"The BES supported my pilot work in East Asia, it's invaluable for many young research ecologists."

Rob Francis Grant recipient

An Early Visit to Janus

By Dr Rob Brooker, Chair, Scottish Policy Group

At this time of year, with the shops stuffed with stuff and pubs offering some welcome respite from December’s gloom and wet, it’s hard not to get a little Bacchanalian. But for this BES Scottish Policy Group blog, and as an alternative to the ritual madness of the BES Annual Meeting, I thought I’d pay a visit to the more contemplative Janus. “Isn’t this a little early?” you cry. Surely the time for reflection and promises never to eat/drink/play Cluedo ever again is the appropriately-named January? However, at this year’s Annual Meeting I’m handing over the Chair of the Scottish Policy Group to Ruth Mitchell, and so this feels like a good time to look back on what we hoped the group would achieve for the BES and its members, where we currently stand, and what goals we might set ourselves for the next few years.

I had a quick dig in in my SPG files to find the original concept note put forward to the BES Policy Committee (in May 2011! – tempus fugit) for the development of regional policy groups. The aims included improving the BES Policy Team’s awareness of policy developments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, increasing both the Policy Team’s and BES members’ ability to respond to these developments, and assisting policymakers through the provision of appropriate, timely and evidence-based advice. This initiative was in part prompted by the realisation that many of the policy areas relevant to the BES (including biodiversity, climate change, and agriculture) had been devolved from Westminster to the Parliaments and regional assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the BES were to engage on these issues at a genuinely UK level, it needed a mechanism to keep track of developments away from Westminster.

The Scottish Policy Group has been able to act as a general test case for this approach. And in getting established we have been lucky in a number of ways, not least by having a very supportive BES Policy Team, and considerable advice and help from Scottish Environment LINK (particularly Andy Myles and Rea Cris). In addition BES members in Scotland have really responded with interest to the group’s establishment and ongoing work; we now have 90 folk on our mailing list (all BES members), including an increasing number of early career researchers, which I think is essential if any SIG is going to have momentum and survive long-term.

So has it worked? I would certainly say we’ve increased the Society’s awareness and responsiveness with respect to key areas of Scottish policy development, in particular biodiversity policy. I wonder sometimes whether the Policy Team might occasionally like a holiday from e-mails arriving from north of the border. The challenge can be to choose which policy areas to engage with, not least because we realise we have only a limited capacity and manpower available, but I also think we’re in the process of developing the capacity of BES members in Scotland to respond to policy developments; for example, we’re currently engaging with the recently-initiated review of protected areas. The group is also trying to provide communication channels by which BES members can themselves get more engaged with the policy-making environment in Scotland, for example through our Pie And A Pint events. As to the final goal of assisting policymakers to access good quality evidence and advice, I would say this is a work in progress and needs to be linked to the development of a comprehensive expertise database within the BES, an activity which is currently underway.

In terms of general reflections about the whole process, one of the critical things about the groups is its developing autonomy and internal impetus. Andy Myles from Scottish Environment LINK argued strongly in an early Pie And A Pint event that names matter: it was important to call the group “Scottish” because this immediately demonstrates it is “of Scotland”. The legislation is generated by and delivered in Scotland, and the group operates in a similar way and this may be important in giving us legitimacy when talking to Scottish policymakers. I also hope this has benefits for the BES beyond simply the capacity for covering policy developments in Holyrood. It is perhaps good for the Society to have a core of activity specifically in Scotland (which can feel like a long way from events in Charles Darwin House), although I’m conscious that we’ve focussed very much on Edinburgh events and need to start thinking about moving north of the Firth (once the bridge is open again). The other general reflection, and its one that we repeat like an SPG mantra, is that things can be done differently in Scotland. Routes of communication to policymakers and MSPs are much more direct and simple, but this cuts both ways. It provides opportunities for understanding and linking into policy making, but achieving a higher profile and recognition also means as a group – and as researchers – we may be under more direct scrutiny.

So overall I think we’re in a good place and it’s a good time for me to hand over the Chair to Ruth (good luck Ruth!). There’s still stuff to do to deliver the Society’s original aims, but we’ve got a very solid foundation to build on and I hope some of the lessons we’ve learnt in Scotland can help with similar initiatives in Wales and Northern Ireland. For those of you not coming to the meeting, feel free just to get in touch by e-mail to find out more about the group, or check out the Scottish Policy Group page on the BES website. For those coming to Edinburgh for the annual revels, several members of the Scottish Policy Group committee will be around throughout the Annual Meeting, as will Jackie Caine and Ben Connor, the BES’ Policy Manager and Officer, respectively. If you’re at all interested in SPG activities – irrespective of whether you’re based in Scotland – then please come to chat with any of us. Alternatively you’ll find us in the Royal Dick bar of the Summerhall arts centre, 19:45 on Monday 14th December, or at our workshop on the Tuesday lunchtime.

Posted in BES, Scotland | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”

The majority of the world’s soils are not in good condition, and 33 per cent of land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinisation, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils. These were the headline findings of the Status of the World’s Soil Resources, published last week by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to coincide with World Soil Day: the culmination of the International Year of Soils. This comprehensive report, the work of over 200 scientists from 60 countries, is the first major global assessment of soil and related issues.

Taken for granted?

Soil is not the most glamourous of public policy priorities; as José Graziano da Silva, FAO Director-General recognises in the Status report, “we have taken soils for granted for a long time”. Yet human life on earth is utterly dependent on soil  and the vital services it provides: underpinning food production, hosting a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity, providing carbon storage essential to mitigating climate change, and enhancing our resilience to flood and drought through water storage and filtration.

Given its importance, is soil given the policy prominence it deserves? The European Commission’s 2006 proposal for a Soil Framework Directive was held in limbo by European Parliament and Council for over seven years before finally being scrapped in 2013, and only a few Member States have specific legislation on soil protection.

In England, the most recent significant policy intervention on soil was in 2009, when the Labour Government published its Safeguarding our Soils strategy, setting out a vision that “by 2030, all England’s soils will be managed sustainably and degradation threats tackled successfully”, with “practical steps” pledged to “prevent further degradation of our soils, enhance, restore and ensure their resilience, and improve our understanding of the threats to soil and best practice in responding to them”. While the Coalition Government published a revised set of standards for farmers at the start of 2015, soil has not been a major theme in environmental policy in recent years.

Monitoring and measuring soil health

It is in this context that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has launched an inquiry into soil health in the UK. The start of the inquiry coincided by an event hosted last week by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and chaired by EAC Chair Huw Irranca-Davies MP, which sought to lay out some of the key scientific and policy issues associated with soil health, its monitoring and management.

The range of speakers, from soil scientists to economists, underlined the many ways in which soil provides vital services to society. These included commonly-cited factors such as agricultural productivity and carbon storage, but also the role of soils in mitigating urban flood risk and underpinning the public health benefits of green spaces. Journal of Ecology editor Professor Richard Bardgett highlighted the need to think of soils as a living ecosystem; for a soil to be healthy, it must have life, and where soils are degraded the complexity and diversity of these ecosystems is threatened.

A key issue raised throughout the event was the need to develop better indicators – physical, chemical and biological – for assessing soil health, and for these indicators to be used to develop more comprehensive monitoring programmes that give an accurate picture of the state of our soil. Appropriately, the question of how best to measure and monitor soil health is a key focus of the EAC inquiry, alongside understanding the potential consequences of failing to protect soil health, and assessing the measures currently in place. The inquiry is particularly timely given that Defra is currently developing two major strategies: a 25-year plan for the environment and a 25-year plan for agriculture. Given that these two plans are being developed separately, it seems essential to ensure that soil management is joined up, and given due prominence across each strategy.

Have your say

We will be responding to the EAC’s inquiry on soil health, which closes on the 14th January, and welcome views from members on the following key questions identified by the Committee:

  • How could soil health best be measured and monitored? How could the Government develop a strategy for tracking soil health?
  • What are the benefits that healthy soils can provide to society?
  • What are the consequences of failing to protect soil health for the environment, public health, food security, and other areas?
  • What measures are currently in place to ensure that good soil health is promoted? And what further measures should the Government and other organisations consider in order to secure soil health?
  • What role (if any) should soil health play in the Government’s upcoming 25 year plan for the natural environment?

If you would like to contribute to our inquiry response, please contact Jackie Caine, Policy Manager, at jackie@britishecologicalsociety.org.

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Ecosystem services or ecosystem shame?

By Dr Hannah Grist, Communications Representative, Scottish Policy Group

This month heralds the event that everyone has been waiting for and looking forward to all year: yes, the BES annual meeting is nearly upon us. However, it’s not all Christmas jumpers and fun runs: somewhere in among there are some serious workshops on some timely issues.

As 2015 draws to a close and world leaders meet in Paris to discuss climate commitments, there is time to step back and reflect on the wider picture for ecology and conservation. Many policy documents and targets drawn up over the past few years have had the catchy “2020” somewhere in the title, partially a reflection on the timing of achievable change, and partly because one should never waste a pithy headline opportunity. Yet with five years to go until the deadline, how far do we have to go, and, perhaps more importantly, are we taking the right approach?

At the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in 2010, the findings were that the targets set for 2010 had not been achieved at the global level, and the diversity of species and ecosystems continued to decline. One of the problems identified was an “insufficient integration of biodiversity issues into broader policies, strategies and actions (1)”, and in particular a lack of connection at the policy level between biodiversity and human wellbeing. The solution to this problem was to set the direction for the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity as “Living in harmony with nature, where biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people (1).”

For conservationists, these words have often been approached with mixed feelings. On a fundamental level, it is hard to argue with the principles of the ecosystem approach: that humans are an integral part of the ecosystem, and our impacts upon and uses of the environment cannot be considered a separate issue from biodiversity conservation. There are many arguments about where the balance should lie between human development and environmental protection, but recognising that it is indeed a balance is an important first step, and one that has yet to be recognised fully across policies and management in any country.

It is the focus on ecosystem services as a method for achieving integration that rings alarm bells for many. Ecosystem services were conceived as a method of categorising the ways humans benefit from healthy and functioning ecosystems, including provision of clean air and water, decomposition of waste and regulation of climate (2). Increasingly, it has become linked with the idea that it is possible to put an actual financial value on these services, to the extent that it is possible to put a global price on the environment (3). Whether or not the total value assessment is valid, the concept that the environment can be brought into the marketplace has been widely adopted as a basis for policies on a range of issues, including biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation (4).

Ecosystem services were originally promoted by conservationists as a way to categorise the tangible benefits of the environment to policymakers, rather than relying on abstract notions of intrinsic value. However, it is possible that, by framing the debate in terms purposefully designed to be familiar and meaningful to proponents of neoliberal ideology, the concept has become a victim of its own success. Increasingly, there are discussions about whether a focus on ecosystem services is actually detrimental to biodiversity, particularly if biological conservation is framed as a beneficial side effect of effective ecosystem services management and not as a goal in its own right (5).

It is a contentious issue- and an important one- and it will inevitably play out for a considerable time. However, if we are to meet the targets set out in the European Biodiversity Strategy and subsequent national strategies on biodiversity to halt species and habitat loss, we will need to use the most effective methods available. There is therefore an urgent need for focused discussion on the benefits and pitfalls, and even more importantly, further evidence as to whether this approach actually delivers effective biodiversity conservation (6).

To this end, the BES Scottish Policy Group, in conjunction with the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy’s Science and Technical Group, has organised a workshop at BES 2015 on “Do ecosystem approaches deliver biodiversity conservation?” If you’re interested in and motivated by this topic, please come along and let us know your opinions and thoughts. The workshop will be taking place at 13:15 on Tuesday 15th December in the Lammermuir Suite.

1 Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (2010). The Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Nagoya, Japan.

2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press.

3 Costanza, R. et al. (1997) The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature, 387, 253–260.

4 Hicks, C. et al. (2014) The relationship between biodiversity, carbon storage and the provision of other ecosystem services. Critical Review for the International Climate Fund, UK.

5 Mace, G.M. et al. (2012). Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: a Multi-layered Relationship. TREE, 27, 19-26

6 Silvertown, J. (2015) Have ecosystem services been oversold? TREE, 30, 641 – 648

Posted in BES Annual Meeting, Biodiversity, Biodiversity Strategy, Conservation, Ecosystem Services, Event, Scotland, Uncategorized, Workshop | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

REFIT of the Birds and Habitats Directives- Draft emerging findings.

By Amy G. Fensome, Policy Intern

Last week the consortium of consultants working on the REFIT “Fitness Check” of the Habitats and Birds Directives released a draft of their findings ahead of the stakeholders’ conference on Friday 20th November.

The review collated data from a wide range of sources including the BES and addressed 5 key evaluation criteria: effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, coherence and EU added value. This last criterion evaluates the benefits and change resulting from EU legislation above and beyond what could have been achieved with action taken at the national or regional level.

Overall the consultants report that the Directives are considered to be effective and coherent but require better implementation and stronger enforcement, which require greater funding. The species protection standards have led to the control of illegal hunting practices and to the reversing of declines across a range of Annex I bird species however the impacts of the measures taken so far are not yet sufficient to meet the overall aims of the Directives. The Directives alone cannot deliver the EU 2020 goal of halting biodiversity loss without complementary action being taken in key policy sectors such as agriculture. The key findings are summarised here.

The review reports that the Directives are not an impediment to sustainable development. The Natura 2000 network is valued at €200-300 billion for ecosystem services and €55-85 billion for jobs and tourism whilst €5.8 billion annually is invested in the network. Many businesses support keeping the Directives as they are, in part because consistency is important. Considerable support also comes from conservation NGOs, Member States and an unprecedented response from the public (over 520,000 responses to the public questionnaire). A separate document, issued at the same time, provides a detailed account of evidence gathering and contributors which we have summarised here.

On Tuesday the 17th November, The All Party Parliamentary Group for Biodiversity, chaired by Barry Gardiner MP, held a panel discussion on the future of the Nature Directives. The meeting, which was well attended with representatives from a number of conservation NGOs, game and countryside organisations and government authorities, opened with a speech from Stanley Johnson. As one of the “founding fathers” of the Directives during his time working for the European Commission he was unlikely to fault them but his views chimed with those of the consultation and perhaps a number of those in the audience; namely that there is a “huge weight of approval” for the Directives and that the review was an attempt to weaken legislation; that to open the Annexes for re-evaluation could be “dangerous” and finally, that we need to “get on” and implement the Directives as they stand rather than meddle with them.

The issue of implementation and enforcement of the Directives was taken up again by Andy Baker, of Andrew Baker Consultancy Ltd, who argued for a stronger regulator saying that “the government has starved Natural England of resources”. Andrew Spencer, from CEMEX and the business representative, emphasised the role of clear and consistent regulation saying that this is important if communities are to trust businesses such as CEMEX. He also suggested that the Directives support rather than hinder business and encourage innovation. Many businesses, he said, are against changing the Directives as this would create uncertainty which could inadvertently damage their performance and competitiveness. Finally, Kate Jennings, of the Joint Links NGO coalition, made the point that relying on national regulations alone could fail biodiversity, something to bear in mind as we approach the EU referendum.

Posted in Agriculture, Birds, Conservation, Defra, Development, Economics, EU, Habitat Loss, Land Use, Parliament, Planning, Wildlife Management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Europe’s wood pastures: condemned to a slow death by the CAP?

Wood pastures – open woodland providing shelter and forage for livestock – cover several million hectares of farmland across the European Union, encompassing a range of environmentally valuable, agriculturally productive and culturally important landscapes. But just how many trees should a wood pasture have? It may seem like an odd question, but according to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the answer is absolute: no more than 100 trees per hectare. Under the latest CAP rules, a pasture with 100 trees per hectare is perfectly eligible for direct payments. 101 trees however, and the land is ineligible for CAP support, even if it supports grazing livestock in exactly the same way.

POL_wood pastures

Europe’s Wood Pastures: European Parliament Seminar

The bizarre prospect of farmers counting and cutting down trees to align with an arbitrary rule was the most striking image of a seminar held on 17th November in the European Parliament to discuss the impacts of European policy on wood pastures across Europe.  Europe’s wood pastures: condemned to a slow death by the CAP? was organised by the European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism, Pogány-havas Association and BirdLife Europe, with financial support from a number of organisations including the BES Forest Ecology Special Interest Group. The event brought together over 130 conservationists, scientists and policymakers from across the continent.

As Ted Green of the UK’s Ancient Tree Forum explained, wood pastures are unique semi-natural ecosystems whose sustainable blend of people, animals and trees has survived for thousands of years. Wood pastures provide a unique combination of ecosystem services: biodiversity, carbon storage, soil protection, water management and cultural value. Agriculturally, while generally low-yielding, they are productive, providing an example of High Nature Value farming and often producing locally specialised, high quality food.

How do EU regulations shape the management of wood pastures?

Two strands of European regulation govern the management of wood pastures. Two types of wood pasture – Fennoscandian wooded meadows and Mediterranean pastures with evergreen oaks (dehesas) – are protected under the Habitats Directive. However, the vast majority of wood pastures, as productive farmland, fall under the auspices of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Pillar 1 of the CAP provides economic support for farmers for all productive agricultural land, with a swathe of regulations determining what land is eligible. These payments offer crucial support for the maintenance of wood pastures, and in many ways, the latest round of CAP reform is a step in the right direction. Whilst previous rules defined pasture solely as grassland, actively discouraging the presence of trees and shrubs, these regulations have been amended such that all forage areas – herbaceous or woody – are eligible for payments, as long as vegetation is grazable, and in the case of wood pastures, where certain conditions are met.

It is here that we hit the aforementioned “100 tree limit”; 101 or more trees per hectare, and the whole parcel of land is ineligible for Pillar 1 payments. Member States do have flexibility to bend this rule by applying a system of pro-rata reductions in a pasture’s eligibility in proportion to the extent of “ineligible features”. The situation becomes even more complex if more than 50% of a pasture consists of trees and shrubs, when to be eligible for any payments Member States must receive special permission from the European Commission on the basis that it is representative of “established local practices”. While Pillar 2 of the CAP, covering rural development, could offer additional funding to support the maintenance of wood pastures, in practice only a few Member States have applied this option.

CAP on the ground: issues for farmers and the environment?

The CAP therefore creates a complex, bureaucratic and restrictive system for the management of wood pastures: how does this play out on the ground across Europe? The case studies presented at the seminar demonstrated the problems being created for both farmers and the environment.

In Spain, where 86% of pastures contain trees or shrubs, wood pastures constitute a key part of traditional farming systems, producing high quality products, sustaining rural economies, and providing valuable ecosystem services such as protection against forest fires. However, as Alvaro Picardo (Regional Government of Castilla y León) explained, the Spanish government’s interpretation of the new CAP regulations is having a severely detrimental effect on agricultural livelihoods. Farmers in some regions where wood pastures have traditionally dense tree cover have lost direct payments for up to 50% of their land, increasing the likelihood of pastures being abandoned.

In Romania, extensive wood pastures, with low density, often ancient trees, form a rich, unique ecosystem of importance for many protected species. And while the new CAP should allow these systems to be protected, they are threatened by inconsistencies in national interpretation. The crowns of trees and patches of shrubs are excluded from the area eligible for direct payments, incentivising farmers to cut down dead trees (living trees are protected) and remove shrubs: both critical components of these ecosystems.

A better future for wood pastures?

The take-home message of the seminar was that while the new round of CAP reform had the potential to deliver for wood pastures, unnecessarily restrictive and bureaucratic rules, which lead to inconsistent and inefficient implementation in different Member States, are creating barriers. Many speakers argued that simplifying the CAP rules for the eligibility of wood pastures for direct payments, based on use of land rather than vegetation type, would represent a step in the right direction. Will these changes be made? While the European Commission representative at the seminar was unforthcoming, the impressive range of conservationists, scientists and policymakers present in Brussels suggested that this is an issue which will remain on the agenda.

Find out more at the Remarkable Trees of Romania website

Download the event report

Posted in Agriculture, Common Agricultural Policy, EU, Event, Forests, International | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

People and policy: how best to communicate science

By Isabel Jones, Communications Representative, BES Scottish Policy Group

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the BES Scottish Policy Group, attending the ‘Science and the Parliament 2015’ one-day meeting, the 2015 Scottish Environment LINK Congress, and of course hosting our ‘Pie and a Pint’ event on social media and science communication.

Science in Scottish Parliament

Science in Scottish Parliament

Communication can be a difficult thing, especially when it’s to a new audience who don’t always have a clue what you’re talking about. I get the feeling this is how ecologists feel a lot of the time as they try to convince people of the value of their research, and that really somebody should be listening and changing things accordingly. I’m reasonably new to science communication, and especially when trying to communicate science and research to policy makers and MSPs. It turns out there might be a few tricks to getting your point across [NB. This is a personal ‘list’ of things to bear in mind, is by no means exhaustive, or the key to success for changing the world]:

1) The research. This may seem like common sense, but make it relevant to your audience. If they’re focussed on something else – you’re talking about habitat loss when their main priority is improving teaching standards – then it’s going to be tricky to engage them in your research. What might be better is to target something they’re committed to already, for example improving health and living standards, and then link it to your research on habitat loss. That way, you might be able to create a partnership tackling both issues. A win-win situation.

2) The elevator pitch. Everyone is busy, so that opening line has to be spot on to hook their attention, otherwise your audience will get those glazed-over eyes and the chance to meaningfully engage them is gone. Hook them with an issue they’re already engaged with, and then develop your argument (same as point 1).

3) Once they’re hooked. You’ve hit the nail on the head with the elevator pitch. But what if your audience is just incredibly good at seeming attentive and interested? Now’s the time to ask a question, and if you want action from them, try to get an indication of when that will be. Follow up.

4) Get social. I heard it time and again over the past couple of weeks how valuable social media is in building a personal connection with people you’re trying to engage with. Everything is in the public eye on Twitter for example, and those 140 characters are perfect nuggets of information for busy people. Policy makers get a lot of their information from Twitter, so getting research on there (in an accessible format!) is key. Infographics and photos go down particularly well, and these can be a great hook to get your audience’s attention.

During our ‘Pie and a Pint’ event we heard about the personal experiences of Jonathan Silvertown (Uni. Edinburgh), Neil White (Scottish Government) Rea Cris (RSPB Scotland) and Nick Underdown (Scottish Environment LINK). It was great having their insight into how they use social media to communicate science policy, and they collectively highlighted the value of social media for connecting with new audiences, how timing social media outputs to coincide with local events helps gets more ‘hits’, and the importance of a good ‘hashtag’ e.g. the #DontTakeTheP Twitterstorm for Scottish Marine Protected Areas. It was also interesting to hear that following people with opposing views and/or research to get a balanced take on the issues in question, really helps to avoid ‘the bubble’ from only interacting with people who are doing similar things to you. Doing this can spark lively and productive debate!

Pie and a Pint

Pie and a Pint

Speaking of lively and productive debate, it would be remiss of me not to plug the GMO debate coming up at the BES Annual Meeting: the ban on GMOs and maintaining the ‘clean and green’ brand of Scotland is a huge policy issue right now, and we encourage BES members to get involved with the discussion on Wednesday 16th December.

You can find the BES Scottish Policy Group @BES_ScotPol, and more information about joining us here.

This blog was written by Isabel Jones who is on the BES-SPG Committee as the Communications Representative, and is a PhD student at the University of Stirling @_Isabel_Jones

Posted in Event, Science, Science Communication, Science Policy, Scotland | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Spending Review: what does it mean for ecology and ecologists?

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has announced the government’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement, the first since the General Election in May returned a Conservative majority administration. While the Autumn Statement – an update to the government’s financial plans in between budgets – occurs annually, the Spending Review occurs only at the start of a Parliament, and will set out spending plans for the next five years.

According to the Treasury, the Spending Review outlines how £4 trillion of government funds will be spent on public services. As part of this, the government determines the amount of money allocated to each department over the course of the Parliament; budgets that since 2010 have mostly seen significant cuts. Decisions taken as part of the Spending Review will have major impacts on government policy over the next five years.

So what were the most significant announcements in this year’s Spending Review for the ecological community? There are two areas of policy of major interest to ecologists: scientific research funding, and environmental policy (mostly delivered through Defra). Overall, the Spending Review contained slightly fewer cuts to public spending than many expected, due to better than anticipated figures on tax receipts and debt repayments.

Scientific Research Funding

In terms of research funding, the take-home headline from today’s announcement is a positive one: the science budget of £4.7 billion will be protected in real terms, rising by over £500 million by the end of the Parliament. This represents a real improvement from the last Parliament, when the science budget received a “flat cash” settlement, with funding maintained but not increasing with inflation. However, this budget includes a new £1.5 billion Global Challenges fund, “to ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries whilst developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”: will this lead to other areas of research funding being cut?

Other significant science and higher education policy announcements included:

  • The implementation of the recommendations of the Nurse Review of the Research Councils, which recommended the creation of a new body, Research UK to provide strategic direction, cross-Government and cross-sector co-ordination for research. Individual Research Councils would report into Research UK, but would retain their autonomy in a manner akin to “different faculties within universities”. Innovate UK will also be integrated into Research UK, to build on links between the research and business communities.
  • Maintenance of the science capital funding commitment of £6.9 billion between 2015-2021.
  • A review of the Research Excellence Framework in order to “examine how to simplify and strengthen funding on the basis of excellence”.
  • An increase in financial support for postgraduate students, with loans available to all postgraduates under the age of 60 from 2016-17, new part-time maintenance loans and tuition loans for students wishing to do a second degree in a STEM subject.

Environmental Policy

Defra will see a significant budget cut of 15% over the course of the Parliament, still substantially less than many commentators anticipated. These cuts are to be delivered through an “ambitious efficiencies programme”, with increased sharing of back office functions across its many agencies. Little detail is available at this stage as to how these savings will impact on organisations such as Natural England and the Environment Agency.

The departmental settlement includes:

  • Protection of flood defence funding, including the £2.3 billion capital investment programme.
  • Over £130 million capital investment in Defra’s science estates and equipment, prioritising animal and plant disease prevention capacity, and the 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) will receive £5 million funding to improve its headquarters in Lowestoft, with the possibility of further investment.
  • No repeat of previous plans to privatise the public forest estate, with funding protected and over 11 million trees to be planted over the course of the Parliament.
  • Funding for National Parks and Areas of outstanding Natural Beauty protected, with National Parks “given legal flexibilities to allow them to build sustainable, long-term revenue streams and boost growth in rural areas.”

The Spending Review provides an outline of the government’s spending plans for the next five years, but remains inevitably high-level. As the new Conservative government beds in, the last few months have seen a raft of policy announcements in both science and environmental policy, from the 25-year plan for the environment to the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework, and it will take time for the impact of these new policies and spending plans to be fully revealed.

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

Teaching Excellence Framework

On Friday 6th November, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published its Higher Education Green Paper, “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”. Fulfilling our Potential outlines a series of reforms that BIS states will “boost teaching standards, support more people into university from disadvantaged backgrounds, and ensure better value for money and employment prospects for students”, including details of the new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

Here we highlight the aspects relevant to BES members and on which we are beginning to develop our response to the consultation, to be submitted via the Royal Society of Biology and independently as the BES.  Please note that text aims to reflect the tone of the paper itself and is not our opinion of what we think the TEF will achieve.

  • Providers of HE should be open to employer and learned society involvement in curricula design; presumably this is BIS supporting increased accreditation of courses.
  • There needs to be a rebalancing of the “pull between teaching and research” although the paper seeks to affirm that incentives to improve teaching should not be at the expense of research.
  • TEF results should be used by students to inform their choice of HEI, and employers should be able to consider such results in their recruitment.
  • Making it easier for new providers to enter the market who can provide programmes that are more attractive to hard to reach communities and groups not currently well served.
  • TEF is designed to encourage excellent teaching for all students and:
    • Build a culture where teaching and research are equal;
    • Provide accessible information to judge teaching quality;
    • Recognise HEIs that do most to welcome students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • TEF should change HEIs behaviour; successful HEIs will be rewarded by being able to raise tuition fees. Those that do not meet required teaching standards will succumb to market forces and leave the sector.
  • TEF will evolve over time with more metrics added year on year for a phased implementation.
  • In year 1: “Level 1 TEF” will be awarded to those HEIs with a current successful QA review, this will last for three years and allows HEIs to raise tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017/18.
  • In year 2: Higher levels of TEF can be awarded following a successful assessment.  HEIs would apply for assessment and levels achieved would last for up to three years, and could result in fee caps, loan cap uplifts or other incentives

Much of the consultation focuses on whether the proposals will deliver the aspirations for social mobility and teaching quality and we would be grateful for members to provide comments as we develop our response.

You can read further comment from the Times Higher Education Supplement, WONKHE, The Independent, HEFCE, The Guardian,

Get involved

Summary of questions:  please do feel free to draft any comments in this word document summarising the main consultation questions and email back to Karen@britishecologicalsociety.org

If you’re attending the Annual Meeting we will be holding a meeting on Monday 14th December at the EICC,  5.15 pm in Cromdale Hall to discuss any comments you may have and present our initial draft response.  Please do come along.

Posted in BIS, Consultation, Education, Education Policy, England, Government, Science Policy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The future of the Nature Directives: implementation not revision?

This week saw a significant development in the debate over the future of the EU’s most important conservation legislation, as nine Member States called for the Nature Directives to be maintained in their current form. In a letter to Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the environment ministers of nine European countries – Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain – state that amending the directives “would not be expedient”, and that “greater emphasis on implementation” would be a better means of achieving global and European biodiversity targets. They argue that amending the directives would create legal uncertainty and divert resources away from the important process of implementation.

The letter comes at a crucial time in the REFIT “Fitness Check” process that has dominated conservation policy debates across Europe this year. The review seeks to assess whether the legislative framework provided by the Birds and Habitats Directives (collectively the Nature Directives) remains “fit for purpose”, with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker placing the possibility of revision and merger on the table. The ministers’ intervention comes ahead of an important conference in Brussels next month, when the initial findings of the Commission’s consultation process will be presented to stakeholders.

This consultation elicited an unprecedented response from European citizens, with over 520,000 people and organisations – including the BES – submitting their views in a clear demonstration of public support for conservation. The Commission also engaged in a wide-ranging evidence gathering exercise, taking submissions from Governments, NGOs and businesses in each Member State. In the UK, the BES was one of 100 environmental NGOs that contributed to and supported the submission on behalf of the Joint Links (Wildlife and Countryside Link, Scottish Environment Link, Wales Environment Link and Northern Ireland Environment Link).

The overarching conclusion of the Joint Links submission supports the argument made in this week’s letter: that the outcome of the Fitness Check should be improved implementation of the Nature Directives rather than wholesale revision. Importantly, the balance of evidence suggests that when implemented well, the Nature Directives have a significant positive impact on biodiversity. New research published this year in Conservation Letters reinforces previous studies by finding that species afforded special protection under the Birds Directive demonstrate significantly better population trends than other birds, even when additional factors such as climate change are considered. Similarly, this year’s State of Nature in the EU report found that the more fully a species or habitat is covered by the Natura 2000 network of protected sites – created by the Directives – the better its conservation status.

That is not to say that the Directives are working perfectly: if current trends continue, we will fail to meet the target of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. Yet it is clear that implementation is far from complete: only 50% of Natura 2000 sites even have proper management plans in place, and the Society of Conservation Biologists has identified the need to improve analysis and monitoring of implementation whilst improving the use of the latest scientific research to inform effective conservation planning and management.

An additional strength of the argument for avoiding changing the Nature Directives is the stability it offers business. As the ministers’ letter highlights, the Directives provide legal certainty, and those affected by them “have learned how to deal with [their] provisions”. Energy UK’s recent position statement on the Directives illustrates the value businesses place on this certainty: “re-opening the Directives would introduce a degree of unnecessary uncertainty to energy project developments that would damage investor confidence at a time when it is vital to deliver new energy infrastructure”.

A Defra review of the Directives in 2012 found that the Directives strike a good balance between environmental protection and development, stating that “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.” Recent innovations – such as a new approach to great crested newt conservation being piloted by Natural England – have demonstrated how conflicts can be reduced through changes to implementation without altering legislation.

While this week’s developments suggest a move away from the prospect of the Nature Directives being opened up, significant uncertainty remains. Although the Member States openly calling for the maintenance of the legal status quo represent almost two-thirds of the EU population, nineteen countries, including the UK, are yet to express a clear view. With the Commission’s final report not expected until early 2016, the future of Directives will remain at the top of the European conservation agenda for the foreseeable future.

Posted in 2020 Biodiversity Target, Biodiversity, Birds, Conservation, EU | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment