"The BES' support to the TBA's field course students has literally helped launch their careers."

Rosie Trevelyan Dir, Tropical Biology Association

The Spending Review: what does it mean for ecology and ecologists?

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has announced the government’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement, the first since the General Election in May returned a Conservative majority administration. While the Autumn Statement – an update to the government’s financial plans in between budgets – occurs annually, the Spending Review occurs only at the start of a Parliament, and will set out spending plans for the next five years.

According to the Treasury, the Spending Review outlines how £4 trillion of government funds will be spent on public services. As part of this, the government determines the amount of money allocated to each department over the course of the Parliament; budgets that since 2010 have mostly seen significant cuts. Decisions taken as part of the Spending Review will have major impacts on government policy over the next five years.

So what were the most significant announcements in this year’s Spending Review for the ecological community? There are two areas of policy of major interest to ecologists: scientific research funding, and environmental policy (mostly delivered through Defra). Overall, the Spending Review contained slightly fewer cuts to public spending than many expected, due to better than anticipated figures on tax receipts and debt repayments.

Scientific Research Funding

In terms of research funding, the take-home headline from today’s announcement is a positive one: the science budget of £4.7 billion will be protected in real terms, rising by over £500 million by the end of the Parliament. This represents a real improvement from the last Parliament, when the science budget received a “flat cash” settlement, with funding maintained but not increasing with inflation. However, this budget includes a new £1.5 billion Global Challenges fund, “to ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries whilst developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”: will this lead to other areas of research funding being cut?

Other significant science and higher education policy announcements included:

  • The implementation of the recommendations of the Nurse Review of the Research Councils, which recommended the creation of a new body, Research UK to provide strategic direction, cross-Government and cross-sector co-ordination for research. Individual Research Councils would report into Research UK, but would retain their autonomy in a manner akin to “different faculties within universities”. Innovate UK will also be integrated into Research UK, to build on links between the research and business communities.
  • Maintenance of the science capital funding commitment of £6.9 billion between 2015-2021.
  • A review of the Research Excellence Framework in order to “examine how to simplify and strengthen funding on the basis of excellence”.
  • An increase in financial support for postgraduate students, with loans available to all postgraduates under the age of 60 from 2016-17, new part-time maintenance loans and tuition loans for students wishing to do a second degree in a STEM subject.

Environmental Policy

Defra will see a significant budget cut of 15% over the course of the Parliament, still substantially less than many commentators anticipated. These cuts are to be delivered through an “ambitious efficiencies programme”, with increased sharing of back office functions across its many agencies. Little detail is available at this stage as to how these savings will impact on organisations such as Natural England and the Environment Agency.

The departmental settlement includes:

  • Protection of flood defence funding, including the £2.3 billion capital investment programme.
  • Over £130 million capital investment in Defra’s science estates and equipment, prioritising animal and plant disease prevention capacity, and the 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) will receive £5 million funding to improve its headquarters in Lowestoft, with the possibility of further investment.
  • No repeat of previous plans to privatise the public forest estate, with funding protected and over 11 million trees to be planted over the course of the Parliament.
  • Funding for National Parks and Areas of outstanding Natural Beauty protected, with National Parks “given legal flexibilities to allow them to build sustainable, long-term revenue streams and boost growth in rural areas.”

The Spending Review provides an outline of the government’s spending plans for the next five years, but remains inevitably high-level. As the new Conservative government beds in, the last few months have seen a raft of policy announcements in both science and environmental policy, from the 25-year plan for the environment to the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, and it will take time for the impact of these new policies and spending plans to be fully revealed.

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

Teaching Excellence Framework

On Friday 6th November, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published its Higher Education Green Paper, “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”. Fulfilling our Potential outlines a series of reforms that BIS states will “boost teaching standards, support more people into university from disadvantaged backgrounds, and ensure better value for money and employment prospects for students”, including details of the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Here we highlight the aspects relevant to BES members and on which we are beginning to develop our response to the consultation, to be submitted via the Royal Society of Biology and independently as the BES.  Please note that text aims to reflect the tone of the paper itself and is not our opinion of what we think the TEF will achieve.

  • Providers of HE should be open to employer and learned society involvement in curricula design; presumably this is BIS supporting increased accreditation of courses.
  • There needs to be a rebalancing of the “pull between teaching and research” although the paper seeks to affirm that incentives to improve teaching should not be at the expense of research.
  • TEF results should be used by students to inform their choice of HEI, and employers should be able to consider such results in their recruitment.
  • Making it easier for new providers to enter the market who can provide programmes that are more attractive to hard to reach communities and groups not currently well served.
  • TEF is designed to encourage excellent teaching for all students and:
    • Build a culture where teaching and research are equal;
    • Provide accessible information to judge teaching quality;
    • Recognise HEIs that do most to welcome students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • TEF should change HEIs behaviour; successful HEIs will be rewarded by being able to raise tuition fees. Those that do not meet required teaching standards will succumb to market forces and leave the sector.
  • TEF will evolve over time with more metrics added year on year for a phased implementation.
  • In year 1: “Level 1 TEF” will be awarded to those HEIs with a current successful QA review, this will last for three years and allows HEIs to raise tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017/18.
  • In year 2: Higher levels of TEF can be awarded following a successful assessment.  HEIs would apply for assessment and levels achieved would last for up to three years, and could result in fee caps, loan cap uplifts or other incentives

Much of the consultation focuses on whether the proposals will deliver the aspirations for social mobility and teaching quality and we would be grateful for members to provide comments as we develop our response.

You can read further comment from the Times Higher Education Supplement, WONKHE, The Independent, HEFCE, The Guardian,

Get involved

Summary of questions:  please do feel free to draft any comments in this word document summarising the main consultation questions and email back to Karen@britishecologicalsociety.org

If you’re attending the Annual Meeting we will be holding a meeting on Monday 14th December at the EICC,  5.15 pm in Cromdale Hall to discuss any comments you may have and present our initial draft response.  Please do come along.

Posted in BIS, Consultation, Education, Education Policy, England, Government, Science Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The future of the Nature Directives: implementation not revision?

This week saw a significant development in the debate over the future of the EU’s most important conservation legislation, as nine Member States called for the Nature Directives to be maintained in their current form. In a letter to Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the environment ministers of nine European countries – Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain – state that amending the directives “would not be expedient”, and that “greater emphasis on implementation” would be a better means of achieving global and European biodiversity targets. They argue that amending the directives would create legal uncertainty and divert resources away from the important process of implementation.

The letter comes at a crucial time in the REFIT “Fitness Check” process that has dominated conservation policy debates across Europe this year. The review seeks to assess whether the legislative framework provided by the Birds and Habitats Directives (collectively the Nature Directives) remains “fit for purpose”, with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker placing the possibility of revision and merger on the table. The ministers’ intervention comes ahead of an important conference in Brussels next month, when the initial findings of the Commission’s consultation process will be presented to stakeholders.

This consultation elicited an unprecedented response from European citizens, with over 520,000 people and organisations – including the BES – submitting their views in a clear demonstration of public support for conservation. The Commission also engaged in a wide-ranging evidence gathering exercise, taking submissions from Governments, NGOs and businesses in each Member State. In the UK, the BES was one of 100 environmental NGOs that contributed to and supported the submission on behalf of the Joint Links (Wildlife and Countryside Link, Scottish Environment Link, Wales Environment Link and Northern Ireland Environment Link).

The overarching conclusion of the Joint Links submission supports the argument made in this week’s letter: that the outcome of the Fitness Check should be improved implementation of the Nature Directives rather than wholesale revision. Importantly, the balance of evidence suggests that when implemented well, the Nature Directives have a significant positive impact on biodiversity. New research published this year in Conservation Letters reinforces previous studies by finding that species afforded special protection under the Birds Directive demonstrate significantly better population trends than other birds, even when additional factors such as climate change are considered. Similarly, this year’s State of Nature in the EU report found that the more fully a species or habitat is covered by the Natura 2000 network of protected sites – created by the Directives – the better its conservation status.

That is not to say that the Directives are working perfectly: if current trends continue, we will fail to meet the target of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. Yet it is clear that implementation is far from complete: only 50% of Natura 2000 sites even have proper management plans in place, and the Society of Conservation Biologists has identified the need to improve analysis and monitoring of implementation whilst improving the use of the latest scientific research to inform effective conservation planning and management.

An additional strength of the argument for avoiding changing the Nature Directives is the stability it offers business. As the ministers’ letter highlights, the Directives provide legal certainty, and those affected by them “have learned how to deal with [their] provisions”. Energy UK’s recent position statement on the Directives illustrates the value businesses place on this certainty: “re-opening the Directives would introduce a degree of unnecessary uncertainty to energy project developments that would damage investor confidence at a time when it is vital to deliver new energy infrastructure”.

A Defra review of the Directives in 2012 found that the Directives strike a good balance between environmental protection and development, stating that “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.” Recent innovations – such as a new approach to great crested newt conservation being piloted by Natural England – have demonstrated how conflicts can be reduced through changes to implementation without altering legislation.

While this week’s developments suggest a move away from the prospect of the Nature Directives being opened up, significant uncertainty remains. Although the Member States openly calling for the maintenance of the legal status quo represent almost two-thirds of the EU population, nineteen countries, including the UK, are yet to express a clear view. With the Commission’s final report not expected until early 2016, the future of Directives will remain at the top of the European conservation agenda for the foreseeable future.

Posted in 2020 Biodiversity Target, Biodiversity, Birds, Conservation, EU | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The International Year of Soils – 10 months in

By Sam MacNab, Communications Rep., Scottish Policy Group

Soil might not be the most glamorous subject within ecology but with 7.3 billion people dependent on it for food production it’s certainly one of the most important. Despite this, intensive farming practices at home and abroad are compromising the ability of this delicate and complex substrate to perform its biological functions, leading the UN to declare 2015 as the “International Year of Soils”.

International Year of Soils

A study by the University of Sheffield in 2014 predicted that the UK may have just 100 harvests left if we continue to neglect soil as we do now, whilst in parts of the UK soil is being lost at a rate of five tonnes per hectare each year. Similarly the UN has estimated that the world on average could have as few as 60 harvests left. It is for these reasons that the International Year of Soils was a necessity to promote awareness and conservation around the globe.

The launch of the International Year of Soils took place in December 2014: now in its final month it is worth looking back at what actions have been taken by the UK and Scottish Governments over the past year, to raise the issue and help reverse the decline in soil quality and quantity.

The first measure, taken in January, was for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to publish a new and improved set of soil standards for farmers. Meeting these standards is a prerequisite for receiving any payments under the Common Agricultural Policy’s greening or agri-environment schemes, or for remaining part of the basic payment scheme. Such improvements in standards is welcome, but it remains to be seen how well they will be met and to how much physical protection of soils it will correspond.

Closer to home, the Scottish Government developed a programme of work and events with the aim of educating policy makers, land managers and the general public about the benefits of soil as well as to promote the expertise Scotland currently has in soil science.

The Scottish Year of Food and Drink was also created to coincide with the International Year of Soils to recognise the dependency of this sector on healthy soils.

These actions at the government level have been complemented by a variety of local level organisations putting on a range of events around the country over the last year to raise awareness of this important issue among both decision-makers and the wider public.

With just over a month to go there are still a number of events to take place and details can be found on the Scotland’s Environment website.

The International Year of Soils has certainly been a landmark for raising the profile of this often overlooked issue and the momentum must be continued if soils are to be given the legislative and physical protection required, enabling us to sustainably produce food for generations to come.

Posted in Agriculture, International, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Protecting Scotland’s “clean, green brand?”: The BES GM Debate

In recent months the debate over the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has returned to the fore in the UK, as Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have announced new “bans” on GM crops. But what are the changes in regulation that have precipitated these announcements, and what will they mean in practice?

The decisions derive from a change in European Union legislation (Directive 2015/412) which came into force in March 2015. Under the EU’s precautionary approach, any GMO must go through a stringent authorisation procedure, including a scientific risk assessment led by the European Food Safety Agency, and a final vote by Member States. This procedure hasn’t changed. However, Member States have now been given significantly more provision to opt-out of allowing the cultivation of an EU-approved GMO on their soil.

Member States can opt-out at two different stages. First, when a new GMO is going through the authorisation process, they can ask for the geographical scope of the authorisation to be restricted: the GMO would never be authorised in that country. Second, they can prohibit or restrict the cultivation of a GM crop that is already authorised: the GMO would be retrospectively banned. Significantly, while previously Member States could only restrict the cultivation of a previously authorised GMO on the basis of new evidence of risk to the environment or human health, this restriction can now be applied on a wide range of economic, policy and political grounds.

Member States were given a deadline of 3rd October to opt-out of the cultivation of crops already approved by the EU, or currently going through the approval process, and this opportunity has been widely embraced. In addition to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, seventeen Member States, including Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, and the Belgian region of Wallonia, have exercised their ability to opt-out. GMOs will still be permitted in England, as well as countries such as Spain, Portugal and Sweden. In practice, the decision will have little immediate impact on farmers, as only one GMO has ever been approved for cultivation in the EU, a maize that is predominantly farmed in Spain.

Scotland’s “clean, green brand”

Scotland was the first nation in the UK to announce that it would ban GMOs, and the reasoning that the Scottish Government gave was echoed in Cardiff and Belfast. In explaining her government’s decision, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was explicit that the decision “was not based on scientific considerations but, rather one which took into account the wider economic ramifications that growing GM crops might have for Scotland.” Richard Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, argued that banning GMOs would protect the country’s “clean and green brand”, and reflected a lack of public appetite for the technology and the potentially negative economic impacts of GMO cultivation for the Scottish food and drink sector.

In being clear that their choice was based not on science, but on political and economic values, the Scottish Government’s decision provides a reminder that policy-making will never be based entirely on scientific evidence. However, was the decision as well-informed by evidence as it possibly could have been? A new advice paper from the Royal Society of Edinburgh suggests not, arguing that the decision made insufficient use of scientific advice and failed to take into account new developments in GM technologies and the latest evidence on public opinion. However, while this view was supported in a letter signed by 28 scientific organisations, many environmental NGOs welcomed the Government’s decision.

Join the discussion: The BES GM Debate

With the debate about GMOs set to remain a contentious topic in Scotland and beyond, the BES Annual Meeting in Edinburgh this December offers the idea opportunity to examine this issue. As part of the Annual Meeting Fringe we’ll be hosting a free public debate at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Wednesday 16th December, bringing together a panel of diverse voices to look beyond polarised views and consider the science, politics, and ecological implications – both good and bad – of GM technologies. Chaired by Professor Alan Gray, confirmed speakers include The Roslin Institute’s Professor Helen Sang, and Pete Ritchie of Nourish Scotland. Register now and join the discussion!

Posted in BES, BES Annual Meeting, Conference, Event, GM, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making urban ecology count

One day in 2008, somebody, somewhere, packed their bags to move from the countryside to the city, and we became a majority urban world. With 54% of the world’s population now living in urban areas, cities have become the site of most people’s daily interactions with plants, animals and ecosystems, and as such the science of urban ecology, and its application, is assuming ever-more relevance to people’s lives.

In the recent Ecological Reviews volume on the topic, Kevin Gaston argues that urban ecology has “come of age” at the start of the 21st century, as ecologists and others have moved away from the assumption of cities as ecological wastelands, towards a deeper understanding of the richness of urban ecosystems, their unique properties, and the benefits they deliver for people.  Urban ecology has a vital role to play in tackling the ‘wicked problem’ of urban environmental management, demanding an interdisciplinary approach to understanding combined socio-ecological systems.

“Making London Nature Smart”

There are few places where the challenge and potential of delivering urban spaces that work for both people and wildlife is more apparent than in London. The largest city in Western Europe, with a growing population of over 8.3 million, London is also 47% green space, home to over 13,000 recorded species and 1574 sites of nature conservation interest. Could London be a world leader in urban nature conservation?

That was the topic for discussion at the recent Making London Nature Smart symposium, hosted by the Zoological Society of London, and in many ways, the day’s discussions demonstrated that the city is already leading the way. Pioneering organisations such as the London Wildlife Trust have long spearheaded efforts to protect the city’s green spaces and engage its diverse communities, and new technologies for monitoring biodiversity whilst involving citizens in the process are perfectly suited to a global city with an educated populace, access to technology and ample opportunities for collaboration. Presentations throughout the day showcased impressive examples of urban ecology in action, from innovative corporate partnerships delivering biodiversity positive developments, to new methodologies for effectively monitoring invasive species.

While the range of initiatives taking place across London – led by researchers, NGOs, volunteers, businesses and government – was demonstrably impressive, one key message from the symposium was that joining up these projects into a strategic, coherent whole represented an ongoing challenge. One compelling vision for how this might be achieved was presented at the symposium in the form of the Greater London National Park City. Presented by Daniel Raven-Ellison, the vision of the National Park City campaign is to apply the principles of the UK’s national parks – conserving and enhancing natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, whilst promoting the enjoyment of the park’s special qualities by the public – to London. The proposal, which does not suggest additional planning powers, but would provide a focal point and organising principle for activity across the city, has already received support from mayoral candidates Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan ahead of next year’s election.

Thinking local

When we talk about interactions between science and policy, we tend to think first of the national or international scale: Westminster, Whitehall, Holyrood, Brussels. Yet when it comes to urban ecology, the majority of decisions that determine vital issues such as spatial planning, site protection and green infrastructure, are taken at the city, or in the case of London, the borough, scale. However, a recent report commissioned by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts found that many local authorities in England lack a coherent approach to biodiversity within their local planning strategies. As the Association of Local Government Ecologists has reported, approximately two-thirds of local authorities do not have in-house ecological expertise, and against a backdrop of continuing budget cuts, this capacity will continue to be squeezed.

At the Making London Nature Smart symposium, it was noted that few local government officials were in attendance; there appears to be a clear need to build better connections between ecological scientists and policy-makers at this scale. As urban ecology continues to mature, these links will be vital if this growing knowledge base is to make a real difference to all city inhabitants – human or otherwise.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conference, Conservation, Ecology, England, Land Use, Planning Policy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The NFU, the EU and you: what can ecologists learn from the National Farming Union’s stock take?

By Amy G. Fensome, Policy Intern

In preparation for what should be a particularly lively period for British politics in the run-up to the EU referendum, expected before the end of 2017, the House of Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology have launched an inquiry to assess the influence of EU membership on UK science and ask “what did Europe ever do for us?”

To answer this, the British Ecological Society is currently gathering and collating evidence including information provided by its members. This will feed into a wider response from the UK’s bioscience community, overseen by the Royal Society of Biology, which will be submitted to the Lords Select Committee Inquiry.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has been quick off the mark with its own response to the prospect of an in/out referendum releasing their guide to “UK Farming’s Relationship with the EU”. Topics covered include the influence of labour availability, EU legislation and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) scheme as well as an overview of other “relationships” the UK could negotiate if it were to leave the EU such as being part of the European Economic Area.

The NFU points out that they will not, and cannot, take a particular stance on the in/out debate but that they can assess what they know and help their members make an informed choice come 2017.

And what they know is this:

  • 7 of the top 10 export countries are within the EU
  • In 2014, UK farmers received €3,084bn in CAP basic payments
  • Between 2014 and 2020 farmers also have access to an additional €5.2bn for rural development projects
  • Between 2007 and 2014 the UK received €6.8 Billion in research funding

So what can we, as ecologists, learn from the NFU’s response and what questions should we be asking in terms of policy and conservation?

1. The Common Agricultural Policy determines how 75% of the UK landscaped is managed

Most of the UK is agricultural land and how this land is managed is to an extent determined by incentives built in to the CAP and Rural Development schemes.  So these payments, and the regulations they are contingent upon, determine the fate of much of the UK’s landscape and biodiversity. As ecologists we should engage with the farming industry and discuss both the in and out scenarios and ask: how might farming practices change without CAP incentives and what impact on biodiversity might these changes have? Are there other ways, including incentives, that might enable farmers to feed a growing population, to be profitable, whilst minimising (or even reversing) the damage done to the UK’s biodiversity? What is the relationship between financial stability and profitability, and farmers making “green” choices above and beyond those required by the CAP?

2. It’s not all about the EU

It is not only a question of “what does Europe do for us?”,  we should also be thinking about how the UK Government interprets or adopts any agreements or laws made in Brussels. The example of “modulation”, whereby the UK Government allocates funds away from direct payments to farmers (or pillar 1) into Rural Development schemes (pillar 2) is one way that the UK Government mediates the relationship between the UK and the EU.

3. An opportunity to take stock and plan ahead

The NFU have produced a very clear, concise and useful document which is essentially a stock-take of what the EU means for farmers. Leading up to the referendum similar stock-taking practices are, or will soon be, taking place across various organisations, charities and governmental bodies. Whether the UK opts to stay in or leave the EU, these stock-taking exercises are extremely valuable outside the discussions about the referendum and beyond 2017. In terms of UK conservation, this is a fantastic opportunity for diverse organisations to take a good look at existing practices and legislation (whether home-grown or Brussels-sprouted) that either directly or indirectly affect biodiversity and together assess how effective they are at protecting biodiversity, how coherent or contradictory they might be, and to consider the views and experiences of those who put policy into practice, including farmers. The ongoing REFIT “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives has already highlighted the need for better implementation to support well designed legislation.  By asking “what did the Europeans ever do for us?” we could go some way to answering the questions “what are we doing and what can we do better?”.

We would welcome members’ views on any of these areas before 16th October

  • How does the EU influence your work? How would your work be affected if the UK were to leave the EU? What impact do EU regulations have on your research?
  • Funding: Do you currently receive EU research funding? How significant has EU funding been over the course of your career?
  • Collaboration: Do you participate in any EU collaborations? What role has the EU played in facilitating collaboration? What impact does EU membership have on staff and student recruitment?

If readers are aware of any other organisations, charities or bodies preparing similar documents for their members, please contact Amy G. Fensome at policy@britishecologicalsociety.org


Posted in Agriculture, Common Agricultural Policy, Conservation, EU, House of Lords, Science Funding, Select Committee | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Introducing the BES Scottish Policy Group: informing environment and science policy in Scotland

By Isabel Jones, Communications Rep., BES Scottish Policy Group

A group of active BES members make up the BES Scottish Policy Group (BES-SPG), and we work to promote the use of ecological knowledge in Scottish policy making. We do this by highlighting how ecological knowledge can help policy makers come to informed decisions, and by supporting expert scientists involved in all levels of Scottish policy making. The SPG acts as a hub for ecologists and policy makers, and we run a number of events to encourage interaction and understanding between both. You can read more about what the BES-SPG do and how to get involved here.

In this blog we thought we’d introduce ourselves a little more, as it takes an active bunch of people to bring ecologists and policy makers together, and keep all our SPG members informed about the latest developments in Scottish policy. The SPG has dozens of members and is headed-up by a dedicated committee to keep things running smoothly.

The Scottish Policy Group team

Rob Brooker, Chair of the SPG

Rob Brooker

Rob Brooker leads the Committee as Chair of the SPG. He is a plant ecologist at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, with research interests including plant-plant interactions in severe environments and (recently) crop systems, and the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. Rob is also chair of the Science and Technical Group for the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy. He was a member of the BES Council, and an ordinary member of the BES Policy Committee. Rob is very interested in trying to understand how biodiversity policy-making works, and from this figuring out how ecologists can better engage with this process. When not trying to get to grips with policy making, he enjoys being outside when the sun is shining and staying in to read books when it’s raining. In December, Rob will move into the Secretary/Treasurer role and Ruth Mitchell will take over as SPG Chair.

Nils Bunnefeld, Vice Chair

Nils BunnefeldThe Vice Chair of the SPG is Nils Bunnefeld, based at the University of Stirling. Nils’ research interests encompass the conservation and management of social-ecological systems. He uses a combination of empirical data collection and modelling to investigate the interaction between human decision-making and the dynamics of ecological processes. In order to do this, Nils focusses on developing models and approaches to integrate ecological, social and economic data and theory, to assist conservation and management of natural resources.

Ruth Mitchell, Secretary/Treasurer

Ruth MitchellRuth Mitchell is currently the Secretary/Treasurer of SPG and will take over from Rob as Chair of the SPG in December. Ruth has been a BES member for the past 20 years, being on the BES council from 2010-14, and now working with the SPG. Ruth is a plant and soil ecologist, and like Rob, works at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen. Ruth works on assessing the impacts of e.g. pollution and land management on biodiversity, as well as on plant-soil interactions, and habitat restoration. Applied research has always been an interest of Ruth’s, and trying to make research relevant to land managers and conservationists. More recently, Ruth has begun to see how important it is to make research relevant to policy makers as well, and to be part of the two-way flow of information between scientists and policymakers.

Juliette Young, Policy Committee Rep.

Juliette YoungNext we have our Policy Committee Representative: Juliette Young is a political scientist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh. Juliette began her career as a zoologist, studying the tiger parts trade in India, fig wasps in the Cook Islands, and chimpanzees in Sierra Leone. Juliette’s current research blends the natural and social sciences, working on public attitudes towards biodiversity, conservation conflicts and the role of stakeholder engagement in nature conservation. Her interests also include the interface between scientists and decision-makers. As a proud member of the BES and SPG, Juliette is the link with the BES  Policy Committee, of which she is also a member.

Martin Ford, Ordinary member

Martin Ford is an elected member of Aberdeenshire Council where he takes a particular interest in environmental aspects of the Council’s policies and service delivery. Martin serves on the Council’s Education, Learning and Leisure Committee and Sustainability Sub-Committee and is a board member of the North-East Scotland Transport Partnership.

Chris Pollard, Early Career Researcher Rep.

Chris PollardThe SPG also has a number of early career researchers on its Committee. One such is Chris Pollard, who will take over the role of Early Career Researcher Rep. (a role currently filled by Danny Heptinstall, University of Aberdeen). Chris is a conservation science PhD candidate at the University of Stirling and investigates conservation conflicts in Scotland. Conservation conflicts commonly involve multiple stakeholder groups including those working in government and elected representatives. Increasing communication and understanding between scientists and policy makers is a fundamental way to manage existing conflicts or even avoid them before they happen. Chris is excited to be a part of the SPG and the work it is doing to promote relationship-building between ecology and Scottish policy making.

Isabel Jones, Hannah Grist, Sam McNab, Communications

Isabel JonesAnother early career researcher on the SPG Committee is Isabel Jones. Isabel is also a PhD candidate at the University of Stirling, where she shares an office with Chris now she’s back from field seasons in the Brazilian Amazon and Panama. Isabel works on the biodiversity and carbon storage impacts of hydroelectric mega-dams in tropical forest regions, linking ecology with international development policies. Isabel has always focussed on applied research, and while her research and policy experiences are predominantly international in nature, she is keen to develop her understanding of conservation policy making a little closer to home! Isabel recently joined the SPG and now heads up the Communications team, working with Hannah Grist and Sam MacNab to develop Communications both within the SPG, and between the wider community of ecologists and policy makers in Scotland.

Hannah Grist is a postdoctoral researcher at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Oban. Hannah works as part of the UK-wide ‘Capturing our Coast’ project, that aims to support thousands of citizen scientists to survey rocky shores, in order to determine baseline data on marine species ranges and investigate potential effects of climatic changes. Prior to this Hannah was working for RSPB Scotland as an education manager in city-centre Glasgow, and so Hannah has experience of a full range of different environments across Scotland! Hannah’s policy interests are predominantly marine, including seabirds, fisheries and marine protected areas. She is also a strong advocate of citizen science and public outreach, and looks forward to being part of the SPG communications team.

Sam MacNabSam MacNab is also working on SPG Communications whilst completing his BSc in Ecology and Conservation at the University of St. Andrews. Throughout his studies, Sam has developed an interest in the science/policy interface and is particularly interested in the challenges of sustainable food production. Sam has worked as a zookeeper at the Five Sisters Zoo and as a public educator at Edinburgh Zoo, giving talks, handling sessions and running social media accounts. Sam has built his research experience by assisting an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and a scientist at the Scottish Oceans Institute, and by working on a PhD research project investigating the distribution of Scottish seagrass species. Sam looks forward to working on SPG Communications and welcomes ideas for blog topics from SPG members!

Like the sound of us and what the SPG do?

The SPG are a very welcoming group and are always keen to involve people. If you’d like to get involved with the SPG, you can do so here. We’re also on Twitter and Facebook, and will be blogging regularly with exciting news about science policy in Scotland!

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Towards a 25 year plan? Government responds to Natural Capital Committee recommendations

At the start of the year the third report of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) outlined an ambitious set of recommendations as to how the Government could meet its oft-repeated commitment for this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. The report concluded that a comprehensive 25 year strategy is required to protect and enhance England’s natural capital, including new legislation, improved monitoring and accounting methods, a targeted investment programme and innovative financing. These conclusions were encapsulated in a set of nine clear recommendations.

Now, eight months and one general election later, the new Conservative Government has issued its response to the Committee’s report. In broad terms, the response welcomes its recommendations, praising the Committee’s role as placing the UK “at the leading edge” of an “innovative movement” and agreeing with its central assertion that safeguarding natural capital is integral to ensuring sustainable economic growth. Furthermore, in line with the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment, the response confirms that the life of the NCC will be extended until the end of this Parliament, with refreshed terms of reference and a key role in informing policy.

Recognising the value of natural capital?

Given that one of the BES’s priorities for this Parliament is that “the value of the environment to human wellbeing and prosperity – our natural capital – is recognised across government”, the Government’s broad support for the NCC work is welcome. But how substantially does the Government’s response engage with the report’s nine recommendations?

1. (and 9.) Government, working with business, NGOs and other parts of society, should fully develop a 25 year plan.

Developing a “25 year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity” was a Conservative manifesto commitment, and the Government response confirms that this will be pursued. Key themes identified for the plan include improving monitoring and data collection, recognising the importance of local action, and prioritising strategic investments. However, no mention is made of the NCC’s recommendation that the plan should “be given effect in legislation”, or that it should include “clear evidence-based targets for natural capital”. Whether or not these recommendations are picked up as the plan is developed will be an important factor in its success.

2. Government should assign institutional responsibility for monitoring the state of natural capital.

While the Government recognises that improving natural capital monitoring is a priority, and will be one of the core components of the 25 year plan, at this stage it does not outline how responsibility for this will be assigned. The BES will continue to engage with this issue through the Natural Capital Initiative, with natural capital monitoring a priority for the year ahead.

3. Organisations should create a register of natural capital for which they are responsible and use this to maintain its quality and quantity.

The Government agrees with the “underlying premise” of this recommendation, and the response signals its commitment to continue to work with the NCC to develop rigorous corporate natural accounting standards and encourage their use. However it is reluctant to endorse the creation of “registers” of natural capital as a universal standard, preferring to encourage organisations with significant “land, air and water assets to consider how best they can manage these to maximise value and minimise risks”.

4. The government should urgently step up action to ensure that the Office for National Statistics and Defra meet the target of incorporating natural capital into the national accounts by 2020.

This recommendation is endorsed, with the Government confirming that this commitment has been reaffirmed in the recent Office for National Statistics “Roadmap” in order to meet the 2020 target.

5. The National Infrastructure Plan should incorporate natural capital in to each of the main infrastructure sectors.

Despite affirming that it strives for “all publically funded infrastructure investments to make a positive contribution to protecting and enhancing our natural environment”, the Government explicitly rejects the call for an investment programme to be formally included in the National Infrastructure Plan – a potential opportunity to demonstrate the recognition of the value of natural capital across government.

6. The government should revise its economic appraisal guidance (Green Book) implementing our advice.

Again, this recommendation is strongly endorsed; the Government confirming that “new draft text on natural capital” is being developed as part of the core guidance in the Green Book, reflecting the NCC’s recommendations.

7. The government should drive a substantial, long term, interdisciplinary research programme on natural capital to inform future iterations of the strategy.

The Government rightly identifies “the importance of evidence in informing our approach to natural capital policy” and points to two substantial research programmes already underway, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services for Sustainability (BESS), and the Valuing Nature Network (VNN). However, at a time when the future of the Research Councils is uncertain in light of the impending results of the Nurse Review, no additional commitments are forthcoming.

8. Government should determine how the plan to protect natural capital is to be funded.

While the Government acknowledges that finding appropriate funding mechanisms will be integral to the success of their proposed 25 year plan, and accepts the need for innovative approaches both within and beyond Government, it does not engage with the substantive funding recommendations made by the NCC, including the establishment of a “wealth fund” derived from the depletion of non-renewable resources and a commitment to capital maintenance expenditures. Unsurprisingly, funding decisions are to be deferred until after this autumn’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

Where next? Towards a 25 year plan

Read as a whole, the Government’s response to the NCC’s report paints a mixed picture. While they welcome the recommendations in broad terms, and importantly, accept the underlying principle of the vital importance of the natural environment to our economic and social wellbeing, the response falls short of endorsing many of the Committee’s more detailed recommendations. A number of environmental NGOs have raised concerns, with the RSPB’s Martin Harper stating that “the Government’s response does not match the ambition of the Committee”, and Wildlife and Countryside Link challenging the Government to strengthen the role of the NCC.

Certainly, a number of unanswered questions remain about the proposed 25 year plan for the environment: How will it be funded? How cross-departmental will it be? Will it propose any new legislation? What will be the remit of the new Natural Capital Committee? Last month, the BES endorsed Wildlife and Countryside Link’s proposal for the core principles of the Government’s 25 year plan, and we will continue to engage strongly with the development of the new strategy to ensure that it is informed by the best available ecological evidence.

What do you think of the Government’s response to the Natural Capital Committee’s report? If you are interested in contributing to our work on this issue, please get in touch with the External Affairs Team.

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