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Lesley Batty Symposium Organiser

Government Announces new Science and Innovation Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bovine TB

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

The Public Forest Estate

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

European Union

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

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

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

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

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

Female chamois in France age faster than in Switzerland

Studying the survival and reproductive success of animals gives important insights into population changes over time. Many studies have demonstrated variation in survival patterns within a single population but comparisons between populations are rare. It’s important to compare the survival patterns of different populations to gain an insight into the selective pressures that affect wild animals in different areas.

Dr. Josefa Bleu from the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics NTNU in Norway studied the changes in three chamois populations over the last 25 years: one population in France and two in Switzerland. In her presentation at the BES/SFE conference in Lille, Dr. Bleu revealed that female chamois living in the Game and Wildlife Reserve of the Bauges massif in France have lower survival and faster rates of ageing than populations in Switzerland.

A group of chamois at sunrise (© Marc Cornillon)

A group of chamois at sunrise (© Marc Cornillon)

Some of the differences may come from the effects of hunting: chamois from the Bauges population are subject to hunting while hunting is not allowed in the areas inhabited by the Swiss populations. In combination with harsher environmental conditions, hunting may have selected for a faster pace of life in the French chamois populations.

As Dr. Bleu explained, “The fact that age-specific survival varies between populations may have profound impacts on how each population will be affected by environmental changes. It is now necessary to understand the demographic consequences of these results to know how we can extrapolate the effects of environmental changes on population dynamics between different populations”.

A female chamois with her young (© Marc Cornillon)

A female chamois with her young (© Marc Cornillon)

The next step for the team will be to study more populations of chamois and to figure out what is causing the variation in survival and reproductive strategies among different groups.

Sive (BES Press Intern)
Twitter: @SiveFinlay

Posted in BES Annual Meeting, Conference, Conservation, Research | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charles Elton’s diaries shed new light on Wytham Woods

The output of scientific research is often distilled into bite size research chunks that can be neatly wrapped into a publication. Many of the careful observations, recordings and field notes created as part of a research project rarely make it into the final publication. However, these long term, observational records can yield important insights that inform and develop later research.

The re-discovery of Charles Elton’s diaries is revealing new insights into the history of Wytham Woods, once of the most intensively studied woodlands in the world. Dr. Keith Kirby from Oxford University presented an overview of the valuable information that can be gleaned from Elton’s diaries at the joint BES/SFE conference in Lille today.

Tucked away in the cabinets at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History, the diaries contain many valuable records, observations and insights into ecological research in the mid 20th century.

One entry from 18th May 1967 makes for ironic reading today, “There is excitement at the arrival, recorded elsewhere in the Survey, of 4 muntjac deer…..”

As Dr. Kirby pointed out, “The muntjac deer escaped from Woburn Park during the war and have since spread across much of England.  There might have been less ‘excitement’ if the future extent of damage that their descendents would do to the Woods had been appreciated.”

Muntjac deer arrived in Wytham in 1967 (© K. Kirby)

Muntjac deer arrived in Wytham in 1967 (© K. Kirby)

Other entries show just how much our climate has changed in the past century:

8th November 1956 “The lateness of leaf-fall is quite remarkable. Probitts cannot remember a year like it and says beech mast is also late and continues to fall. The individual trees vary greatly, but there are some of practically all species with a lot of leaf. Beeches are in wonderful yellow and brown colours.”

Nowadays we have become used to leaves staying on the trees well into November, as a result of climate change, but then it was unusual.

Ecologists have also changed. Students were much more smartly dressed for their fieldwork outings.

The class at work 1953 Elton holding the long handled net. Image reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

The class at work 1953 Elton holding the long handled net. Image reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

Although modern health and safety regulations might have a few things to say about their work practices.

Hunting beetles with machete and cigarette 1952. Reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

Hunting beetles with machete and cigarette 1952. Reproduced with the permission of the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford.

You can find out more about Elton’s diaries here

Sive (BES Press Intern)

Twitter; @SiveFinlay

Posted in BES Annual Meeting, Conference, Ecology, Forests, Research | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joint BES/SFE meeting in Lille

This week sees the first ever joint meeting between the BES and the Société Française d’Ecologie at the Grand Palais in Lille. The BES team will be posting regular updates on the latest policy and research discussed at the conference.

I’ve also been working with the press officer, Becky Allen, to put together an exciting mix of press releases that highlight the interesting and varied research being presented over the next few days. Keep an eye on our press release page for regular updates.

I will be tweeting from different sessions and posting updates to the blog with some more research highlights. I’m looking forward to a great couple of days filled with lots of new research, interesting discussions and hopefully exploring Christmas markets!

Sive (BES Press Intern)

Twitter: @SiveFinlay

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

Scottish Beaver Trial publishes final report

The partner organisations behind the Scottish Beaver Trial, the first licensed release of a mammal species ever to take place in the UK, have published the Trial’s final report. The report details the entire process of the Scottish Beaver Trial, from capture of the Norwegian beavers, through their release and to the end of the monitoring period. This follows the publication last month of six independent scientific reports on the Trials and will help Scottish government ministers decide on the future of beavers in Scotland.

The Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber) is thought to have become extinct in England and Wales between the 12th and 13th centuries and in Scotland by the 16th century as a result of over-exploitation by humans. The beaver is widely considered to be a ‘keystone species’ in forest and riparian environments because, by modifying their habitats through their feeding, digging and damming behaviours, they have a significant and positive influence on ecosystem health and function.

The Scottish Beaver Trial – a partnership between the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) – received a licence from the Scottish government in May 2008 to undertake a five-year, scientifically monitored trial reintroduction of beavers to Knapdale Forest. Three families of beavers (totalling 11 animals) were subsequently released the following year within separate freshwater lochs.

Over the following five years, a detailed scientific monitoring programme collected data on the ecology of the released beavers and their impacts on the environmental features in and around the Trial area. Researchers also assessed the social and economic impacts of the Trials on nearby communities. The monitoring programme ceased in May 2014.

In line with their notoriety as ‘ecosystem engineers’, the beavers considerably changed the shape of woodland along loch shores. They also increased water levels in some of the lochs through dam building. The effects of beavers on trees led to a more open woodland canopy with a lower vertical density which, in turn, led to greater ground cover by grasses and woody debris and less leaf litter cover. The beavers also greatly altered aquatic plant communities through herbivory and water level rise, which had considerable impact on plant cover and, in places, led to increased species richness and heterogeneity. Moreover, newly inundated areas of the shoreline were rapidly colonised by aquatic plants which facilitated colonisation by a diversity of invertebrates.

Research on the socio-economic impact of the Trials concluded that there were “modest” benefits to local businesses, with slight increases observed in turnover. The authors of the report did, however, speculate that businesses might be able to boost earnings and job opportunities if the beavers were allowed to stay on a permanent basis. The Trials also generated high media interest, with the release day alone estimated to have reached over 10 million people via newspaper circulation. This contributed to 32,000 members of the general public, school and university students visiting Knapdale over the five years for guided walks and to attend talks.

The final results of the Trials will be collated and presented to the Scottish Government in May 2015, after which the Scottish Government will decide on the future of the Knapdale beavers and further beaver reintroductions. Supporters of further reintroductions will gain optimism from the findings of a YouGov poll which found that only 5% of the surveyed Scottish public opposed the reintroduction of beavers at a national scale, with 60% of survey respondents backing their reintroduction. Nevertheless, reservations have been expressed by some in the agricultural, forestry, fieldsports and fishing sectors in particular, who fear potential detrimental impacts that beavers may cause and have called for further trials to take place in more intensive farming and forestry areas before any decisions are made.

There are currently over 100 beavers living wild in the River Tay catchment and Scottish government ministers have previously shelved plans to trap the beavers due to concerns regarding the cost of such an exercise. Their future will also be reviewed next year.

European nations currently have a commitment to consider reintroductions of extinct native species under the EU’s Directive 92/43/EEC Conservation of Natural Habitats and Wild Flora and Fauna (the Habitats and Species Directive), Article 22. Beavers are often considered ‘flagship’ species and there is some evidence to suggest that their presence in the future might raise awareness about nature and conservation in the UK. With current biodiversity indicators painting a rather bleak picture for much of the UK’s existing native biodiversity, a decision to re-establish the beaver in parts of the UK would be a welcome break in an otherwise typical downward trend in the state of our wildlife.

Posted in Biodiversity, Conservation, Ecology, Plant and Tree Health, Scotland | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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