge exchange and the limitations of current approaches. He emphasises the need for a genuinely two-way process, not merely a case of translating and transferring the “explicit knowledge” contained within scientific papers and other research outputs, but also of understanding the “tacit knowledge” – local, first-hand and individual – possessed by practitioners.

What does this mean for ecologists – and other scientists – seeking to engage with policymakers? Ian Bainbridge, Head of Science at Scottish Natural Heritage, further explores this question in his paper based on insight and examples from the devolved administration in Scotland. Bainbridge suggests that while it is frequently acknowledged that scientific papers are a poor method for communicating successfully with policy makers, scientists are often given little guidance or training as to how this could be achieved.

Whilst policymakers are increasingly citing the need for an evidence-based approach, providing useful evidence in practice requires an understanding of their needs and perspective. Bainbridge outlines nine key elements that policymakers look for in scientific evidence and advice:

  • Understanding: an appreciation of their policy needs and direction and an understanding of what is politically possible.
  • Familiarity: a good understanding of how government works.
  • Relevance: evidence focused on the questions the policymakers are seeking to address.
  • Summary: evidence provided in plain English and summarised in two sides of A4.
  • Simplicity: if in doubt simplify; most policy makers do not have scientific backgrounds.
  • Brevity: keep points focused and meetings short, not a two-hour lecture.
  • Certainty: include levels of certainty and probability.
  • Timeliness: the ability to work to shorter political timescales measured in hours or days
  • Credibility: knowing that evidence is reliable and credible through knowledge of scientific standing and publication record.

The paper concludes that it is crucial for ecologists to engage early with policymakers, and to build long-term relationships through engaging in fora which enable dialogue with all of the parties interested in an issue.

This week’s BES Introduction to Policy in Scotland workshop, organised by the Scottish Policy Group offers one such opportunity for researchers to understand the needs of policymakers, to be followed by Protecting Scotland’s Biodiversity, a conference bringing together scientists, policymakers and practitioners. To contribute to and follow the discussions on 2 and 3 October, follow the Twitter hashtag #scotbio14.


Posted in BES, Ecology, Journals, Research, Science Policy, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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