"Thanks for giving us the opportunity to tell our story to such a broad audience"

Professor Rick Shine University of Sydney

Stopping the spread – an update on invasive species policy

It’s been a busy week for invasive species policy – the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) Invasive Species report has been released and EU Parliament has backed legislation proposals to try to control the spread of invasive species.

There are an estimated 12,000 non-native species in Europe, of which 10-12% of these are invasive (also called alien) and cause harm. As such, they have been a growing concern both at the UK and EU level over recent years, and there has been increasing pressure from a variety of stakeholders, from scientists and land managers to businesses and policy makers, to mitigate the spread and come up with long lasting solutions to manage the problem. A report by the European Environment Agency in 2012 estimated that invasive species cost the EU around €12 billion annually and affect not only native species and ecosystem functioning, but also human health and wellbeing. Given these economic, social and ecological challenges that invasive species pose, tackling their spread, assessing their risk and developing appropriate mitigation measures has now become a top priority for policy makers.

To conclude the invasive species inquiry which the EAC opened in December 2013, their report was released earlier this week scrutinising the current work of the UK Government as well as the implications of the European Commission’s EU wide legislation on invasive species. The inquiry involved the input of many scientists working in invasive species research, including Dr Helen Bayliss and Dr Helen Roy who are both BES members, and sought evidence relating to the drivers behind the rising number of invasive species, the harm they cause and the adequacy of the proposals put forward by the European Commission and its relevance to the UK.

The report outlined much information relating to the tools available relating to prevention, surveillance, monitoring, eradication and long term control of invasives. It welcomed the proposed EU regulation, and provided many recommendations including:

  • Need for greater coherence between EU invasive species and plant and animal health regulations to improve understanding of risks and improve compliance with regulations. The UK government is advised to increase its engagement with the EU’s work in revising the plant and animal health regulatory frameworks to generate a unified approach when tackling biosecurity issues.
  • Development by the UK Government (in conjunction with the non-native species secretariat and other agencies) of rapid response plans (for early eradication) and invasive species action plans (for long term control) for all species which fall on national and EU lists of concern for Great Britain.
  • Creation of a transparent listing mechanism, at both EU and national levels, which should be publicly available and updated on the basis of risk assessment.

At a similar time to the release of this report, the EU Parliament announced that voting regarding the EU regulations proposed by the Commission last September had been approved. This is extremely positive news and means there is just one more round of voting, by EU Council, before the regulation will hopefully become legalised and adopted. The legislation is focused upon:

  • Prevention of invasives entering in the first place
  • Early detection and eradication of newly introduced arrivals
  • Long term management and control

These three hierarchical focus areas reflect the approach recommended by the Convention on Biological Diversity. During the negotiations, the original cap of 50 species which would be put on the ‘invasive species list’ was dropped, and instead the list will be open and prioritise species according to emerging issue/risk and those that cause most damage. However, some obligations of the regulations were dropped, such as the removal of the obligation of shipping industries to manage the dumping of ship ballast water at ports. This is an easy way for invasives to enter the marine environment and is bad news for those working to mitigate against the effects.

Going forwards, the momentum is clearly there at both the UK and EU level to tackle invasive species and this approval of regulations by EU Parliament marks a significant step.  However, there are still many key challenges to address, such as working out exactly how the strategies proposed in the policy will be carried out on the ground and identifying what species will be placed on the EU and national lists. Keeping the pressure on governments at all levels will be critical to ensure that the policies are implemented and successfully tackle the invasive species problem.

Posted in EU, Government, Invasive Species | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nature and Nurture: How to manage floods

Flood management and prevention has been a controversial, yet key subject of discussion in recent months. A strategy to avoid a repeat of this winter is being examined by scientists, land owners, policy-makers and land-management experts. At last week’s biodiversity APPG meeting, six speakers – scientists and land management professionals – came together to discuss how we should tackle extensive natural and anthropological damage caused by extreme floods.

Speaking in Westminster were Dr. Tim Pagella (Bangor University), Dr. Iwan Jones (Queen Mary University, London), Charles Cowap (Harper Adams University), Martin Ross (Chair, Rivers Trust), Prof. Richard Brazier (University of Exeter) and Rob McInnes (Independent wetlands consultant and Head of Wetland Conservation at Wildfowl &Wetlands Trust).

All contributors were in agreement that the mitigation of floods needs be a collaborative effort including land owners, farmers, scientists, land managers and policy makers. By implementing a catchment-based response we can ensure that all stakeholders benefit from and can contribute to responding. This will ensure productive and cohesive solutions that are area-suitable. In addition, as stated by Charles Cowap, land tenures must be taken into account during planning as how we can manage land depends on who owns it.

Furthermore, all emphasised the need to work with ecosystems and natural-methods of flood prevention in order to be successful. There are multiple ways in which flooding damage can be reduced by promoting and enhancing ecosystem services. Tim Pagella discussed the effectiveness of planting trees to prevent flooding. There are several ecological benefits to this aside from water storage such as carbon sequestration, preventing soil erosion, increasing biodiversity and increasing habitat for farmer livestock in winter. Additionally, there are many cultural and health benefits which, according to Tim’s study, farmers found most valuable. In this small scale study, it was found that planting trees up stream could reduce peak flow of water by 30% in sub catchments – a large scale study is now needed. This sentiment was echoed by Iwan Jones, Richard Brazier and Robert McInnes who discussed the success of using natural systems to control flooding and the water system. By protecting water storage systems such as wetlands and grasslands we can ensure that we reduce flooding in winter and have a sustainable water source in summer. Although, McInnes warns that there are many types of wetlands and that to manage and use these correctly we must adjust practice for each and allocate experts accordingly. Additionally, by working with natural systems, we can achieve good results with a lower economic input.

Professor Brazier investigated how 19th century drainage ditches on farmland affect water quality and flow. He found that man-made drainage systems – that stopped the natural flow of water through bogs and rivers – were increasing floods and reducing the water storage potential of the land. This causes poor water quality (increased flow carries pollutants and sediment), increased water acidity, decreased biodiversity, decreased ecosystem services and less water available for summer months. By strategically blocking ditches  to reduce flow, they observed a 68% reduction in water loss, increased carbon storage, reduced flood damage and an increase in biodiversity. Although this was on a small scale, similar practices may be implemented in comparable landscapes as observed by the WWF collaboration with farmers in Norfolk.

Although extreme flooding can be damaging to ecosystems and human civilisation, it is also an important part of freshwater cycles. Flooding brings new nutrients, encourages habitat heterogeneity, creates habitat for specialists and creates connectivity to permit migration. This is important for species such as salmon. However, by following damaging land management practices that cause severe floods and destructive flood alleviation like dredging we are compromising this system, ourselves and ecosystem services. Therefore, when policy makers make discuss water management, they must also take into account ecologically clever land management to reduce damaging events.

Check out the British Ecological Society’s Ecological Issue on the impact of extreme flooding on freshwater ecosystems here!

Posted in Ecosystem Services, Flooding, Land Use | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Science into Policy: We host a “How To”

This week we hosted our Policy Training Workshop in collaboration with Sarah Cruise and Jackie Wrout from Psyccess – who expertly facilitated the event! The workshop was aimed at those working within science and research who had an interest in gaining the knowledge and skills to effectively engage with policy and decision makers and find out how to best communicate their science to these audiences.

The workshop informed attendees about the policy making process, when the most effective time to have a voice is and ways to communicate their science in interesting and novel ways. The day began by gathering everyone together to write down on post-it notes the challenges or barriers they face when engaging with policy processes. After 10 minutes the wall was full and set a big task for us to try to address the numerable problems people felt they faced in one day! These barriers included not understanding how policy making actually works, knowing who to engage with and how to communicate the complexity and uncertainty of their scientific research.

But, challenge accepted, the day kicked off with Sasha Leigh (NERC) who introduced the concepts of science-policy interfaces and gave good ideas of where to engage in policy, both through taking advantage of current platforms or by using schemes that organisations such as NERC and the BES provide. Jonny Wentworth (Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology) then presented his view of UK policy making, giving the inside scoop and giving some best practice tips for how to communicate science effectively.

Following this, Richard Benwell (RSPB) spoke about how to keep up with developing policy and highlighted skills and resources that could be used for scanning the science policy horizon. His key tip was to get in early with the decision making process to be most effective in your communications. This session was followed by a talk from Andrew Pullin, Director of Centre for Evidence Based Conservation, who spoke about packaging evidence and his involvement with the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence. Helen Bayliss of Imperial College London was next up, who was recently called to give evidence at a select committee inquiry on invasive species. Helen shared her account of the process, experience and how she got involved.

Interspersed between speakers were exercises that were constructed to assist participants to utilise the information they had gained from speakers and put it into practice. Some exciting discussions were created in this time and gave attendees an indication of where their strengths and weaknesses lie when it comes to communicating their research. Attendees learned how to engage policy makers through communicating complex ideas (using speech and illustratively), perfecting the appropriate language for different audiences and discovering how to relate specialised science to everyday topics – such as a box of chocolates! These activities were met with much enthusiasm, especially when chocolate was at stake…

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Throughout the day it was essential to keep referring back to the ‘wall of challenges’ we had created at the beginning to ensure we kept on track and felt that we were addressing these issues. Sarah and Jackie did a great job to voice possible solutions to these challenges, and the day concluded by bringing everyone together to further discuss targets and strategies of how to combat these challenges and evaluate the steps they had to take and skills they had to obtain and develop moving forward. The pub soon beckoned and we had a well deserved pint to reflect on the day and wait for trains home.

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Overall, what a wonderful day! It was great to see so many passionate people who wanted to find out how to communicate their science and influence policy decisions, and hopefully everyone learnt a lot from the day. According to Twitter people seemed to like it…

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Posted in BES, Science Communication, Science Policy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

New plan of action to rid England of bTB

Last week, Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, announced that the controversial badger culls that have provoked heated debate the length and breadth of the country would not be expanded into other parts of England. Whilst culls will still take place in the original cull trial zones, a new strategy has been released which sets out the path to a bTB free England by 2038.

Having cost taxpayers an estimated £500million in the last decade and millions more for farmers, bTB in England has caused devastating effects upon the cattle industry and farming communities. Controlling the disease within the badger population has been a key focus for the current government, and in late summer of 2013, two pilot culls took place in Somerset and Gloucestershire to test the effectiveness, humanness and safety of shooting badgers, with the hope to then use culling in other parts of England affected with bTB.

However, with original culling targets missed, even with the culling duration being extended, and a recent report from the Independent Expert Panel on Badger Culling Pilots (IEP) criticising the altered methodologies during the culls and failure to meet its targets, the plans to extend culling to the other 10 proposed areas within England have been dropped. The report from the IEP recommended that if the culls were to be continued, the ‘standards of effectiveness and humanness must be improved’, that culls should take place over shorter time periods and that the accuracy of shooting needs to be improved to reduce the number of badgers that experience a painful death. Hopefully, this advice will be taken forward for the culls that will continue to take place in the pilot areas.

Whilst it is good news that the culls will not be rolled out to other areas, some have voiced opinions that continuing culling in the pilot areas is not effective and a waste of time and resources. Prof Rosie Woodroffe, who has been actively involved in this policy development, commented that ‘the pilots culls performed so poorly in effectiveness and humaneness, I would stop and invest in something more promising’. There are signs however, from the new bTB strategy, that other measures to control the spread of bTB will be funded, researched and taken forward. Whilst Owen Paterson has maintained that culling will still form part of the solution to a bTB free England, the failure of the pilot culls to perform as well as hoped appear to have motivated the government to consider other options in much greater depth and take action to improve current culling methods.

The bTB strategy is ambitious in its nature, aiming to rid the disease from England by 2038 and achieve ‘Officially bTB Free Status’. A series of targets and timelines are laid out within the strategy, with a range of ‘solutions’ being adapted and implemented in different ways in the three management zones that have been identified. These three management zones are High Risk Zones, Low Risk Zones and a Buffer Zone. The measures laid out within this strategy to achieve this overarching aim include:

  • Improving on farm and off farm biosecurity measures, advising and providing guidance to farmers and strengthening cattle movement controls.
  • Investing in and supporting projects that are developing vaccinations for badgers and cattle, and supporting research relating to early detection, diagnosis and alternative strategies.
  • Improving surveillance, herd testing and managing outbreaks on farms.

This new strategy considers, and has plans of action, for all aspects of the bTB problem and recognises that culling alone will not be the solution. Research and scientific studies appear to be at the centre of many of the measures that are laid out and this gives encouraging signs that the information such studies could provide will be used to develop appropriate solutions. This is particularly true in relation to the development of cattle vaccines and badger vaccines. Whether politics gets involved is another matter however. Hopefully the government has learned from its mistakes and that it recognises that science and the evidence it provides should be at the heart of any of their future plans to control bTB.

Posted in Agriculture, Badgers and bTB, Defra, Wildlife Disease | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A scientist’s view of the European Parliament: How politicians approach data

This post is the first in a series from Stuart Auld, Research Fellow at the University of Stirling, who recently shadowed Linda McAvan MEP as part of the BES’s Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme. 

The role of politicians is to formulate, debate, and enact policy. For this process to work effectively, they need high-quality, unbiased data. The way politicians choose and use data therefore has a profound influence on the world we live in. Likewise, the way scientists package their data will affect how policymakers view those data. This post discussing science-based policy comes from my time at the European Parliament as part of the British Ecological Society’s Parliamentary Shadowing Scheme.

“Evidence-based policy” is a commonly used term nowadays. I cringe when I hear it, because I think all policy should be evidence-based. The term is an extension of “evidence-based medicine” which is equally scary (what were we basing medicine on in the past – witchcraft?)

The idea is there is a single large pool of data that can be analysed and interpreted to generate policy. However, one can take different samples of the data and come to wildly different conclusions about patterns and processes; this will lead to different policy outcomes (see below).

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The way data is selected and used is therefore of paramount importance. The problem is that many policymakers are not scientists and therefore haven’t been trained in how to select and interpret data – it’s not their main focus. Likewise, most scientists are not trained to present data to policymakers – their main focus is to communicate with other scientists. Important aspects of patterns and process can therefore get lost in translation. This is particularly true when describing uncertainty and complexity associated with patterns in data.

The difficulties of uncertainty and complexity  

Scientist: There is strong evidence that an increase in X leads to an increase in Y.

Policymaker: Can you say for certain that this is the case?

Scientist: No.

Policymaker: So the evidence is inconclusive?

Scientist: There is a 5% chance this relationship could have occurred by chance alone, so the association between X and Y is compelling.

Policymaker: So if we boost X, we’ll get an increase in Y?

Scientist: Well that depends on Z.

Policymaker: ?

This conversation isn’t particularly useful for either the Scientist or the Policymaker. Bridging the gap in approaches requires specific training for both parties. Fortunately, this is starting to happen.

Identifying consensus in the scientific community

Let’s consider the following statement: “Humans are contributing to global climate change”. There are scientists that are sceptical as to whether this statement is valid, but they are in the extreme minority. The vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate change has a significant manmade component. On more than one occasion, I heard MEPs in the European Parliament say “it depends which scientist you ask”, which while technically true, massively misrepresents the general view of the scientific community. Does every single climate scientist agree that manmade climate change is a thing? No. Is there an emerging consensus? You betcha: we are warming our planet.

Learned societies as couriers of scientific information

Having identified the gap between scientists and policymakers, we must now think of ways to fill it. First, we need scientists to better communicate their findings to non-scientists. More and more scientists are achieving this, but it is a skill that takes time to develop. Also, we need policymakers to think carefully about the evidence they use to formulate and debate policy before the policy has been drafted. This is also a skill that takes time to learn and develop. So what can be done in the meantime?

I argue that learned societies can play an important role in providing scientific advice.  For example, if a policymaker wants to understand how to deal with invasive species (which can sometimes, though not always, threaten native species – e.g. North American squirrels transmitting diseases that kill our native red squirrels), then get in touch with the British Ecological Society and get the evidence. There are numerous scientific learned societies across the world whose raison d’être is to communicate their science to as wide an audience as possible. Use them.

As ever, comments are particularly welcome.

Posted in BES, BES Grants, EU, Parliament, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Climate Change: The Scientific View

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II climate report was released earlier this week, receiving extensive media coverage. Climate scientists, environmental scientists, and social scientists presented a clear and open analysis of how climate change is affecting the world’s ecosystems and economies and the impact these are having on human populations.

Within the report is an assessment of the risks being posed by climate change and how to manage them, the currently observed impacts and future risks, the ways in which we should most effectively adapt to increasing environmental, climatic and social instability and how we can build resilience.

Natural systems such as coral reefs and forests ecosystems have suffered and will continue to suffer as a result of increasing temperatures and it is expected that agricultural environments will also be negatively impacted, particularly maize and wheat production. This is and will continue to increasingly impact humans and human lifestyles as we are dependent upon natural and agricultural systems. In response to the report, various media outlets referred to human impacts and impacts on nature as though they were separate – though they are directly connected. If we are to effectively communicate the need to change our behaviour as a global society, it is integral that this inter-connectedness between nature and humans – and human reliance on global ecosystems – is reinforced.

Furthermore Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC Chairman, states, “nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” As stated in the report, these impacts will include (with very high confidence) increased flooding in some regions and increased drought in others as well as having negative consequences for food security and areas vulnerable to conflict. Of particular concern is increasing ocean acidification (resulting from increased CO2 rather than warming) as it is detrimental to the base of the food chain. This, in addition to changing temperatures and reduced oxygen within the ocean, is damaging to many marine ecosystems, particularly in the tropics. This may subsequently damage the marine industry – which provides 16% of the world’s animal protein and was estimated as being worth £63 billion in 2008.

Since the last report of its kind, in 2007, evidence of climate change impacts has doubled. The certainty that anthropogenic behaviours are the dominant cause of this rate of climatic alteration is stronger than ever – due to scientific, peer-reviewed evidence. The report ensures that this is clear and provides the facts to support it. Although accused by a minority of being “alarmist”, the report gave as detailed and accurate an account of the situation we are facing as possible.

The report intends to inform in the most extensive manner yet and to jump start the initiation of effective action by policy makers. This is supported by the UN science panel chairman who stated that it “should jolt people into action”. Of the 436 authors who wrote the report, one was unhappy with the tone of the document and has had his name removed from the summary, although, it is still present in the main report.

Whilst it is essential to discuss all the evidence-backed opinions on this matter, it is key that individuals comments only on the areas in which they are qualified to do so. This will ensure and encourage clarity of communication within a highly complex and urgent issue which will in turn lead to effective action.

With 12,000 scientific studies backing the report, 436 authors and over 300 editors, this report is the most detailed and well backed scientific report of its kind. We now wait for the September summit on Climate Change in New York and hope that political leaders, globally, start to accept reality and react properly in order to protect their people and environments.

Posted in Climate Change, Environment, IPCC | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Making ecology for all – part 2

Following a 14-week investigation that took place towards the end of last year into what has proved a challenging and complex topic, our report into equality and diversity in ecology is now available online. Using the information from this report, although already committed to increasing and promoting diversity, the BES recognises the need to expand efforts and implement a strategy that spans across the whole Society.

The report summarises the key findings of the investigation, which have been gathered through surveys, membership data and a focus group. The diversity survey, launched in October 2013, received an overwhelming number of responses, the majority of which were from members. Not only has this meant that enough data was collected to give meaningful results, but it has also demonstrated that many members are interested in creating inclusiveness within ecological careers and education.

A snapshot of the findings outlined in the report is given below:

  • 1.4% of respondents to the diversity survey attended a state school, received free school meals whilst at school, were the first in the family to go to university and went to a university close to home. These factors combined may suggest a low SES.
  • Black and Minority Ethnic groups (BME) made up 14.3% and 9.4% of the INTECOL and diversity survey respondents, respectively.
  • Black ethnic groups had particularly poor representation with no respondents of either survey being of a ‘Black or Black Caribbean’ ethnic background.
  • 39.9% of BES members are female. When considering academic employment type, female members are overrepresented at undergraduate and postgraduate levels but increasingly underrepresented at postdoc and staff/faculty levels.
  • 5.0% of all respondents to the diversity survey were disabled. This increases to 8.1% amongst students and decreased to 3.4% amongst the workforce (as determined by employment type).

Following data collection, a number of stakeholders were brought together in a focus group to discuss barriers to increased diversity in ecology. Thoughts were shared, data was considered and ideas were bounced around. Despite gender inequality being most widely documented across science, barriers faced by people of a low socio-economic status (SES) and ethnic minorities were identified as being most important and relevant to ecology. The day was hugely successful and well-received amongst attendees. With a difficult task ahead in removing barriers, this may well have been the first of many focus groups that the BES will hold on the topic of diversity.

Members of the focus group spent some time formulating ideas for an initiative that the BES can implement with the aim of widening participation in ecological education and career pathways. The focuses of most of the ideas were the issues that had been highlighted as most urgent, SES and ethnicity. Of course, the BES acknowledges that other barriers still remain and will still require attention but only by prioritising will the BES be able to target efforts and really make a difference.

Several ideas from the focus group have been developed further and outlined in a version of the report which will go to the BES Council for consideration. If implemented, these recommendations will allow the BES to lay a strong foundation upon which future diversity initiatives can be built.

As well as the Council, the Society itself is encouraged to read the report and to give much consideration to the findings that it outlines. The future of ecology depends on great ecologists; only by widening participation can the BES ensure that potential talent is not being impeded by unnecessary barriers. Finally, there is no compelling reason why barriers to accessing ecology should persist; those who show an interest, no matter what their background, should be able to participate. Ecology needs to be for all.

If you have any comments or suggestions regarding our work in this area, please get in touch.

Posted in BES, Ecology, Education, Equality and Diversity | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Just how diverse is the scientific workforce?

Earlier this month, the Royal Society released a report which looks at the diversity of the scientific workforce. As part of a four year work programme of the Society, the report focuses upon understanding the range of people within the scientific community with a view to use this information to learn more about the barriers and challenges people face when entering and progressing within science and what can be done to address them.

A key issue that the report faced from the offset is that the definition of the scientific workforce itself can change depending on who is talking about it. Those working in government, research or across relevant organisations all use varying definitions, leading to segregated views and understandings of the problems relating to diversity and entry and retention of people within science. As the report rightly points out, generating a standard definition would help to encourage robust comparisons between work into this area and improve understanding. For the Society’s programme, their definition of scientific workforce is taken ‘to comprise all those for whom their scientific knowledge, training, and skills are necessary for the work that they do.’

Bringing together three separate analyses of different datasets, the report describes the diversity of the UK’s scientific workforce in areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) and looks at issues relating to gender, ethnicity, disability and socio-economic background. These three analyses focus upon particular areas – 1) comparison of the overall UK workforce with the scientific workforce; 2) career progression using data from mid-career individuals and 3) university sector and progression of individuals from higher education.

Despite complexities and difficulties in interpreting this sort of data, there are many key patterns that the report directs us to. 20% of the UK workforce uses science and the knowledge and training it has provided them with to do their jobs, and generally these people tend to work in the private sector, public sector or education. Those working in medical professions account for 40% of the science workforce, which meant that this had weighting effects on some of the reported results. As such, the report displays data including the medical sector and without, as often removing this sector highlighted less diversity within the science workforce than when it was included (e.g.  %  of women in science workforce including medical sector: 50.3%, without medical sector: 39.6%)

For issues relating to gender, whilst women weren’t found to be under represented in science as a whole, this overall trend varied with socio-economic status or career stage. For example, women were found to be very under-represented in senior career positions. However, this overall conclusion that women aren’t under-represented in science goes against other claims from a WISE report that women make up only 13% of the science workforce. These different conclusions from these different reports could be due to varying definitions of the ‘scientific workforce’, the differences with socio-economic status or other factors relating to the individual. This highlights the complexity of understanding these issues and this type of data.

Ethnicity within the scientific workforce was described as mostly similar to the rest of the UK workforce, with White British, Asian and Asian British representing the largest groups. Despite these general trends, the picture is very complex with ethnic group representation altering with career stage. For example, Chinese groups are over represented at the senior career stage whilst black and black British people were more underrepresented at senior levels.

Those with disabilities were found to be no more under represented within the science workforce compared to the whole, but they were found to be less likely to have senior positions.

Socio-economic status was also found to have an impact on an individual’s ability to enter the scientific workforce. Generally those from lower socio-economic status backgrounds took longer to enter the science workforce after leaving full time continuous education, but the relationship between childhood household income and likelihood of working in science is extremely complex.

As the report clearly shows, understanding the diversity of the scientific workforce is very complex to understand and varies so much depending on a huge array of factors and circumstances often unique to the individual. Drilling down to specific disciplines and subjects further complicates the matter. However, building up a picture of the STEM/STEMM workforce is integral if issues surrounding diversity, equality and entry and progression in science are to be addressed. To finish, the report laid out several recommendations for future analyses:

  • ‘An agreed definition of the scientific workforce used across and by government departments and dataset owners would allow data to be compared and help improve understanding of entry into and progress through the STEMM workforce for underrepresented groups.
  • Consistency between the definitions of and variables within diversity characteristics which would allow better data collection and analysis of multiple datasets on the STEMM workforce.
  • Improved links between existing datasets to better understand the diversity of the scientific workforce and community, from school through to vocational, further and higher education and into the workplace, across the full range of STEMM sectors.
  • Better data for the private sector to build a full picture of the scientific workforce in relation to diversity and entry into and progression within the scientific workforce.’

You can find about the British Ecological Society’s work into diversity and equality in ecology here.

Posted in Equality and Diversity, Royal Society, Science | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Finding effective solutions to the threats facing agricultural pollination

Yesterday, the agroecology All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) met in the Palace of Westminster to discuss the scientific and political progress being made to protect England’s pollinators. In recent years, this has been a key discussion amongst scientists, politicians, farmers and conservationists due to the evidenced declines of pollinators in the UK. The decline of pollinators is multifactorial and has resulted from a combination of factors including reduced habitat, undermanaged pesticide use, the spread of disease and climate change. As such, it has been recognised that steps need to be taken to prevent pollinator decline due to their essential contribution to the agricultural industry and wild ecosystems. Just under two weeks ago the National Pollinator Strategy was released by Defra for review and this strategy was the main topic of conservation at the meeting. Speaking at the event was Dr. Lynn Dicks (NERC Research and Knowledge Exchange Fellow, University of Cambridge), Peter Lundgren (Farmer in Lincolnshire growing combinable crops) and Professor Mark Brown (Professor in Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation at Royal Holloway, University of London).

Dr. Lynn Dicks evaluated and assessed the complex circumstances we are facing and the recent strategy proposed by government. Currently, bumblebees, who make up a large proportion of wild pollinators, are in overall decline; this is, however, species dependent. Because in Britain wild pollinators contribute more to pollination services than the managed honeybee, they are a crucial asset. However, there are now around 40% fewer bumblebee species per 20 x 20km square compared to the 1950s and 60s.

The task of measuring and providing for declining pollinators is difficult as different species require different habitats and resources which is why reduced habitat and increased monoculture has had such a negative impact. Because there is no single cause of the decline, a clear solution is also proving challenging to cultivate.  Furthermore, it is difficult to assess the economic impact of pollinator loss and the resulting loss of services. As such it is evident that information gathering and scientific assessment needs to be encouraged and facilitated so evidence-based solutions can be presented and implemented to account for varying threats and varying needs of different species. The strategy addresses the urgent need for more research to be performed and the arrangement of a knowledge exchange network by Defra is a big step towards this. Missing from the strategy is a clear timeline to reduce the use of pesticides or increase the planting of habitat for pollinators.

Peter Lundgren, a farmer who campaigns for sustainable farming practices argued that, “ignoring the crisis we are facing would result in consequences too great to ignore”. Lundgren also highlighted his misgivings with the calculations produced by the Humboldt Forum over the costs of the EU neonicotinoid ban to British farmers. He was surprised at how large the costs were estimated at, especially once he compared them to the realistic damage of the ban to his own business. Working with an agronomist, he concluded that per hectare of oil seed rape, loss of neonicotinoid pesticides would cost his farm £2.20 a year, not £230 – as estimated by Humboldt. In conclusion, he found that loss of neonicotinoids was far less risky to his business than the potential loss of pollinators and that the next step would be implementing alternative practices, such as integrated pest management, as a means of controlling pests.

Farmers are calling for more information on neonicotinoids and need Defra to support them through dissemination of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, cooperative discussions and effective actions.

Finally, Professor Mark Brown presented his study on the ways in which pyrethroids impact bumblebee colonies. Results currently indicate a reduction in bumblebee worker size by 16% in the presence of these pesticides. This is particularly concerning because of the way in which bumblebee colonies function. Bumblebee colonies have to achieve a colony of a certain size (have a large enough number of workers) before they have suitable resources to produce new queens and males (gynes) – reproductive bees. Because larger workers can carry more food, a reduction in the average worker size means achieving a high enough level of resources for the colony becomes more challenging. As a result there is a risk of there being less bumblebee queens to produce colonies the following season. Additionally, larger workers are better foragers as their antennae are more sensitive and their vision is better, therefore, they can seek out flowers more effectively. As such, they are more efficient pollinators and more productive workers. By reducing worker size to such a large extent, pyrethroids are potentially reducing pollinator efficiency and their capacity to reproduce.

Overall, the meeting concluded that more information needs to be available to all groups, more studies need to be carried out and funded, chemical companies should be legally obliged to share all their scientific findings and have their studies peer-reviewed and that the resources and access to knowledge needs to be more accessible to farmers so they can make informed decisions.

Posted in Agriculture, Parliament, Pesticides, Pollinators | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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