"Winning the prize boosted my research and helped me get my preferred job"

Sylvain Pincebourde Winner of the Elton Young Investigator prize 2007

Is the Sun Rising on a New Era for British Farming?

Liz Truss MP, Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, set out the Government’s goal for a productive and thriving UK farming industry when she spoke to the Oxford Farming Conference  yesterday. The Secretary of State characterised farming in the UK as a ‘sunrise… not a sunset’ sector of the economy, stating that ‘no ambition is too high for British food and farming’. In a speech that skipped briskly through the history of agricultural production in this country, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s import of the potato to the UK in the 1500′s to last month’s release of a report by Defra on the latest trials to cull badgers to control Bovine TB, a vision of future farming was introduced, but it was one in which nature was rather noticeably absent.

The Secretary of State outlined the value of the agricultural sector to the UK economy, some £100 billion annually, employing one in eight people. The production of food shapes the UK’s landscape, with 70 % of the UK’s land in agricultural cultivation: food is the biggest manufacturing industry in this country. With the population globally set to grow to over 9 billion people by 2050 and with the rise of an affluent middle class, with the demands for resources this will bring, the demand for food worldwide is expected to grow by 60% over the same period.

The Government see this growth as presenting an opportunity to British farming; to innovate, to expand and to improve production. Whilst acknowledging that the UK will never be self-sufficient in terms of the food we produce and consume here, Liz Truss suggested that there is scope to expand markets for locally grown produce. Central Government has committed to procuring all food that it purchases locally if at all possible, from 2017, for example. Food and farming was presented as an industry that is ‘at the heart of this Government’s agenda for Britain’s economic future’.

Yet it was concerning that there was no mention in the speech of the vital interdependence between agricultural production and ecology. Agriculture is of course a vital (provisioning) ecosystem service, depending fundamentally on healthy, well-functioning supporting services, such as soil formation, water cycling and nutrient recycling, and on biodiversity, such as pollinators. The Government’s own Natural Environment White Paper, clearly recognises the importance of a healthy, functioning environment to a productive and economically viable farming sector, stating that “a flourishing natural environment and a competitive, resilient farming and food industry [is needed] to contribute to global food security.” We would have wished to have seen this relationship recognised in the speech, absent as it was too from the Secretary of State’s first speech on the environment, to Policy Exchange, last year. The natural environment seemed to be characterised as, in fact, a source of ‘challenge’ to the farming sector, acting as a reservoir of animal and plant diseases, rather than a fundamental underpinning to the ‘opportunity’ that the Government wishes to harness in agricultural improvement.

Elsewhere in the speech, the Secretary of State mentioned two areas of work which are exercising the BES External Affairs Team at the moment and which will form a core component of our work in the coming weeks. The first, the relation between control of badgers and the incidence of TB in cattle, has been well documented on this blog. The Secretary of State was clear that the Government will proceed with their ‘comprehensive strategy’ to control BTb, with cattle movement controls, vaccination in edge areas and culling in areas where the disease is rife. The Government will do ‘whatever it takes to eradicate this disease’ and ‘even if the protest groups don’t like it’, bullish statements reflecting the statement made by the Government when the latest report on the badger culling trials was released just before Christmas.

The second concerns the REFIT of the EU Nature Directives: the review of the Birds and Habitats Directives to assess their fitness for purpose. This takes place against a backdrop of an instruction from the President of the European Commission to Commissioner Vella, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, to explore streamlining the Directives into one piece of legislation. In this context, Liz Truss’ statement that she was ‘determined to see change at the European level’ and that, essentially, decisions should be made in Britain for Britain’s benefit, reflects the UK’s position as one of the Member States pushing for the REFIT to take place. That this could result in a watering down of the cornerstone of nature legislation across Europe, including in the UK, is a concern to many NGOs, including the BES.

As always, we welcome comment and engagement from our members and others on these and other issues.

Posted in Agriculture, Badgers and bTB, BES, EU, UK, Wildlife Disease | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Managing the Career Expectations of Doctoral Students: New Royal Society Guidelines

The Royal Society has released a new set of guidelines that aim to improve the management of doctoral students’ career expectations. The document, aimed at students, supervisory teams, careers and training services and higher education institutions (HEIs), lays out a set of principles and responsibilities that the Royal Society believes should be adopted to help ensure that PhD students’ career expectations are clearly understood by all concerned and effectively managed.

The central thread running through the guidelines is the need for all parties concerned to be up front about the fact that while there are now more STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Maths) PhD students in the UK than ever before, the vast majority of them will go on to pursue careers outside of academia. According to Professor Athene Donald, who chaired the working group responsible for the report, it is vital to “make sure right from the outset that students know that they are not walking into a job for life”. As such, it is essential that HEIs enable students to develop a broad skillset and facilitate them to gain a breadth of experience that equips them for jobs outside of academia.

Principles and Responsibilities

In terms of general principles, the report suggests that as well as developing specific research skills, STEMM PhD is concerned with acquiring generic skills of “independent, creative and critical thinking, team-working, communication, personal organisation and self-awareness to enable students to contribute at a high level across all sectors of employment”. In order to enable students to develop these skills in a manner tailored to their personal career aspirations, they should have access to information, advice and guidance on career options, and the opportunity to access appropriate training. Students should also be able to interact with employers from beyond academia, and gain experience of a range of working environments in order to enable them to make informed decisions about their future careers.

In order to achieve these outcomes, the Royal Society suggests a number of expectations and responsibilities, not just for HEIs and their supervisory teams and careers services, but for students as well. Students should take responsibility for managing their own career expectations and actively seek advice and information on career options. A key recommendation is that they should seek a mentor who is not their supervisor, possibly from outside the faculty or HEI, to provide impartial advice and guidance, with HEIs playing a role in identifying, training and recognising mentors. Supervisory teams should avoid focusing too narrowly on research results, but should support students in accessing appropriate training for transferable skills, and allow students time to explore career options and gain experience outside of their studies.

Responsibilities recommended for HEIs in general include making explicit to students the range of careers available outside academia and incorporating consideration of career options into skills training of PhD students.  For careers and training services specifically, it is suggested that they work closely with departments and labs to provide a tailored service for students, enabling them to gain a clear understanding of the career options training opportunities available, and an appreciation of the generic skills they are developing.

Opportunities for Learned Societies

The recommendations of Doctoral Students’ Career Expectations: Principles and Responsibilities suggest a number of ways in which learned societies can play a key role in supporting students and HEIs to meet their responsibilities and expectations. In the case of the BES, membership (currently free for the first year for PhD students) enables doctoral students to access opportunities to gain experience beyond academia, for instance through policy placements or by taking part in public engagement activities. Events and resources such as policy training workshops and the new careers advice webinar series also offer appropriate training opportunities for a wider student audience. The BES is also able to work directly with HEIs through training courses tailored to the needs of NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships.

With the Royal Society’s stakeholder consultation indicating a positive response to the report’s recommendations from students, academics and HEI managers alike, the Principles and Responsibilities report provides further onus for learned societies to ensure that their career development offer is effectively promoted, and an excellent opportunity to build on existing relationships with both PhD students and HEIs.

Find out more about the BES’s Careers Work or get in touch with our Education Team

Posted in Education, Education Policy, Royal Society, Science, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Defra releases results of the second year of badger culls

The Coalition Government’s policy of culling badgers as part of a package of measures to control the spread of Bovine TB across the UK has been one the most controversial ecological policy issues of this parliament. Just before Christmas, Defra released the results of the second year of culling trials, with the Secretary of State, Elizabeth Truss, reiterating that she is “determined to continue with a comprehensive Strategy that includes culling”, whilst also announcing the publication of a new Biosecurity Action Plan to help farmers minimise the spread of disease.

The second year of culling took place over a six week period starting in September 2014, again restricted to the two trial areas of West Somerset and West Gloucestershire. As the Randomised Badger Culling Trial and other studies have demonstrated, culling too few badgers can lead to an increase in bovine TB in cattle due to the perturbation effect, and as such the Government set targets for the numbers of badgers to be culled based on reducing badger density in each of the trial areas by at least 70%. In Somerset, the number of badgers culled during the six week period was 341, above the minimum target of 316, yet in Gloucestershire only 274 badgers were culled, well below the minimum target of 615.

In contrast to the previous year, the 2014 culling trial was not subject to oversight from an Independent Expert Panel. In 2013 the panel concluded that the culling trial was neither effective in achieving its targets nor in attaining acceptable levels of humaneness, and made a number of recommendations for how the cull could be improved. While the Government accepted the majority of the panel’s recommendations, it did not accept the recommended approach for assessing the effectiveness of culling using genetic methods. The 2014 cull was subject to an independent audit of the “processes, documentation, training and data collection” of the cull, with the auditor concluding that she was satisfied “that the data recorded is complete and accurate”. However, the auditor did not have access to the raw culling data held by contractors conducting the cull on behalf of the NHU, and as such did not assess the quality of this data.

In his advice to the Government on the outcome of the culling trials, Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens concluded that the Somerset result “indicates that industry-led culling can, in the right circumstances, deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits”, yet warned that “the benefits of reducing disease in cattle over the planned four year cull may not be realised” in Gloucestershire due to the lower level of badger population reduction. In the Defra statement accompanying the release of the results, the Government attributed the failure to achieve the culling target to “the challenges of extensive unlawful protest and intimidation”.

While the Government reiterated its intention to continue with a comprehensive strategy that includes culling, no details of future cull plans have been confirmed. However, it has released a joint Defra and industry Biosecurity Action Plan, which aims to reduce the risk of transmission of Bovine TB between cattle, and between cattle and badgers. The Action Plan aims to improve on and off farm biosecurity through a focus on five areas: knowledge and data, evidence, communication, education and training, and equipment.

The control of bovine TB and policy of culling badgers to reduce the spread of the disease is an issue that the BES will be looking at in more detail over the next few months. If you are interested in contributing to our work on this issue, please get in touch with the BES Policy Team.

Posted in Agriculture, Badgers and bTB, Defra, Ecology, England, Government, UK, Uncategorized, Wildlife Disease | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Government Announces new Science and Innovation Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Bovine TB

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

The Public Forest Estate

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

European Union

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

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

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

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

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

Female chamois in France age faster than in Switzerland

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

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

A group of chamois at sunrise (© Marc Cornillon)

A group of chamois at sunrise (© Marc Cornillon)

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

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

A female chamois with her young (© Marc Cornillon)

A female chamois with her young (© Marc Cornillon)

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

Sive (BES Press Intern)
Twitter: @SiveFinlay

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

Charles Elton’s diaries shed new light on Wytham Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find out more about Elton’s diaries here

Sive (BES Press Intern)

Twitter; @SiveFinlay

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

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.