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More money and more experts – the answer to UK plant health issues?

As part of their inquiry into Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity, last week the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee released their 10th report scrutinising the UK government’s approaches regarding plant health. Whilst welcoming recent work of the government, they laid out a series of recommendations which they believe will be crucial to address if action surrounding this issue is to be successful.

Safeguarding plant health is one of Defra’s top four priorities, and in recent times there has been increasing work done to address the issue across the UK. Notably, the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Taskforce that was set up to provide expertise and recommendations has been crucial in progressing action within this area and highlighting approaches for identifying and managing current and emerging threats. Their final report was published last year and several of their recommendations, such as appointing a Chief Plant Health Officer (now Professor Nicola Spence) and generating a plant risk register have already been undertaken. A finalised Plant Biosecurity Strategy is expected from Defra later this spring.

But whilst work is progressing, the select committee voice several concerns within their report. One of the biggest factors that affects not only the near future but also the long term mitigation of plant health issues is that of skills and expertise gaps relating to tree and plant health. In 2012, the British Society for Plant Pathology undertook an audit regarding the education and training of plant pathology in the UK. The report found that throughout the UK the number of Higher Education Institutes teaching or providing training on plant pathology has declined, with fewer students signing up for modules covering plant pathology or plant science topics. These problems can stem from the fact that many plant pathology lecturers are retiring and not being replaced, a general misconception that plant pathology/science is boring and that often plant science or pathology modules are not compulsory or present in first year and thus reduce the uptake of such subjects in future study.

These declining numbers have also been reported in wider plant science subjects, meaning that the number of people with expertise and skills relating to plant health issues are small and could thus reduce the UK’s capacity to identify and mitigate against plant health threats in the future. As such, the committee encourages Defra to lay out the initiatives that are being undertaken to address the expertise gap and develop clear timeframes and details of funding about such initiatives. The committee also suggests that increasing the number of places available on university courses and providing more funding to incentivise these places being filled could help to encourage more students to develop a passion for plant health science.

Another concern relating to the capacity and capability of the UK to manage the impacts and threats of plant and tree health is that of funding. Over the past 20 years, UK funding for research into tree health issues has become increasingly difficult to obtain and Defra has also faced many budget cuts. Additionally, limited resources have and will further affect monitoring and research, particularly over the long term. However, whilst Defra funding in forest research has declined over the past five years, funding for plant health has actually increased. Despite this, the committee argues that in order to ensure that long term research, which is so essential for our understanding and mitigation of threats to plant health, can continue sustainably, ring fenced funding must be provided. They argue this is essential for future mitigation of plant health issues and lay out that this research should cover areas such as development of control measures, understanding of resistance and studying other risk areas such as untreated wood and soil.

There are several other key recommendations that the report lays out:

  • Ensuring the role of Chief Plant Health Officer is clearly defined and supported in order to allow sufficient co-ordination and collaboration between organisations to take place for effective evidence generation and responses to outbreaks.
  • Defra should provide regular updates on progress to the new EU plant health regime.
  • Encouraging the government to consider biodiversity and ecosystem services when developing approaches for safeguarding plant health such as building resilience in wider landscapes through effective conservation and restoration of habitats.

The government’s commitment to addressing plant health has steadily increased over the past few years and should continue to do so into the future given the recognition of these issues and the current EU changes in legislation. Reports such as this are important tools for the government to use to help steer direction and try to implement best practice to ensure plant health issues are effectively tackled. The committee’s recognition of the importance of funding for long term research and the need to increase the number of plant scientists is not only good news for addressing plant health problems, but also fostering subjects within ecology. It will remain to be seen whether the government takes up the committee’s advice.

Posted in Defra, Plant and Tree Health, Select Committee | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Valuing our natural capital: Natural Capital Committee pushes for long-term thinking

Established in 2012 as a result of the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP), the Natural Capital Committee (NCC) provides expert, independent advice to Government on the state of England’s natural capital. Their second annual report – The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our Natural Assets – was released on Tuesday. This focuses on what has been achieved so far and provides ambitious long-term goals for Government in relation to our natural capital.

The Committee’s first report in 2013 – The State of Natural Capital: Towards a framework for measurement and valuation – set out a framework to better measure and account for changes in natural capital accounts and feed these in to decision making processes. Their second report goes beyond this, giving an introductory analysis of the state of natural capital in England, risks facing these assets, and giving specific recommendations for Government. The long-term aim of Government to be ‘the first generation to improve our natural environment’ is a clear focus for the Committee, who has set out the need for a 25 year landscape-scale plan to deliver on this objective.

Three key messages come from the report:

  1. Some assets are currently not being used sustainably. The benefits we derive from them are at risk, which has significant economic implications;
  2. There are substantial economic benefits to be gained from maintaining and improving natural assets. The benefits will be maximised if their full value is incorporated into decision-making; and,
  3. A long-term plan is necessary to maintain and improve natural capital, thereby delivering wellbeing and economic growth.

Natural capital is a broad concept, and to be able to give a first insight into the state of natural capital in England, it must be clearly defined. The Committee are working on the notion that natural capital represents:

“the elements of nature that directly or indirectly produce value to people, including ecosystems, species, freshwater, land, minerals, the air and oceans, as well as natural processes and functions”.

Their preliminary analysis of the state of natural capital highlights several problematic trends that will affect the assets we derive from natural capital and the generally poor state of natural capital. The Committee’s initial look at drivers shows both numbers of invasive species and their abundance are increasing. The analysis shows that data for the majority of assets is significantly lacking, and further work is needed to ensure that all assets can be assessed.

Combined with accelerating external pressures such as climate change, the Committee highlights that the poor state of natural capital may lead to some of the benefits we derive from natural capital being at risk. The most significant goods at risk are clean water from mountains, moors and heaths, and wildlife across a number of land use categories – particularly farmland.

In both cases above, it is the quality of the habitat that is having an effect on the good provided. The state of natural assets doesn’t just depend on quality, however. Quantity and the location of the asset are also key features that must be assessed. This is highlighted in a case study in the report, which examines the costs and benefits of planting new woodland across the UK. The differences between planting locations based on market values alone, or both market and non-market values, such as recreation, are clearly displayed in the figure below:

NCC map

From The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our Natural Assets

The left hand side shows woodland planting that maximises market values such as timber outputs. Planting is isolated away from population centres, and is focused on upland areas. There is a large shift in location for planting that accounts for non-market goods, however (right hand side). Allowing for the value of recreation, woodland planting would be more focused around inhabited areas to give maximum benefits to both timber output and communities. The overall social value of planting in upland areas is -£66 million per year, whereas it is £546 million per year when near communities.

The Committee’s call for a 25 year plan highlights the need for a new approach to managing natural capital in England. Given the declines seen in both the quality and quantity of habitats, and the goods that result from them, current management strategies are clearly not working effectively. To deliver the Government’s aim from the NEWP, there must be close working with the Committee to formulate a plan and then act to deliver it. The Committee highlights that any plan must be integrated with all other projects that have impacts on the environment, namely the Government’s infrastructure plan.

The Committee has highlighted the importance of natural capital for our economy. In addition to understanding the value of these assets, Government need to work to ensure that they are used sustainably to continue to benefit from the goods and services that are naturally available. The Committee has provided the basis of a long-term plan in order to achieve this, and can provide expertise to help drive this forward. All that is needed now is for the Government to follow through with their commitments from the NEWP.


Posted in Biodiversity, England, Government, Invasive Species | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Defra get buzzy protecting pollinators

On 6th March, the National Pollinator Strategy for England was released for consultation by Defra. Seeking expertise and opinions on the proposed strategy until 2nd May, the draft should become finalised in early summer. Adding to Scotland’s current Honey Bee Health Strategy and Wales and Northern Ireland’s plans, the release of this strategy for England is much needed, and welcomed, for the future protection of pollinators throughout the UK.

The intended outcome of the new Strategy is to increase flower-rich, diverse habitats, grow and expand awareness and safeguard the health of England’s pollinators. To achieve this, the strategy aims to grow partnership and consensus between the government, relevant organisations, businesses and the public, so as to increase our understanding and knowledge and to use this to help inform the global community about the problems pollinators face. The key vision is to ensure pollinators are able to flourish and continue to provide services essential for the production of food and health of our ecosystems.

Our pollinators – bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, beetles and moths are under threat from a multitude of pressures. These include intense land management practices, loss of biodiversity and habitat, certain pesticides, climate change and the spread of disease and pests – partially as a result of industrialised distribution of bees. Additionally, the range expansion of predators (native and invasive) is posing a further threat. Until recently this remained largely unconsidered in decline discussions. However, the strategy highlights the need to monitor the spread of predators such as the Asian hornet and to minimise its impact, which is a step in the right direction. Additionally, given that all of these pressures interconnect and can influence each other, thus increasing the impacts upon pollinators, it is crucial that all relevant sectors contribute to the prevention of pollinator decline and to the expansion of our knowledge base. For example, a colony already weakened by the Varroa mite will not be able to cope with the additional threat of habitat loss.

Within the Strategy, several actions are outlined detailing how to close gaps in knowledge and how to inform public, land-owners, farmers and those responsible for managing land. It highlights the need to not only implement effective policy but also the importance of science communication to those who can have an influence.  A number of solutions are highlighted to address some of the problems we are encountering in the maintenance of a healthy pollinator community. This includes encouraging the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to control pests in an ecologically and economically sound manner whilst minimising damage to pollinating species.

The Strategy also evaluates and asks for further information on what effect pressures are having on crop and wild pollination and how this is impacting the economy. Currently, 30 proposed priority actions have been suggested, 18 of which are policy based initiatives including the development of “Pollinator best practice awards and/or competitions” and revising the current guidance for use of insecticides. The other 12 actions are based on evidence gathering and sharing between scientists, NGO’s and government.

Finally and possibly most importantly, a ‘Call to Action’ has been proposed that will make knowledge accessible to the public, businesses and organisations on how to assist with the protection and promotion of pollinating species. The call to action intends to create a clear, evidence-backed message that provides information on how to provide for pollinators. This can be achieved by tasks such as planting important flowering plants during the key months of March to October and providing shelter over winter. Advice concerning land management will also be provided for those within the agricultural and land-use industries.

Monitoring the progress of any actions taken or policies put in place is essential to this campaign’s success because of the situation’s complexity. As such, a progress report is to be compiled at the start of summer in 2015 and a knowledge exchange network is being coordinated by Defra. In 2016, the evidence gathered during the first two years will be considered in order to make constructive progress as the Strategy continues. In 2019 the Strategy will be reassessed and refreshed accordingly.

The decline of pollinators and its impact is complex due to the multi-factorial nature of the threats they are facing. A collaborative and well-informed approach is key to their conservation and protection. This strategy is a welcome move from Defra to start promoting and undertaking action to protect our pollinators and hopefully with the monitoring systems in place, should allow both the current and future needs of pollinators to be considered and catered for.

Posted in Agriculture, Defra, Pollinators | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Decoding the legislative process

February’s Policy Lunchbox session was with Naomi Saint from Parliamentary Outreach. Naomi came to introduce the legislative processes in Parliament, and how organisations like the BES can get involved. It was an informative and anecdote-filled session, with the opportunity for burning questions from across a range of scientific societies and organisations to be answered.

Naomi broke us in gently to the subject area, covering who forms Parliament – House of Commons, House of Lords, and the monarch – and what Parliament does – forms legislation, scrutinises Government, and addresses key issues.

We then focused on legislation and the processes behind it. Most new legislation comes from Government, with individual bills led by ministers. The majority new legislation is through Public Bills which focus on anything that affect general law at a national level. For laws that are implemented at a local level, legislation will come through Private Bills. There are also Hybrid Bills, which are a mixture of both Public and Private Bills.

It’s not just ministers who have the opportunity to introduce legislation – MPs can as well, through private member Bills. At the start of the Parliamentary year, a ballot is held to pick the 20 MPs who will be able to put forward private member Bills. Over the course of the year, 13 Fridays are allocated to discuss these bills. Due to time constraints, however, private member Bills rarely get through to be passed as legislation. In some circumstances, private member Bills can be used to introduce legislation the Government wants to pass, but can’t due to controversy.

In the majority of cases, a Bill must go through both the House of Commons and House of Lords to become legislation. The powers of the House of Lords can be limited if necessary by the Parliament Act. In cases where there is disagreement between the Houses, and the House of Commons believes legislation is in the public interest, the Parliament Act removes the vetoing power of the House of Lords. Only seven Bills have gone through this process – the most recent was the Hunting Act in 2004.

Due to time constraints of MPs, there is often greater scrutiny on Bills in the House of Lords than the House of Commons. The only Bills that peers will not oppose are those featured in party manifestos. Parties and their representatives have been voted in through a democratic process, so it must be assumed that the promises in their manifestos are wanted by the public.

For those interested in commenting on proposed Bills, good points to get involved are at: pre-legislative scrutiny stage (usually select committee), public bill committees in each House, and by working with an MP or Lord who is involved with changes. A good way of assessing each Bill’s content is through the House of Commons briefing, which is produced for each Bill once it hits the 2nd reading stage.

This informative Policy Lunchbox was a good way for learned societies and similar organisations to understand the legislative process and how to get involved. Parliamentary Outreach provides free guidance and introductions to the work of Parliament. Information about the House of Commons or House of Lords is available at any time through the respective information offices.

Posted in House of Lords, Parliament, Select Committee, UK | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Protecting Our Seas – Give us HOPE!

On the 3 and 4 of March the European Commission held the, ‘Healthy Oceans – Productive Ecosystems’ (HOPE) conference concerning the state of the European marine environment, in Brussels. This is following a report published on 2 February assessing the current state of European seas in relation to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). The report highlights that the European marine environment is in a disquieting condition and that the promise to achieve good environmental status of our seas by 2020 is currently not on track. As such, more urgent action needs to be taken to ensure that our seas remain sustainably productive and ecologically healthy.

One of the biggest problems achieving this target is the lack of data available to effectively assess the problems we are facing and how these problems are affecting marine ecosystems. Currently, more is known about the surface of Mars than deep ocean ecosystems. The EU commission states that very few EU member states have put forward strategies to manage this issue or ensure that gaps are closed. At the moment, only two thirds of the EU sea area is currently being assessed and the status of 70% of marine species is unknown. Rectifying this would be one of the most important steps towards ensuring the 2020 target is reached.

Of the information we do have, pollution, eutrophication and over-fishing in parts of the EU are reported to be amongst the biggest problems we are facing. In the Baltic Sea, nutrient emissions are causing excessive algal blooms. This is reducing the availability of oxygen (hypoxia) in the sea and in turn negatively impacting the greater ecosystem. Concerning this form of pollution, data from the Black Sea is limited and the official conditions are unknown. Over-fishing is also posing a threat to marine environments in parts of the EU, particularly in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, where of the assessed stocks, 88% are considered to be over-exploited. In the Mediterranean, marine-exploitation as a result of energy source exploration and sea bed mining are further damaging the area further.

Overall, below 20% of European marine ecosystems are currently considered to be healthy which indicates that the MSFD has a long way to go and far greater steps need to be taken to ensure this percentage increases. Climate change, ocean acidification (as a result of increased CO2), vast quantities of litter (largely plastics) and other pollutants finding their way into our seas are largely responsible for damaging EU oceanic ecosystems.  Since the industrial revolution ocean acidification has increased 100 times more rapidly than the previous 55 million years and climate change has caused oceanic surface temperatures to increase at a rate 10 times greater than the average (since 1870 when records began). These rapid changes are unsustainable for the marine environment and unless the detrimental effects of these influences are managed then the currently productive and profitable nature of EU seas and the production of essential ecosystem services provided by the ocean, will suffer.

It is essential that tourism, transport, offshore energy and fisheries function in a sustainable manner so as to ensure that these industries and our ecosystems can thrive in the future. The marine environment provides vast economic benefits to EU states and the 660 million Europeans living on coastal regions. With 5.4 million people in maritime employment, our marine industries contribute €330-485 billion to the European economy. It is, therefore, essential that further degradation of EU seas is averted in order to ensure a healthy future of this essential economic and ecological contribution.

Some small steps are being taken, however, to encourage and aid individuals to help protect our seas and coastal regions. A new app (Marine LitterWatch) has been launched to collect information about the litter being found on beaches and an EU wide beach clean-up day has been organised for 10 May. There is another app –Beat the Microbead – that has been launched to allow users to scan the barcodes of products they buy to assess whether it contains tiny plastic beads, known as micro beads, which are contributing to the excess plastic being found in the ocean.

At the end of the conference a document, ‘The Declaration of HOPE’, was produced, outlining the conclusions made at the conference and the steps that need to be taken. Let’s hope this leads to real action and further data collection so our seas can be sufficiently protected.

Posted in Climate Change, Economy, Ecosystem Services, EU, Marine, Pollution | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Watching the world’s lungs – Technology to monitor global deforestation

The World Resources Institute (WRI) initiated the production of an online tool that would map global deforestation (and reforestation) rates two years ago. This week, that tool was launched and is now expected to enable scientists, policy makers, businesses and activists to evaluate forestry gains and losses which will in turn help them act accordingly to prevent further destruction. The tool – created by a partnership of governments, scientists and environmental groups – is easy to use, informative and is an important step towards transparency about how humans are impacting these indispensable ecosystems.

The monitoring system, called Global Forest Watch (GFW), consists of an interactive map of the world that uses data collected from various sources (NASA, Landsat, NGOs, international databases, government data etc.) and has a menu of analytical options available to highlight areas of interest such as which regions are gaining and losing forest. At a basic level the map can show you global forest cover and how this is changing over time. However, it can also display a variety of information including where there have been active forest fires over the past 7 days (data supplied by NASA), where tropical forest carbon stocks are located according to biomass, if specific areas of forest are being used for industries such as logging and mining, where protected areas are and regions of high biodiversity. Furthermore, the website allows you to examine forestry statistics from each country individually including anything from carbon stocks to the annual revenue provided by the forestry sector to the economy (an estimated $6.7 billion to the British economy in 2006). There is also a blog run by the site and a stories section where anyone can submit stories about forest events in their local areas.

The change in forest cover over time (since 2000) can be examined by scrolling along the timeline displayed at the bottom of the map. This makes zones of most concern more visible and indicates where conservation efforts are needed more urgently – especially with the biodiversity hotspot indicator switched on. This timeline can also allow scientists and conservation biologists to monitor key habitats and push for better law enforcement, such as action against illegal logging. Deforestation alerts are available with the tool which will enhance this ability further.

Because the tool is free and condenses extensive data into an extremely accessible way, it can be used by a wide variety of audiences. Businesses can assess where their produce is coming from so that they can be better informed when trying to promote sustainability within their organisations and companies. It can also be utilised by policy makers to examine the state of global forests and carbon stocks in a clear and comprehendible manner so as to make more informed decisions and contributions when discussing how to prevent further damaging losses. GFW can also be used by members of the public and activists to better understand how and where forests are changing and being lost so they can be informed when making lifestyle, political and campaign decisions.

If we hope to curb the rapidly increasing destruction of the world’s forests (230 million hectares of forest were lost between 2000 and 2012) then carefully monitoring and spreading awareness about this loss in a clear and accessible manner is absolutely key. GFW provides an accessible way to do this for a range of audiences and is a powerful tool to show changes in real time.

In the UK, the forestry commission published a report this week that indicates our forests have been steadily growing over the last century and that we now have 3 million hectares of forest (13% of total land compared with 4-6% 100 years ago). Our forestry industry also directly provides 166,000 jobs, according to the most recent figures from the FAO (2006).

Our newest edition of Ecological Reviews is about Forests and Global Change (Edited by D.A Coomes, D.F.R.P Burslem and W.D. Simonson) will be available shortly and can be pre-ordered here.

Posted in Conservation, Environmental Monitoring, Green Technology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Is dredging a sustainable solution for managing UK floods?

In a recent report by the Chartered Institution for Water and Environmental Management, the UK Government’s recent proposals for increased dredging activity to take place in order to reduce future flooding impacts have been labelled as ‘a cruel offer of false hope to those living in flood prone communities’. Whilst dredging may have its role to play, the report warns that it should only be used as part of a wider more integrated management approach.

Dredging involves the removal of sediment from the bottom and sides of river channels and can also include straightening of channels and deepening of the bottom. These dredged channels require long term maintenance and continued work as new silt will accumulate within the river bed over time. The overall aim of most dredging activities is to reduce the extent of flooding and act as a flood management tool. However, understanding the extent to which dredging can mitigate against flood risk and flooding events can be difficult because of the differences between location and river system hydrology and ecology, which can influence the resulting outcomes.

From an ecological perspective, dredging can have many significant impacts upon river ecosystems and their wildlife. Plant communities can be affected through physical disturbances, alterations in river flow affecting their ecology and non-native invasive species such as Himalayan balsam can also increase in their occurrence. Invertebrates and fish can be affected via sediment disturbances and loss of habitat, which can have knock on effects for those higher up the food chain. Those living on river banks, such as water voles, or those on the floodplains themselves, such as wading birds, can also be affected.

To better understand the role of dredging in flood management, the advantages and disadvantages of dredging have previously been assessed by the Environment Agency using six pilot study sites within the UK. In some cases dredging did reduce the water levels of rivers, but this did not lead to reductions in flooding risk during extreme flows because other features such as infrastructure upon the floodplain increasingly affect water levels rather than the capacity or shape of the river channel itself. In some cases, dredging actually increased the flood risk further downstream.

Using the Somerset Levels case study as an example, the report demonstrates that dredging alone is unlikely to be the answer when there are rarer, more extreme flooding events taking place, such as the recent UK floods.  Whilst dredging can in some cases reduce flooding duration, it cannot prevent flooding during these extreme events and should therefore not be considered as the winning solution to flooding events. Instead, the report suggests that dredging needs to be considered on a case by case basis and used in conjunction with other flood management measures. As our own Ecological Issues suggested, using natural flood management techniques should be a core focus of flood mitigation measures; dredging alone is not a sustainable solution for future flood management in the UK.

Posted in Environment, UK, Water | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

When fieldwork makes a geographer but not a biologist: Part 2

In October of last year, two consultations were opened on A level reform and their content and assessment. Whilst the Department of Education sought views on the content of A levels, Ofqual had their own consultation about the A and AS level assessment. The British Ecological Society was keen to respond to both of these and our views were submitted through SCORE, the Science Community Representing Education, and the Association for Science Education’s Outdoor Science Working Group.

Both of these consultations mark important steps in A level reform, which is hoped will modernise current teaching at this level and better equip students for higher education. However, a key concern for the British Ecological Society and many other science organisations was the proposals in relation to practical work and field work. Whilst the conceptual and theoretical aspects of practical work would continue to form a key part of science curriculum and assessment, proposals state that assessment of the practical skills themselves would not contribute to the overall grade received. Added to this, and particularly worrying for Ecology, whilst fieldwork in Geography would remain a compulsory part of the curriculum, for Biology, fieldwork would not be a compulsory aspect.

These proposals could be detrimental for students for a number of reasons. With regards to fieldwork, it forms a huge part of ecological science, allowing scientific advances to be made and giving students vital opportunities to develop skills which they can build upon when progressing to Higher Education Ecology degrees. In addition, fieldwork is fundamental to inspiring those to get outdoors and experience undertaking science in different environments, an experience that would be taken away for some if fieldwork is no longer compulsory for Biology. The Association for Science Education’s Outdoor Science Working Group generated a specific response to the Department of Education regarding fieldwork provision.

With regards to the practical aspects, there is concern that in certain schools where provisions are already lacking for practical work and fieldwork, this change in assessment could mean that certain schools end up not teaching practical aspects at all. Practical work should not be viewed as an extra addition to science teaching; practical work underpins all scientific understanding and is fundamental for a full learning experience for students. In its response to Ofqual, SCORE recommends that practical work should form an integral part of A level science, that further work should be done to see how practical skills can be effectively assessed and that stakeholders that use grades (such as universities) should also be consulted on these proposed changes. Similar views are also voiced in the response to the Department of Education regarding subject content changes.

We are now waiting to hear back about these consultations and whether our views have been listened to. Stay tuned for an update!

Posted in BES, Ecology, Education Policy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the future for flooding in the UK?

With record breaking amounts of rainfall, floods and storms in the past couple of months, the UK is well and truly underwater. But what about the future? Are more events like these on the horizon, and if so how should we best mitigate against these challenges? We explore some of the reports that have been released this month that look at these issues.

In June last year, the BES released its own report looking at the impact extreme events, such as flooding, could have upon freshwater ecosystems. It wasn’t too long to wait after its launch to see the impacts that flooding has had on the UK. It has been reported that December and January have seen exceptional periods of winter rainfall in England and Wales not seen for 248 years. And more rain is forecast to be on the way, with PM David Cameron warning that victims of the floods are ‘in it for the long haul’. What’s more, there have been increasing comments that these events can be linked to climate change, but just how true are these claims?

In mid-February, the MetOffice and Centre for Ecology and Hydrology released a report detailing the extremity of these floods and whether climate change could have contributed to their frequency and impact. Within the report there are some staggering figures and stats about the record breaking nature of this recent UK weather. December and January, for the South and South East of the UK, have been the wettest since records began since 1910. Similarly, Scotland experienced its wettest December since 1910. High wind speeds have resulted in coastal damage and a storm surge in the North Sea in early December that also coincided with one of the highest tides of the year.

The report further explores these recent trends and puts them in context with wider global trends. In Canada and USA, extreme cold weather was experienced at a similar time, and just in the US it is estimated around 200 million people were affected. These extreme events experienced both in the US and UK can be linked to observed changes in the jet streams over North America and Pacific Ocean, which themselves experienced perturbations at similar times. Added to these were changes in the polar regions, and these combined alterations are thought to have impacted the weather in the UK, such as increasing the severity of storms and increasing amount of rainfall. However, there is uncertainty linking particular events to these changes, although the authors note that it is highly likely that these factors are all interlinked.

But what about climate change? The report argues that three factors should be considered when asking how climate change could be affecting UK weather: 1) how does sea level rise affect coastal flooding 2) number and strength of storms and 3) rainfall events. There are a number of lines of evidence that could suggest climate change is linked, but this is uncertain. Whilst the number of storms has not increased since 1971, the severity and intensity of those has. With regards to rainfall, there are reports that extreme daily rainfall events have increased in their frequency and intensity. However, attributing these changes to climate change requires more modelling and simulations to be run and more research is needed to detect changes in storminess and rainfall events.

But if these extreme events are to increase in their frequency or severity into the future, how can we address these challenges? Our own report highlights the increasing need to invest in natural flood management rather than hard engineering techniques, and sustainable drainage systems in urban areas can help relieve surface run-off. A new report out this week from the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management explores the issue of dredging, which has been highlighted by the Government and media in recent weeks as being a solution to the flooding problem. However, whilst the report notes that dredging could be part of the answer for flood mitigation, it is not the only solution that should be considered. Dredging can have significant impacts upon both ecological and hydrological systems and can even increase flood risk in some areas. Therefore caution should be taken when using this approach, and the report encourages for dredging to be used as part of a wider range of mitigation measures.

Into the future, it is difficult to predict how and when events such as those being experienced at the moment will occur again and the severity their impacts will have. However, there is increasing research being done in this area and political attention is high at the moment to these issues. The biggest key is to ensure that rash actions aren’t undertaken in response to these floods; a strategic approach is needed not only for social and economic recovery, but also for resilient and healthy ecosystems.

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

What can be done to increase the number of women in science?

Last week the Common’s Science and Technology Committee released their report looking at women in STEM careers. Despite recognising the efforts the UK government has made in increasing the number of women in science, technology and maths careers, the report warns that there is still much progress to be made if women are to be better represented in this sector.

Currently, women only account for 13% of all UK STEM jobs. It is estimated, that if things are left as they are, it could take 50-80 years before gender equality is reached in the sector. Clearly, as the committee’s report suggests, further action needs to be taken to increase the representation of women in science. This is important for many reasons, including economic and business prosperity, and it can also result in more well-rounded research. As a more basic argument, there should be more women in science to satisfy gender equality.

The report focuses upon those women in academia and the common problems relating to where these women go at each progressive career step and what happens to prevent them from reaching senior academic positions. This phenomenon, known as the leaky pipeline, varies depending on subject and it can be difficult to understand all the drivers which can affect their progression. For example, in Chemistry a key issue regards retaining women throughout their career, whilst in engineering and physics, recruiting girls in the first place means that there is already a lower number of women in these subjects. With regards to ecology, the problem is also most likely due to retention of women rather than getting them interested in the first place.

So what can be done? There have been many government initiatives aimed to ensure greater representation of women (see report), although there are criticisms that there has been more effort placed on encouraging girls at school to take up STEM subjects, and not enough actions in place to encourage and support women to stay. The committee particularly voiced its concerns over the almost virtual halving of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills budget for the UK Research Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (which has now merged with WISE due to funding cuts), which provides much needed support for women higher up in the career ladder.

The committee called for the government to increase its efforts for retaining women in STEM careers, and encouraged that they should monitor the impact that this reduced funding could potentially have.  Higher Education Institutions (HEI) that undertake STEM research were also urged to increase their actions regarding this issue, and the report highlighted that the short term nature of contracts within these institutes could be very off-putting for many women. Joining schemes such as the Athena Swan Charter was seen as an area all HEI should involve themselves in. With regards to enabling women to progress whilst having a family, the committee called for a review to be undertaken looking at how to support women taking maternity leave and how to integrate back into the workforce.

Interestingly, the report also mentioned the steps that learned societies should do to address these issues. They called for an analysis to be undertaken to find out how more women can improve research findings within different STEM subjects, and generate guidance surrounding this. They also suggest learned societies should promote women role models who have successfully balanced their career whilst having a family, and offer mentoring and support networks at research group levels.

Here at the BES, we are committed to promoting diversity and equality within ecological science. We have successfully run mentoring schemes in the past and this should continue into 2014 to support women starting out or wanting to progress to the next level within ecology. Our recent Education Intern, Christina Ravient, undertook a three month study regarding issues relating to equality and diversity within ecology and the results of her study, including recommendations for the Society into the future, should be published later this Spring.

Posted in Equality and Diversity, Science and Technology Committee, UK | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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