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Culling badgers to control cattle tuberculosis – a black and white issue?

 

By Rosie Woodroffe, Institute of Zoology

Last month, the Zoological Society of London together with the British Ecological Society organised a one day symposium, entitled “ The Conservation Science Policy/Interface: Challenges and Opportunities”. Acting as the launch event for the BES’s revitalised Conservation Special Interest Group, the symposium brought together over 150 scientists, conservationists and policy-makers to explore how the links between science and policy can be strengthened. Among the speakers was Prof Rosie Woodroffe, who provided an overview of her experience of the science and politics of the badger cull controversy. This blog post is an account of the talk she gave at this event.

Rosie Woodroffe

Rosie Woodroffe

Bovine tuberculosis (TB) is a terrible problem for UK farmers, and the government’s response to it had the potential to become a model for evidence-based policymaking. In 1998, faced with rising cattle TB levels, strong evidence that wild badgers were involved in maintaining the infection, but little confidence that 25 years of badger culling had helped to protect cattle, the government took decisive action to improve its evidence base: it established a randomised controlled trial to explore how two forms of badger culling influenced cattle TB. The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) was implemented by government staff and overseen by a small committee of independent scientists (the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, or ISG, of which I was a member). Seventeen years later the RBCT is long since completed, and its clear and consistent results are published in top-quality scientific journals. Yet “badger” has become a byword for entrenched controversy, and a thoroughly evidence-based policy to control cattle TB continues to elude government.

To understand why the RBCT provoked controversy rather than resolving it, one must understand not only what it showed, but also how this information emerged. So, rather than outline the scientific evidence in a convincing logical sequence, I’ll relay the narrative as it unfolded, messily, over time.

Like most good experiments, the RBCT was blinded. In the early stages of experiments when sample sizes are small, trends may be apparent which are far from significant and which disappear when further data are collected. We feared that misinterpretation of such trends might lead to actions which confounded the experimental treatments, such as landowners withdrawing from the trial or culling badgers illegally. Of course it was not possible to hide from farmers whether or not culling was occurring on their land, but the key outcome data – the rates of cattle TB in the trial areas – were accessed only by the government analyst who collated them, two statisticians on the ISG, and an independent auditor. We established a protocol in which interim analyses would be conducted every six months, but the results would be communicated to other ISG members, Ministers, and Defra officials only when a statistically significant result emerged.

It took five years for the first result to emerge. After the long wait, the result was a huge shock to Defra staff: localised badger culling was associated with increases in cattle TB rather than reductions. Trial areas where badgers had been culled locally on and around TB-affected farms (the “reactive treatment”) experienced cattle TB rates significantly higher than those in the areas with no culling (the “survey-only treatment”).

Many Defra officials found it extremely difficult to believe that a form of culling very similar to that used as policy for decades could actually make cattle TB worse rather than better, especially because, at that point, there was little firm evidence to show why reactive culling appeared harmful. They suggested alternative explanations: maybe farmers had been illegally killing badgers in the survey-only areas, controlling TB more effectively than the “official” culls? Maybe our randomisation had accidentally allocated the most TB-affected areas to the reactive treatment?

Despite the uncertainty, Ministers had to act quickly: within days of the ISG discovering the apparently harmful effects of reactive culling, Ministers instructed that this treatment be immediately halted. Traps placed on farms were removed without ever catching a badger. Many Defra officials were uncomfortable with this decision; as one senior advisor complained to me “It depends whether you want to base your policy on a sound veterinary opinion, or just on statistics”.

Over subsequent years, the evidence strengthened. The idea that illegal killing had reduced cattle TB in the survey-only areas was disproved when surveys confirmed that badger activity had declined in the culled areas but not in the unculled areas. The suggestion that the reactive culling areas had higher TB rates by chance was undermined when the treatment was stopped and the harmful effects disappeared. Better still, ecological studies revealed a mechanism whereby badger culling could increase cattle TB. Culling disrupted badgers’ territorial behaviour, giving them opportunities to interact more with other badgers, and with more cattle herds. After culling there were fewer badgers, but each badger was more infectious to cattle because it was more likely to be infected and ranged across more farms.

Despite this growing evidence base, many Defra staff remained deeply suspicious of the RBCT. The reactive treatment had been halted, but the other treatment – large-scale “proactive” culling – continued. The outcomes of proactive culling remained blind for a further three years, while mistrust simmered. A view emerged within Defra that the RBCT would never yield useful results, and that TB control policy would have to advance without it.

As it turned out, there were more surprises to come. Just weeks before the very last scheduled cull, the RBCT threw up new findings. The proactive treatment had reduced cattle TB inside the culled areas. But, completely unexpectedly, TB rates had increased on adjoining unculled land. Once again, these adverse effects appeared to be caused by changes in badgers’ behaviour.

The RBCT was designed to give policymakers a clear way forward; instead it gave them a headache. We had shown conclusively that badgers gave TB to cattle, and that killing large numbers of them could gradually reduce cattle TB inside the culled areas. But while a disease eradication strategy would normally seek to contain infection within a shrinking area, badger culling spread disease to neighbouring land. Worse still, any net benefits depended upon killing a very high proportion of the badger population, very rapidly, across very large areas, repeatedly over several years. Culling which was inefficient, slow, small-scale or unsustained – whether by accident or design – risked worsening the problem it was intended to solve. Given these risks, together with the challenges of delivering affordable culling and the modest benefits even inside the culled areas, we concluded thatbadger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”.

Faced with this uncompromising conclusion, the Minister sought a second opinion. He asked the government’s chief science adviser to evaluate our findings. The chief scientist agreed that badger culling could yield benefits but – having been briefed by Defra staff still smarting from the reactive findings – dismissed our finding of simultaneous harmful effects as “unsound”. His report, which was prepared after a rather cursory reading of our reports and was riddled with errors, was described by Nature as “an example to governments of how not to deal with [scientific] advice”. Nevertheless, Defra now faced a new challenge to evidence-based policymaking: disagreement between scientists.

Since the ISG was disbanded in 2007, other advisory groups have come and gone. Over time the contribution of independent scientists has declined, with greater inputs from vets and farming representatives. Two further culls went ahead in 2013, but when an independent panel deemed them ineffective and possibly inhumane, it was not reappointed. The 2014 culls had no independent oversight, and subsequent claims of success are based on extremely shaky data. Outside government, views have become entrenched and cherry picking evidence has become a cottage industry for both sides of the debate.

If I have learned one thing from living through this science-policy soap opera, it’s this: policymakers and scientists are all just people. People don’t like secrets, and if you’re unaccustomed to experimental design, blinding looks a lot like secrecy. People take time to adjust their views, and new evidence can be hard to accept if it challenges long-held assumptions. Most people prefer to understand before they act: halting the reactive treatment required the Minister to take a leap of faith in science, which was later affirmed by further evidence but hard for his advisors to accept at the time.

How could these problems have been avoided? Perhaps a senior official should have had access to the interim results, to prepare Defra for any emerging findings? But if they had, how could the results have then remained blind to the Minister, to the rest of the ISG, or the public? Would the RBCT have run its course had its interim results been known? More broadly, how could the ISG have helped more Defra staff to feel ownership of the RBCT, while also retaining its own independence? These are difficult problems, hard to resolve even in hindsight. But the truth is, we never seriously expected culling to be so harmful, and so we never expected that our findings would be so hard for Defra to accept.

That the RBCT happened at all is a real credit to Defra. Over the years the RBCT findings have gradually been accepted, and have had a major influence on current policy. The ISG’s caution about the challenges of delivering effective culls has been borne out by recent experience, and over time its conclusions may prevail. In the meantime, similar future endeavours (and I hope there will be many) may benefit from planning for the unexpected. Ecological systems are complex; this was not the first experiment to yield surprising results, and it won’t be the last. Time invested in building mutual understanding and trust between independent scientists and government will not be wasted; and if the findings are surprising next time, perhaps they will be easier to accept.

Rosie Woodroffe is a field ecologist at ZSL, equally fond of badgers and cattle

Rosie Woodroffe (Photo: Seth Jackson)

Rosie Woodroffe (Photo: Seth Jackson)

The views expressed in posts on this blog are personal to the author and are not necessarily shared by any sponsors or owners of this blog or any other person or entity involved in creating, producing or delivering it and no such party shall be held liable for any statements made or content posted.

This post from Rosie Woodroffe is also available on the The Applied Ecologist’s blog and the ZSL Wild Science blog.

For media enquiries about this blog post, please contact the BES Press Officer


Posted in Agriculture, Badgers and bTB, Conference, Conservation, Defra, England, Event, Science, Uncategorized, Wildlife Disease | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

General Election 2015: What do the manifestos promise for the environment?

In March the BES, in partnership with CIEEM and The Sibthorp Trust, hosted “People, Politics and the Planet: Any Questions?”, bringing together politicians from the UK’s six largest parties to debate their environmental policies ahead of the general election. With all the party manifestos now published, and less than two weeks to go until the election, we now have a more detailed view of their environmental commitments.

As an independent learned society and charity, the BES is completely politically neutral, and does not endorse any political party or candidate, or their policies. We have identified three key ambitions for environmental policy-making in the next Parliament: environmental policy informed by sound scientific evidence, recognising the vital role of ecological science in meeting societal challenges, and integrating the value of the environment to human wellbeing and prosperity across government.

Below, we have highlighted the main environmental policy pledges of the seven political parties (listed in alphabetical order) involved in the recent televised leaders’ debate. The summaries below are not an endorsement of any political party or their policies, and should not be assumed to be fully comprehensive.

Conservatives

The Conservatives state that they remain committed to “being the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state that that which we found it”. According to their manifesto, they would:

  • Extend the life of the Natural Capital Committee until at least the end of the next Parliament, and develop a twenty-five year plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity;
  • Establish a “Blue Belt” for marine habitats around the UK’s fourteen Overseas Territories (UKOTs), and a “UK Blue Belt” by completing the network of Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs);
  • Ensure that public forests are kept “in trust” for the nation, and plant 11 million trees;
  • Protect the Green Belt and build new infrastructure in a way that minimises environmental impact, and launch a programme of “pocket parks” in towns and cities;
  • Meet our climate change commitments by cutting emissions as cheaply as possible;
  • Spend £3 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on enhancing the countryside.

Green Party

The Green Party states that it “prioritises the protection of the land, the seas and their inhabitants” and that we need to “return protection of our natural landscape to a central part in our national life”. They would:

  • Introduce a Nature and Wellbeing Act, a new legal framework for the protection of landscape and wildlife, as well as a Forests Protection Bill;
  • Dramatically reduce pesticide use, including banning neonicotinoids, prioritise agri-environment schemes, promote organic farming methods, and support a moratorium on GMOs;
  • Ensure that everyone lives within five minutes’ walk of a green space, and introduce a Nature Improvement Area in every town, city and county;
  • Reform the CAP to promote landscape scale conservation so that all farm payments are directed towards environmental protection and improvement;
  • Expand the UK’s network of MCZs and play our part in creating a Southern Atlantic Reserve;
  • Ensure that conservation in UK Overseas Territories is funded to an appropriate level;
  • Increase the amount of land protected through the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, and defend against attempts to weaken them;
  • Tackle climate change by reducing emissions by 90% in the next 15-20 years, with the aim of zero carbon by 2050.

Labour

Labour’s main manifesto is supplemented by its “Green Plan”, which gives greater detail on the party’s environmental policies. They state that “tackling environmental challenges is a matter of fundamental social justice”. They would:

  • Support the work of the Natural Capital Committee in delivering a twenty-five year plan to reverse the decline of the natural environment, tackle climate change and increase access to nature;
  • Deliver a “step change” in nature conservation building on the Lawton Review;
  • Deliver a full marine protected area around Pitcairn, additional areas around other UK OTs, and establish an ecologically coherent network of UK MCZs;
  • Maintain forests in public ownership and create new woodland near people’s homes;
  • Promote access to green spaces in local planning, and maintain current Green Belt protections whilst introducing an enhanced “Brownfield first” policy.
  • Aim to play a leading international role in tackling climate change, including pushing for an ambitious agreement at the UNFCCC conference in Paris, and introduce an extensive climate change adaptation programme prioritising flood defence;
  • End the badger cull, and free up £150 million of CAP funding for better environmental protection

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats state that they they would “ensure that protecting the natural environment becomes a core commitment of every government department and agency”. They would:

  • Put the Natural Capital Committee on a statutory footing and pass a nature act with legally binding targets for biodiversity, clean air and water;
  • Designate an ecologically coherent network of UK marine protected areas by 2020, and create a one million square kilometre southern Atlantic Ocean reserve;
  • Follow the Independent Panel of Forestry recommendations to protect the national forest estate, and plant at least 750,000 trees a year;
  • Increase the amount of accessible green space including through the creation of new “National Nature Parks”;
  • Introduce a legally-binding target for Zero Carbon Britain by 2050, to be monitored and audited by the Climate Change Committee, and introduce a national resilience plan for adapting to climate change;
  • Implement a comprehensive strategy to tackle Bovine TB, with existing badger cull pilots only continuing if they are shown to be effective, humane and safe;
  • Ensure farming support is concentrated on sustainable food production, conservation and tackling climate change.

Plaid Cymru

As with the SNP, Plaid Cymru do not outline their environmental policies in detail as environment is a devolved issue. More detail about their policy positions can be found on their website. They do however identify a number of priorities in their Westminster manifesto. They would:

  • Seek to transfer full responsibility for Wales’ natural resources to the National Assembly for Wales, establishing a publicly owned energy company and prioritising renewable energy;
  • Introduce a Climate Change Act for Wales, adopting challenging carbon reduction targets;
  • Support a moratorium on the growth of GMOs;
  • Work to prevent the spread of invasive non-native species.

Scottish National Party

As the environment is a devolved issue, the SNP do not set out their environmental policies in detail in the Westminster manifesto. More information about their policies in Scotland can be found on their website. However they do highlight several environmental priorities that they would pursue at a UK level. They would:

  • Call on the UK government to adopt ambitious carbon reduction targets in line with Scotland and continue to support a moratorium on fracking;
  • Support investment in renewable energy including onshore and offshore wind, hydro power and community energy schemes;
  • Support global animal welfare issues including action on the illegal wildlife trade.

UK Independence Party

UKIP “believe strongly that our countryside must be preserved so it can be enjoyed by future generations”. UKIP want the UK to leave the EU, and would hold a referendum on the issue. Many of their policies are therefore predicated on the UK no longer being a member of the EU. UKIP would:

  • Repeal the Climate Change Act and invest in coal and fracking, ending subsidies for wind and solar power;
  • Repeal the National Planning Policy framework and replace it with a new framework prioritising brownfield sites and protecting the Green Belt;
  • Replace the CAP with a UK Single Farm Payment scheme, which would require adherence to 2013 Entry Level Stewardship requirements, and make match funded grants available for environmental improvements on farms;
  • Replace EU directives with local and national regulations;
  • Withdraw from the Common Fisheries Policy, enforce no-take zones and protect coastal ecosystems by ending destructive industrial fishing practices.


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Communication and complexity: making sense of the conservation science/policy interface

Should we cull badgers in the English countryside to control the spread of Bovine TB? The ongoing, fractious debate provoked by this question has in recent years provided a perfect example of the conflicts that can arise at the point where science and policy-making meet. How did we reach the point where a rock star chooses to wear a badger badge to make a political statement at the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games?

Professor Rosie Woodroffe’s comprehensive dissection of the science and politics of the badger cull controversy provided the perfect start to last week’s symposium, jointly organised by the BES and the Zoological Society of London, on The Conservation Science Policy/Interface: Challenges and Opportunities. Acting as the launch event for the BES’s revitalised Conservation Special Interest Group, the symposium brought together over 150 scientists, conservationists and policy-makers to explore how the links between science and policy can be strengthened. As Nathalie Pettorelli, Secretary of the Conservation SIG, outlined in the lead up to the event, the relationship between science and policy is at the heart of the most topical environmental debates, from the current review of the European Birds and Habitats Directives, to the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and  the future of GMOs.

Navigating complexity and uncertainty

The opening discussion of the badger cull highlighted many of the themes that cut across the day’s conversations. How do we ensure that complex, often uncertain science is communicated most effectively to policy-makers? How do science and values interact when taking decisions on contentious issues? Should scientists merely present the “facts” or become advocates for a particular course of action?

Helen Bayliss, Bangor University

Helen Bayliss, Bangor University

While the answers to these questions are relatively complicated, one message from the day was absolutely clear: it is crucial that scientists get involved in policy-making. As one of the speakers remarked, although “your evidence may not change the world, not getting involved won’t change anything”. There are a host of opportunities for scientists to get involved in policy: Helen Bayliss shared her experience of giving evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, whilst Sarah Durant showed how scientists, working in collaboration with NGOs and making intelligent use of the media, had a real impact on the recently passed Infrastructure Act. Organisations including the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Natural Environment Research Council and the BES all highlighted their role as conduits for scientists wishing to engage with the policy-making process.

Bridging the science-policy divide, however, is not always an easy task. It is a fallacy to assume that scientific evidence simply flows in a linear fashion into decision-making, where policies are then selected and adjusted on the basis of the latest findings. A key message from the symposium was that policy-making, like science, is a complex, uncertain and contested activity. As Professor Melanie Austen’s “horrendogram” amply illustrated, the chaotic policy landscape – in this case for marine conservation – is indicative of the sheer number of stakeholders, issues, scales and initiatives involved.

 

Scientific evidence: necessary but not sufficient

In this context, it is vital to recognise the limitations of scientific evidence in the policy-making process. Put simply, science does not have all the answers; it is often necessary for sound-decision making, but not sufficient. In dealing with complex – often “wicked” policy problems – values, judgement, and public dialogue must all be taken into account. Social science also has a vital role to play, and greater interdisciplinary working is required to enable ecologists to draw on the rich body of research as to “how policy works”, whilst also placing scientific knowledge in its wider context.

As Peter Brotherton of Natural England explained, we must respect politicians’ right to operate within the space created by scientific evidence; we should think of good policy as evidence-informed not evidence-based. The badger cull is a perfect example of how the same evidence – accompanied by disagreement between scientists – can be interpreted very differently. In situations such as this, scientists must be clear about the role they are adopting; as an “issue advocate” seeking to advance a certain policy option or an “honest broker” elucidating and clarifying the policy options.

With any interactions at the science-policy interface, good communication, married with good timing, is essential. Both Jonny Wentworth of POST and Professor Bill Sutherland, BES President, emphasised the need for scientists to be clear about uncertainty when communicating with policy-makers, while Abigail Bunker of RSPB argued that effective communication isn’t just about presenting the facts, but framing them in a way that appeal to people’s – in this case policy-makers’ – existing values. Successful interventions in the policy process, such as the “Making Space for Nature” report, work when sound science is coupled with good communication, timed and framed in the right manner.

Get involved!

Delegates at the Symposium

Delegates at the Symposium

Working at the interface between science and policy can be complex and challenging. Yet, as the symposium demonstrated, there are a multitude of opportunities for scientists to engage with policy-making. Scientific evidence, well communicated, has a vitally important role to play in improving the quality of environmental conservation policy. One of the BES’s ambitions for the next Parliament is that environmental policy is informed by sound scientific evidence, and that policy-makers have access to the best available ecological science to inform decision-making. If you want to help us achieve that goal, why not attend an event, try a placement, contribute to a consultation response, or apply to join our Public and Policy Committee?

Find out more about upcoming Conservation SIG events. Audio recordings and presentations from the symposium will be available online soon.

Posted in BES, Biodiversity, Conference, Conservation, Ecology, Event, Habitat Loss, Invasive Species, Science Communication, Science Policy, Select Committee | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Biodiversity offsetting: uncertainty and unanswered questions

Biodiversity offsetting is a market-based mechanism that aims to compensate for biodiversity loss as a result of development through conservation activities that deliver an equivalent amount of biodiversity elsewhere. As approaches to conservation informed by a natural capital approach enter the mainstream, offsetting is increasingly being explored as a policy option.

In 2013, the BES hosted a workshop examining the science behind biodiversity offsetting, the outputs of which informed our subsequent response to Defra’s consultation on the topic, which closed in November of that year. The workshop concluded that any offsetting policy implemented in England must be informed by scientific evidence and employ a transparent and consistent mechanism for calculation and evaluation rooted in sound ecological science. We also identified a need for further research into the design and implementation of biodiversity offsets in order to ensure the success and resilience of any policy adopted.

Since the consultation closed at the end of 2013, the Government has made little progress in finalising and implementing an offsetting policy, with the results of the consultation yet to be published.  With the general election just a few weeks away, the decision as to how – or if – biodiversity offsetting is put into practice in England will fall to the next Government.

Unanswered questions remain

Two recently published papers provide a timely reminder of the need to ensure that biodiversity offsetting is informed by robust scientific evidence. The first, an editorial by Evans et al in Animal Conservation, highlights five areas where “progress is needed to ensure biodiversity offsetting can be informed by robust scientific evidence”. These are:

  1. Improving our understanding of the implications of biodiversity offsetting across a greater range of habitats. Most studies to date have focused on wetlands and grasslands, but this needs to be extended to include habitats such as forests, marine habitats and uplands.
  2. Understanding the management actions and timescales required to restore sites to functioning ecosystems equivalent to the habitats lost to development.
  3. Development of a comprehensive framework for treating uncertainty in offsets, for example to inform multipliers and habitat banking.
  4. An accepted and universal design for biodiversity offsetting schemes that considers the wider context of development, the offset accounting system, and the approach to defining and calculating biodiversity losses and gains.
  5. A deeper debate on the moral and ethical dimensions of offsetting, examining the social assumptions, implications and values that underpin this approach, and setting it within national, regional and local contexts.

Perverse Incentives?

A second paper, published by Gordon et al in the Journal of Applied Ecology, argues that insufficient attention has been paid to the risk that biodiversity offsetting could introduce “perverse incentives” that undermine their intended outcomes. The authors identify four perverse incentives that could arise from poorly designed offset schemes:

  1. Biodiversity offsetting schemes could entrench or exacerbate existing baseline declines in biodiversity if the crediting baseline – the point at which an offset scheme is adjudged to have achieved “no net loss” – is poorly specified. If biodiversity is already in decline, then “locking-in” offset schemes to a declining baseline can perpetuate this decline.
  2. An extensive, “liquid” biodiversity offsetting market could crowd out other conservation actions, as designation of land, and action to improve the trajectory for threatened species – rather than simply avert loss – would reduce opportunities for generating offset credits.
  3. The involvement of volunteers in offset schemes – as the authors highlight has been the case in Australia – risks shifting volunteer effort away from additional schemes to those that are mandatory, whilst also undermining the voluntary ethos by providing labour that developers would otherwise have been required to pay for.
  4. The presentation of offsets as environmental gains, when they are by design neutral at best, risks generating false confidence in conservation outcomes.

Gordon et al argue that these potential perverse incentives are not reasons to abandon biodiversity offsetting, but must be properly considered if “grave environmental risks” are to be avoided.  Similarly, Evans et al conclude that “constructive, critical engagement is required between conservation scientists and decision makers” to allow “adequate scrutiny” of offset schemes and enable them to become “a useful tool that can reconcile nature conservation and resource development”.

One of the BES’s key ambitions for the next Parliament is that environmental policy is informed by sound scientific evidence, and that policy-makers have access to the best available ecological science to inform decision-making. How the next Government chooses to take biodiversity offsetting forward will be a key test of this principle.


Posted in Biodiversity, Biodiversity Offsetting, Conservation, Development, Habitat Loss, Planning Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Conservation Science/Policy Interface: Challenges and Opportunities

Yesterday saw over 100 delegates gather at the Zoological Society of London for a joint BES/ZSL Symposium on the Conservation Science/Policy Interface. Catch up with all the highlights with our Storify below!

Posted in BES, Conference, Conservation, Ecology, Event, Science Communication, Science Policy, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Natural Capital: is it at risk?

Natural capital is of central importance to the economy and people’s welfare now and in the future. It is defined as ‘the elements of nature that directly and indirect produce value or benefits to people’. In 2011, the Natural Environment White Paper committed the government to halting the decline of natural capital and being the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited it. However, pressures on our environment and biodiversity mean that our natural capital is continuing to decline and degrade, putting benefits to society at risk. But, how do we identify which elements of natural capital are at risk, before it’s too late?

How do we risk assess our natural capital?

A new study to be published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, with authors including, Professor Georgina Mace (BES Past President) and Professor Rosie Hails (BES Vice President and Chair of the Natural Capital Initiative) aims to tackle this question. The research adopts a new tool, a risk register, to help to identify the most serious risks to the UK’s natural capital. A risk register is a tool commonly used by organisations to identify the highest risks to business operations. It highlights those risks that require attention, and is developed by considering each plausible risk and other information such as its probability, likely impacts and mitigation-potential. The risk register has previously been used by industry to identify risks to business. Professor Mace and colleagues have adopted this technique to carry out a preliminary assessment of natural capital assets in the UK.

The process was undertaken in the following stages:

(1) Defining natural capital assets for the risk register. Natural capital assets were defined as species, ecological communities, soils, freshwaters, land, minerals, the atmosphere, subsoil assets, coasts, oceans, as well as the natural processes and functions that underpin their operation.

(2) Identifying benefits for use in the risk register. Benefits were categorised into ten major classes including food, freshwater, recreation, wildlife and hazard protection.

(3) Exploring relationships between assets and benefits. Degradation of natural capital was recorded in the risk register in relation to the extent to which it will lead to loss of wellbeing in present or future generations. The research considered the relationship between three characteristics (quantity, quality, spatial configuration) for each of the eight habitats and each of the ten benefits.

(4) Identifying targets or limits for each asset–benefit relationship. A risk classification was assigned for each characteristic, habitat type and benefit using the asset-benefit relationship. Risk scores ranged from high to low based on whether the asset is deteriorating and how rapidly.

Are our natural assets at risk?

The research process helped to develop a risk register that identifies natural capital assets which are suffering degradation, placing the benefits we derive from them at risk. Key messages derived from the risk register include:

Freshwaters and mountains, moors and heathland habitats are at the highest risk. These habitats are most likely to lose their ability to sustain specific benefits including: aesthetics, hazard protection, wildlife, recreation, clean water and equable climate. These habitats provide a range of benefits and are currently subject to a number of human pressures.

Wildlife is at risk in many habitats including semi-natural grasslands, enclosed farmland and freshwaters. This is due to poor quality habitats and unfavourable spatial configurations.

Carbon storage (equable climate) is at risk from the degraded condition of mountains, moors and heaths which have the potential for much greater carbon storage.

Benefits associated with the quantity of woodland are at low risk. Woodlands have doubled in the post-war period. However, many of these benefits are still at risk due to the poor quality and unfavourable spatial configuration of woodland.

The quality of habitats is the biggest cause of a “high risk” status, rather than habitat quantity or spatial configurations.

What are the implications for policy? 

The task of monitoring and measuring natural capital at a national level is vital, but also very challenging given the scale of data gathering and analysis necessary for comprehensive assessments. As stated by Mace and Colleagues, this research highlights significant gaps in ecological science and emphasises the importance of measuring status and trends in natural assets, at a scale and resolution that is relevant to their benefits. Although preliminary, the risk register provides strong indications that two specific habitats are at significant risk: freshwaters and mountains, moors and heathland habitats. If the risk register is updated regularly, it will help to focus research (e.g. monitoring and data gathering) and guide priorities for recovery and protection of natural assets. However, a greater understanding of asset-benefit relationships is now required in order to develop and add further value to the risk register. This work is vital for the recovery and protection of natural assets, helping to increase the sustainability of benefits in the future.

‘Natural Capital’ is one of the BES’s six policy areas, complementing the overarching priorities of promoting scientific evidence in policy-making and fostering interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange. The BES is part of the Natural Capital Initiative (NCI), a partnership between the British Ecological Society, Society of Biology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the James Hutton Institute. The NCI aims to support decision-making that results in the sustainable management of our natural capital based on sound science. The NCI aim to do this by: (1) initiating and facilitating dialogue between people from academia, policy, business and civil society and (2) communicating independent, authoritative synthesis and evaluation of the scientific evidence base. Further information about the NCI, upcoming events and how to get involved can be found on the website.


Posted in BES, Biodiversity, Ecology, Economics, Environment, Science Policy, UK, Valuation, White Paper | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making the CaSE for Science Post-Election

‘Broadly, all of the major political parties in the UK are saying that science is great, but it isn’t a headline message for any of them.’ So said Naomi Weir, Acting Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) at yesterday’s Policy Lunchbox meeting. The parties’ positions on science and engineering have been communicated to CaSE through a series of letters, published last Friday on the CaSE website, in response to a request for clarification from the organisation. Naomi made it clear that gaining a clear position from each party about where science fits in amongst their spending plans is a priority for CaSE: the Green Party is the only one so far to specify a spending commitment, declaring an intention to spend one percent of GDP on science, were they to be elected to form a Government.

Now that Parliament has been dissolved and campaigning has formally started in advance of polling day on 7th May, political parties will be publishing their manifestos shortly. CaSE will be poring over these, as will others in the science, engineering and maths community, to look for details about precise commitments to science spend and declarations on their plans for science and innovation. CaSE has contacted all prospective parliamentary candidates, inviting each of them to write a piece on the CaSE blog reflecting on the importance of science and engineering and how they would seek to support this were they elected. So far 130 candidates have agreed to do so and pieces will start to appear soon. Later this week, the CaSE blog will carry pieces providing advice to newly elected MPs on how to deal with science advice in Parliament, authored by Andrew Miller, outgoing chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, and David Willetts, formerly Minister for Universities and Science. Naomi made it clear that with 20 per cent of the electorate in science-based jobs, the views of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and colleagues towards each of the major parties standing for election could have an important role to play.

In making the case for why investment in science and engineering is important, Naomi made it clear that messages around the comparative spend of the UK on science (with the UK behind Luxembourg for example in the league table of percentage of GDP spent by Government on science and engineering) were not as powerful as figures on the comparative return for investment of expenditure on the science base. The benefits that accrue to health, the environment, education, new technologies, businesses, markets and avoided costs through investing in science are all powerful messages, particularly when provided alongside illustrative case-studies, something which the newly launched searchable REF impact database can assist with.

Naomi showed a powerful graphic from the Guardian from 2011-12, illustrating how public money was spent by Government during that tax year. It revealed, unsurprisingly, that Government has many other priorities than science spending. In making the case for investment in science, a nuanced message about how science and engineering in fact supports and underpins these other priorities is important; a recognition that Government has a difficult job to do in balancing these spending commitments against one another.

During the question and answer session, Nic Bilham, Head of Strategy and Extenal Relations at the Geological Society, made the important point that the learned society community and others in the science, engineering and maths sector, should think carefully about priorities for science spending in the next Parliament. Although it’s important for the science community to ‘stick together’, with a unified voice about the significance of investing in this area to underpin economic growth and development, in the run-up to the election, we will need to be helpful to any new Government. Rather than simply ‘hold a mirror up’ to Government when they ask the community where investment should be made, the community needs to consider what the spending priorities are, given a limited pot of funds. Naomi called on attendees at Policy Lunchbox to take back to their organisations the question: ‘What specific actions could a new Government take that would be most beneficial (or detrimental) to your organisation or the sector in which you work?’ Perhaps it would be useful for us all to reflect upon this a little in the six weeks or so until the election.

Policy Lunchbox is a network of individuals working in science policy across the third sector, Parliament and Government, coordinated by the British Ecological Society, Biochemical Society, Society of Biology and Society for General Microbiology. There is a monthly programme of lunchtime seminars. Find out more and join the network.

Posted in BES, Parliament, Policy Lunchbox, Science, Science Funding, Science Policy, UK | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What are the key environmental priorities for the next government?

There is increasing worry that the environment is far down the list of voter’s priorities. As stated by the Society for the Environment “the environment lobby seems to be losing ground in the battle for political hearts and minds. The agenda in Westminster is focussed on devolution, immigration and the economy”.

Professional bodies across the UK have assembled to produce a report which highlights the importance of the environmental agenda and sets out key environmental priorities for the next government. The report, led by the Society for the Environment, was launched on the 16th March at Westminster and provides a series of short papers which set out ideas for government to: “protect our health, wealth and security through the more rational and sustainable management of natural systems, upon which we all depend”. 

Overall the Society of Environment report recommends that future governments should use “a more holistic approach, creating long-term strategies to tackle environmental challenges for the UK.  The report also sets out a diverse range of policy ideas from across from across twelve professional bodies and Policy Connect. The main points raised in the report were:

  • the importance of the UK leading on climate agreements and embedding the environment across education in order to challenge and change behaviours;
  • supporting the call for a Nature and Wellbeing Bill, a new Air Quality Strategy and highlighting the vital importance of soil protection;
  • asking that energy be regarded as an ecosystem and recommending low carbon energy policy measures from energy production, through supply to consumption;
  • exploring the long term commitments needed to build a resilient UK and create a circular economy, which will return resources to the UK and create jobs.

How do we protect the UK’s Natural Capital?

One of the most significant priorities highlighted by the Society of the Environment was to ‘protect the UK’s natural capital’, which is also a key priority for the British Ecological Society.  As stated by the reports “only 37% of all protected sites in the UK are well maintained and 60% of UK species are in decline”.  Five professional bodies have presented a range of recommendations within the report, in aim of protecting the UK’s natural capital in the future.  These institutions included: Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM), Institute of Agricultural Engineers (IAgrE), Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES), Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM) and Institute of Fisheries Management (iFm).

The greatest number of recommendations were provided by CIEEM, emphasising the need to ‘nurture nature’. Dr Stephanie Wray at CIEEM stated that “our current approach to managing biodiversity through site and species protection is clearly not delivering the outcomes that are the needed”.  In order to tackle this, CIEEM’s key recommendations for nurturing nature are centred on the following:

  • Furthering the development of a Nature and Well-being Bill.
  • Taking sound ecological advice to move the focus from the protection of individuals of rare species to the protection of ecosystems at the landscape level.
  • Building on the Lawton Report and Biodiversity 2020  to take a strategic view of the natural environment in Britain.
  • Communicating the importance of the natural environment in supporting human health and well-being.
  • Reversing the decline in funding for and prominence of the statutory environment bodies.
  • Ensuring that the local and regional level local authorities have access to good ecological advice associated with their planning and development control functions.
  • Requiring businesses to report on their triple bottom line including their impacts on biodiversity.
  • Focusing on implementation and enforcement action to ensure that actions to protect, or to mitigate harmful effects on, the environment are carried through.

As stated by Tony Juniper, President of the Society for the Environment, “the report confirms once more that achieving a healthy environment is far from marginal to Britain’s interests. Looking after where we live, both globally and locally, is vital for our long-term health, wealth and security and must be a far more prominent agenda as we approach the election”. 

What’s next?

Similar issues were also discussed by the UK’s six leading political parties at the ‘People, Politics and the Planet: Looking Ahead to the General Election’. Panellists were questioned on the environmental priorities they hope to put into practice after May’s general election. The ‘protection of natural capital’ was a significant theme throughout the debate. Across the panel, there was universal acknowledgement of the need to protect and enhance the UK’s natural capital, as well as recognition of its value for human well-being and prosperity.  Panellists also recognised the need for parallel accounting and the importance of integrating environmental aims into all government decision making. This demonstrated the extent to which the language and framing of natural capital is becoming part of mainstream policy-making. See link for more information and to watch a video of the debate.

At the BES we have identified three ambitions for good policy-making over the term of the next Parliament: (1) environmental policy informed by sound scientific evidence, (2) recognising the vital role of ecological science in meeting societal challenges, and (3) integrating the value of the environment to human well-being and prosperity across government.

Over the next few months, we will be fleshing out our priority policy issues for the next Government, underpinned by the three key principles outlined above. We are keen to hear from our members about their priority issues ahead of the general election, and case studies that can demonstrate the impact of ecology to policy-makers. Our policy work depends on the support and expertise of our members and there will be numerous opportunities to engage over the coming months. Current opportunities include consultations on the Birds and Habitats Directives and the Nurse Review of the Research Councils to events on conservation conflicts and the science-policy interface.   Please get in touch with our policy team to find out more.

Posted in BES, Biodiversity, CIEEM, Conservation, Ecology, Environment, Government, Parliament, Science Policy, UK, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are we heading for a ‘Greener’ or a ‘Greenwash’ Britain?

Last night, the Green Alliance brought together a high calibre panel to answer questions from an invited audience – which included the BES’s policy staff – at the ‘Greener Britain‘ debate. We listened with interest as Ed Davey (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), his Shadow – Caroline Flint – Liz Truss (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and Caroline Lucas MP (Green Party) debated issues including climate change, sustainable transport and energy policy. Yet the audience was clearly disheartened by the tone of discussion and the commitments promised by the panel: at the close of the event, 70% of those present expressed, through audience voting, their lack of optimism that the next Government will make progress on the environment. The audience’s pessimism actually increased through the course of the debate: a vote taken at the beginning of the evening suggested 64% of attendees lacked confidence that improvements would be made to environmental policy post-election.

A noticeable difference from our own recent hustings debate, organised with our partners at the Sibthorp Trust and CIEEM, was the comparative lack of consensus between the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green Party politicians. This perhaps reflects the closer proximity of the Green Alliance event to the General Election, when the stakes are perhaps higher. All of the panellists agreed that climate change was however the most significant environmental issue to be tackled by the next Government, although Liz Truss was clear that other important issues ranked equally alongside this (air and water pollution, for example). Caroline Lucas called for a ‘new architecture’ of policy-making to be be set up post-election, with an ‘Office of Environmental Responsibility’ and ombudsman to oversee decision-making that affects the environment. Caroline Flint meanwhile highlighted inequalities in access to green space in the UK as an issue requiring urgent attention, ensuring public engagement with nature and support for climate change mitigation and adaptation measures, a position also supported by Liz Truss.

Yet although recognising the importance of tackling climate change, all parties differed in their suggested approaches to doing so. Liz Truss, whilst strongly reiterating her party’s commitment to meeting the stringent target of 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (as set out in the Climate Change Act), stated that producers and consumers would be given the freedom to innovate over time to deliver this. Carbon pricing and new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, were the major mechanisms by which a Conservative Government would work towards the 2050 objective. Caroline Lucas, in contrast, heavily criticised the Coalition Government for putting into statute measures to maximise the economic returns of fossil fuels, describing this as ‘peverse’. Instead, Ms Lucas argued, two thirds to 80% of fossil fuels must remain in the ground in order to prevent further global warming.

One questioner asked the politicians for their views on the likely impact on environmental policy and the development of clean technologies of an exit from the European Union. The Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Labour all agreed that an exit from the EU would be a ‘disaster’ for environmental policy in the UK. Ed Davey suggested that the credibility of the UK going into the UNFCCC climate change negotiations in Paris in December this year (COP 21) would be severely weakened if at the same time discussions were proceeding at home about a referendum and exit from the EU. Caroline Lucas raised the interesting point that EU standards for environmental protection are often seen by Member States as a ‘ceiling’ rather than a ‘floor’ and that in fact they may constrain countries wishing to go over and above them. Ms Lucas suggested that there is room for improving how the EU conducts itself and to reform its aim to fostering sustainability rather than global competition, with aggressive trade practices damaging developing countries.

Perhaps the most contentious issue raised during the debate was fracking. Ed Davey was clear that a great deal of gas will be needed over the next few years to meet our energy demands in the UK. Mr Davey was unequivocal in his point that a climate change gain would be possible by replacing natural gas – currently imported into the UK via energy and fuel intensive processes – with shale gas extracted in this country. Liz Truss was clear too that reports by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering suggest that, given adequate regulation and protections in place, fracking was safe for the environment. Caroline Flint said that under a Labour Government, fracking would not go ahead unless particular regulations proposed by the party were included on the statute book – an echo of Barry Gardiner MP’s response to a similar question at our ‘People, Politics and the Planet’ debate. Caroline Lucas however described as ‘peverse’ the position of the major parties, arguing that shale gas will displace renewables and that money should not be expended to set up a new fracking industry in this country – that won’t come onstream for 10 years – whilst in the meantime missing opportunities to invest in clean sources of energy.

On the budget for Defra under the next Government, Liz Truss and Caroline Flint were both clear: under a Conservative or a Labour Government there will be cuts to the Defra budget, along with savings that will need to be made year-on-year across other government departments. Caroline Flint said that there was room for much more cross-departmental working and less work in silos as a way to find efficiencies.

Once the audience were asked to vote once again and the final scores were collated – 30% optimistic on the next Government delivering for the environment and 70% pessimistic – the chair, BBC journalist Tom Heap, asked the politicians to reflect on their performance over the course of the evening. Ed Davey agreed that politicians from all parties needed to work harder to build trust amongst the public that they have credible policies to tackle some of the major environmental challenges of the 21st century. Tom Heap urged all of the panellists to develop ambitious policies for the environment and to convince others in their parties that policies that have the environment at their heart are also vote-winners.

Further analysis of the event can be found in the Guardian.

Posted in Carbon, Carbon Capture, Climate Change, Conservatives, DECC, Defra, Emissions, Energy, Environment, Event, Government, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Parliament, Political Parties, Renewable Energy, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nurse Review of the Research Councils: Call for Evidence

As part of the science and innovation strategy launched in November, the Government announced that Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Director of the new Francis Crick Institute, would lead a review of the Research Councils. The Nurse Review will examine and provide recommendations on how the Councils can “evolve to support research in the most effective ways, reflecting the requirements to secure excellence, promote collaboration and allow agility, and in ways that best contribute to sustainable growth”. The review will report its findings by late summer, after the general election.

The review comes just a year after the findings of the Triennial Review of the Research Councils were published. The review concluded that the current form and function of the Research Councils – as seven separate non-departmental public bodes – was fit for purpose, and that they were largely effective in meeting their objectives and the terms of their Royal Charter. While the review made a number of recommendations for how the Research Councils could work more effectively, for example in responding to and challenging the Government’s research agenda and improving partnership working, it did not advocate any significant change to their operational model.

Last month an advisory group comprising of a number of prominent figures from the world of research and higher education was appointed to assist with the review, and subsequently the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has launched a call for evidence, inviting the research community to submit their views on how the Research Councils should evolve. The call will also take into account evidence previously submitted as part of the Triennial Review process.

The call asks for evidence in response to four major themes: strategic decision-making, collaborations and partnerships, balance of the funding portfolio and effective ways of working. The themes are shaped by the Terms of Reference of the review, which outlines eleven key questions that it hopes to answer, ranging from the balance between investigator-led and strategically-focused funding to the division of subject areas between councils and support for interdisciplinary research.

What do you think? Add your views to the BES submission

The BES will be submitting a response to the call for evidence to ensure that the views of our members are taken into account as part of the Nurse Review. The starting point for our response will be our previous submission to the Triennial Review. In this submission, we supported maintaining the Haldane principle, whereby decisions on research spending are made predominantly by researchers rather than politicians, but acknowledged that this should be balanced with some research more closely aligned with current governmental priorities. We also highlighted the need for the Research Councils to work better together to foster interdisciplinary research, in particular to avoid important topics of interest to BES members such as pollinators, agriculture and conservation falling in the gaps between councils. We also raised the importance of embedding knowledge exchange programmes that enable businesses, government and the third sector to better access and make use of research.

We welcome views from BES members to inform our response to the call for evidence. The full consultation document can be found here, and views on any or all of the questions posed would be welcome. We are particularly interested to hear your responses to the following questions included in the call:

  • Within each Research Council is the balance of funding well-judged between support of individual investigators, support of teams and support of equipment and infrastructure?
  • How should the work of the Research Councils integrate most effectively with the work of agencies funding innovation, such as Innovate UK, and with the work funded by Departmental research and development budgets?
  • Are the divisions of scientific subject areas between the Research Councils appropriate?

If you would like to add your input to the consultation, or comment on a draft response, please contact the BES Policy Team before Monday 30th March 2015.


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

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