"Through my POST fellowship, I made a real contribution to using excellent science to inform policy"

Rebecca Ross BES POST Fellowship

Is more funding the answer to preventing future flood disasters?

After the severe floods of last winter, flood prevention has been pushed high up the agenda. After a two month period of evidence gathering, a report on the inquiry into the 2013-2014 winter floods was published in June by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The report highlights the need to put policies in place to provide funding and support for homes, farmland and business when they are threatened by floods. However the emphasis is on prevention and the maintenance of flood defence systems, not simply the actions  that must be taken when floods hit peoples’ doorsteps.

In the BES 2013 report on the impact of extreme events, such as flooding, which you can read more about in a past blog post, highlighted the increasing need to invest in natural flood management rather than hard engineering techniques, and sustainable drainage systems in urban areas that can help relieve surface run-off.  In this report from the Committee there is no exploration of the potential of natural flood defences to play a big role in mitigating against flooding. Instead, dredging is still the key focus, despite recognising that this is only one of a portfolio of measures.  They identify cuts in funding, resulting in a lapse in maintenance of dredged watercourses, as one of the major causes of the 2013-2014 floods.  As well as inadequate funding, they say there has been in the past a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the maintenance of certain waterways, whether it be the Environment Agency, Defra, or riparian landowners.

There is a big economic impact from flooding; it is reported that the winter storms caused about £135 million worth of damage to flood defences. However, the Committee’s report claims that the flood defense maintenance budget has been pushed to a “bare minimum” which could result in higher costs further down the line if events like last winters recur.

Internal drainage boards exist in many districts where there is a risk of flooding, and the report suggests they should be empowered to undertake maintenance works on main rivers. In order to reflect local circumstances, the report proposes that local people should be given more say in how funding is spent in relation to dredging. But with water catchments that span across multiple districts and counties, should such decisions be made on a local scale, by potentially uninformed individuals? Surely there is a role here for science to play in providing sound evidence from relevant research into the most effective long term mitigation strategy.

The CIWEM produced a report in February during the inquiry in which they commented on dredging: “Dredging can play an important role in flood risk management in some cases, but is not a standalone solution. It should be considered in the context of a range of tools and the origins of different sources of flood water, and comes with significant risks that must be understood at a local and catchment scale.

Whilst the report recognises that there are “risks associated with dredging, including  exacerbating downstream flooding by increasing the water flow and causing significant environmental impacts such as loss and degradation of natural habitats”, disappointingly there is no attempt to identify other more sustainable options.

Posted in Agriculture, Defra, Flooding, Parliament, Select Committee, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The birds and the bees – both suffering from pesticide pollution

The ban of neonicotinoids last December may not have gone far enough to prevent damaging effects to the environment. The pesticides were put under restrictive use for three years whilst research was conducted into their ecological impact. Just 7 months in and the evidence against their use is mounting, to add to the pile, two new studies were published this week.

A paper published in the BES Journal of Functional Ecology has found that the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, impairs foraging behaviour of the bumblebee, Bombus terrestris. Richard Gill and Nigel Raine of Royal Holloway University used Radio-Frequency Identification to track the bees’ movements. Whilst defendants of neonicotinoids insist that that the pesticides are not lethal to pollinators at the levels used, studies like these are important in demonstrating behavioural impacts that can affect the success and survival of bumblebees. Exposure to imidacloprid decreased foraging behaviour efficiency, with bees bringing back smaller pollen loads to the hive, and foraging more frequently in an attempt to compensate for this. Imidacloprid-exposed bees were also unable to exhibit any experience-based improvement in their foraging activity as the control bees did.

Insect pollinators are responsible for the pollination of about 75% of agricultural crops, so the economic importance of the ecosystem service they provide does not go unnoticed. Defra’s consultation for a National Pollinator Strategy  is now closed, but it looked at addressing research gaps in the impacts of pesticides, climate change and invasive species on pollinators.  This new strategy is due to be published this summer. In 2009 nine research projects were jointly funded £10million by the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership as part of the Insect Pollinators Initiative.

Another study, published in Nature from Hans de Kroon in the Netherlands, found pollution of the neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, to be the main cause in the decline of farmland birds. Whilst lots of research has focused on the impact on insects, in particular pollinating insects, this study reveals the cascading effects as the toxin moves up the food chain and the impact of pollution in water. At imidacloprid concentrations of more than 20 nanograms per litre, insectivorous bird populations tended to decline by 3.5 per cent on average annually. The potential impacts on other insectivores are implied but yet to be investigated. This study in the Netherlands was conducted over 7 years and so Kroon and colleagues were able to examine the long term changes and look at multiple possible causes in bird population declines. The UK has not collected data on neonicotinoid pollution and so we can only draw assumptions about the whether imidacloprid has impacted our own farmland bird populations similarly. This highlights the importance of funding long-term studies in the UK, which BES has called for in its response to BIS’s recent consultation ‘Creating the Future: a 2020 vision for science and research’.

The current EU regulation only targets three neonicotinoids, and only bans their use on certain crops. Many hope that compelling evidence like this will make Defra reconsider the way these pesticides are used in the UK.

Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem Services, Insects, Natural Capital Initiative, Pesticides, Pollinators | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The implications of new invasive species EU regulations

Earlier this year, in the hope of encouraging a more cohesive approach to tackling the problems of Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS), changes to the EU regulations were agreed. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Biodiversity met last week to discuss the implications of the new regulations for the UK, including new legislation and the next steps.

Carles Carboneras, Species Policy Officer for the RSPB, gave an overview of the new EU legislation. The EU landscape has 5% coverage of non-native species, largely terrestrial plants, but not all of these are considered invasive. The cost of controlling INNS is much cheaper early on, when a species has not yet established. Once it has established the price of control increases massively, in some cases beyond the scope of feasibility. The example of Japanese knotweed demonstrates this, as the cost of eradication now would be disproportionately expensive. Successfully eradicating knotweed from the Olympic park cost £70 million and took several years. With already well-established species, the emphasis is on control rather than eradication.

Lists of species of concern can be proposed by member states, scientific fora and the European Commission. Proposed INNS go through a risk assessment before being added to the EU list of species of concern and it is then banned to transport the species between EU countries. There are surveillance systems in place to watch the movement of invasive species, or in the case of hitch-hikers the pathways the organisms take are determined. As soon as they are detected, new species must be notified to member states and appropriate eradication measures must be taken.  EU states are recommended to have a published national list of non-natives, as we do in the UK, which feeds into regional cooperation agreements. One issue that was raised by various stakeholders at the meeting was that although a UK invasive species list exists, it can not be easily found anywhere. In 2021 there will be a full scale review of the species list and an assessment of the application of the new regulations.

The UK government is among those countries that have been pushing for this new EU strategy, Trevor Salmon of Defra informs us. In current legislation, Section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states that it is an offence to release non-native species into the wild. This includes any species that has been forced to extinction several hundred years ago or more.

In the review of the UK 2008 INNS strategy, Trevor adds, there is a strong focus on prevention and on targeting the most appropriate species, to avoid wasting resources on benign species. The new improved EU strategy should be less fragmented and more consistent between member states. It also makes it easier to tackle problems before they reach us in the UK, for example Asian hornets, which have already reached France.

Changes to the current system include the 1)prohibition of keeping any of most invasive species, 2)restoration of damaged land where INNSs have recently been eradicated, 3) cost recovery achieved by fining advocators if it can be proved that they were at fault, and 4) surveillance to allow early detection.

New EU legislation will come into force 1st Jan 2015 and when species are added to the EU list of species of concern, it becomes law immediately. Before then UK border forces need to be empowered to inspect for these species, and penalties and sanctions need to be established. Permissive legislation for ex situ conservation and study will likely be based on CITES recommendations. Additionally there needs to be effective management and monitoring of species on the list that aren’t yet in the UK.

The problem with current UK legislation is if landowners refuse to cooperate in controlling invasive species, there is no legislation to make them take action. The Law Commission, as requested by Environmental Audit Committee, has produced practical proposals for a law reform on the issue of invasive species led by Nicholas Paines QC, Law Commissioner. After an initial consultation in 2012, the proposals that came out of the report have now been passed through the House of Lords, and are awaiting a decision from the House of Commons. Under new legislation, species control orders could be issued to uncooperative landowners by the Environment Agency. There would usually be a required 42 days of negotiation before the issue of an order, but this would be waived in the case of an emergency.

Marine non-native species aren’t often put under the spotlight; in fact the legislation in this area is relatively weak. The obligation of shipping industries to manage the dumping of ship ballast water at ports was dropped from the new EU regulation. Dr Tom Vance from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory talked about the increasing problem  of ballast water in the transportation of species between countries.  Large ships must take in ballast sea water when they dock their cargo, but organisms ranging in size from microscopic algae to crabs and fish are also taken in and then released at the next destination. The UK currently has not taken a position on this issue and have not yet joined the International Maritime Organisation’s Ballast Water Management Convention, which would work to reduce risk if ratified.

Posted in 2020 Biodiversity Target, Aquatic Ecology, Biodiversity, EU, Invasive Species, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

PolicyNet: Knowledge and skills for science and engineering policy

Much still needs to be done to bridge the gap between scientists and policy makers. Differences in language and timescales can create artificial boundaries and lead to problems when communicating. Understanding the skills that both scientists and policy professionals should have to help them communicate and understand knowledge, evidence and expertise is vital for enabling good working relationships between the two sectors. A PolicyNet event – knowledge and skills for science and engineering policy to discuss this was held by the Royal Academy of Engineering last week.

Last week’s event was held in partnership with UCL’s new Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), which is currently developing two new MPA programmes – Science and Public Policy and Engineering and Public Policy – launching in September this year. Chaired by Dr Alan Walker, Head of Policy at the Royal Academy of Engineering, members of the panel each considered the following question developed by STEaPP:

“What do you think is the single most important thing a scientist, engineer or policy professional should learn to help them successfully bring knowledge, evidence and expertise to policy?”

The role of the Government Office for Science (GO Science) in bringing together scientists and engineers across the civil service was introduced by Giles Robertson, Private Secretary to Professor Sir Mark Walport. For scientists to be successful in communicating with policy makers, Giles highlighted that scientists must learn to be relevant. Framing your work, and answering the questions posed by government, rather than something you think is more important, are both key. To achieve this, you must also understand your audience. Knowing their level of expertise and background will help scientists to effectively present their evidence in a relevant and timely way.

The need to understand your audience was echoed by Dr Jason Blackstock from STEaPP at UCL. As part of the team developing the new MPA programmes, Jason voiced the potential challenges this may bring for teaching. Ensuring individuals leave the programme with knowledge of who to contact, and what they require will be key. Jason highlighted the role that experiential learning might play, with students tackling real-life problems at a number of organisations.

Andrew Crudgington, Director of External Affairs and Strategy at the Institution of Civil Engineers reflected on his experience in policy at the Institution to address STEaPP’s question. Andrew referred to a recent piece by Giles Wilkes, the former special adviser to Vince Cable, to highlight his understanding of the policy making environment in the UK. Talking about the disparate nature of Westminster, Wilkes wrote in the Financial Times at the beginning of this month – “There are only the departments – 20 or so disparate organisations, peopled by stubbornly uncommunicative officials, each with its own direction of travel and prone to colliding with the others”. Scientists who interact with policy need to understand that policy making is not linear, and is usually an iterative process.

Andrew highlighted the need for scientists to be a critical friend, to take part in policy processes, and to provide expertise. There may not always be an audience available when you are first ready with information, but if you embed yourself in the process, you will be able to push through information when there is a window of opportunity. In Andrew’s experience, it was vital for the Institution of Civil Engineers to have panels of experts for mobilisation when needed by Government, and to make VIPs available for Ministers when required.

In addition to learning to understand the needs of policy makers, Professor Lord Robert Winston, vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), highlighted that scientists need to listen more – to policy makers, to the media, and to the public. Understanding and listening to the media/policy reception to a particular issue will help scientists reframe arguments and address concerns that may be unfounded. Social science is critical to understanding public perception to policy, and understanding public perception is critical in launched policies. Without public consent, there may not be any action.

There was consensus among the panel that for scientists and engineers to successfully bring knowledge, evidence and expertise to policy, they need to understand their audience and be able to frame their evidence in the right way. Understanding the processes of policy is vital, and policy professionals need to have experience of dealing with unexpected changes, where timing is key. Following on from the policy makers’ example of engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, scientists need to make sure they engage with those in other disciplines to understand the impact of particular policy outcomes.

For more tips for engaging and communicating with policy makers, see our ‘top 10 tips’ guide, which was generated from a policy training workshop the BES held in April this year.

Posted in Event, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Royal Academy of Engineering, Science, Science Policy | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discussing public trust in science: Parliamentary Links Day 2014

At this year’s Parliamentary Links Day, MPs, scientists and media representatives were asked how to tackle the problem of science and public trust. This stimulated discussion on issues such as data privacy, media relations, and engagement.

The first thing to establish: has there actually been an increase in public mistrust in science? Julian Huppert MP, kicked off the discussions by suggesting that whilst science used to be one of the most highly trusted, and unquestioned professions, that this is no longer the case. However, there seemed to be a general consensus that there was not a ‘crisis in trust’. James Wilsdon of the Science Policy Research Unit referred to Onora O’Neill’s speech on trust in which she declares that there is little evidence for mistrust. Instead there is evidence for a culture of suspicion. Opinion polls show that those considered least trustworthy 20 years ago are still the same groups as today: politicians and journalists, whilst university scientists are very heavily trusted . Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, added that opinion polls don’t necessarily reveal everything about the current overall levels of trust, and perhaps there has been an overall decline in the levels of trust in all areas. It is suggested that there has been a diminishing trust in police and armed force and perhaps losing trust in these areas makes the public more wary and questioning of other activities. Whether or not there is diminishing public trust, James highlighted that “trust must be a two way street, not something demanded by the powerful of the powerless”.

The accessibility of data to the public has potential to affect level of trust and Sir Mark Walport, Chief Scientific Advisor, drew out three key aspects to data privacy encryption, access and legislation. Terry Lyons from the Council for the Mathematical Sciences believes data encryption plays an important role in public trust. But which data should be made available to the public and which should be protected, is not clearly regulated enough.  Nicola Gilley, editorial director at IOP publishing, explained that whilst there are systems in place to increase scientists’ trust in science such as peer review processes and plagiarism checks, these processes are not necessarily understood by the general public.  Scientists should think about how to communicate their work to a wider audience when publishing, because, Sir Mark adds, trust is undermined by lack of engagement by science community in politics, media and the public.

The subject of engagement was built upon in the second panel discussion, led by the five rules for public engagement from Fiona Fox, the director of the Science Media Centre. She appealed to scientist to be open and honest about their work, not overselling it and admitting to uncertainties. She also spoke of her experience of the difficulty of encouraging scientific experts to speak up during times of public emergencies, when their advice and opinion is needed more than ever. Pallab Ghosh, BBC Science Correspondent, was also aware of this fear to speak out when their views conflict with government initiatives. He recently published an article on Professor Tim Coulson’s post on the Journal of Animal Ecology’s blog, declaring that Defra are wilfully ignoring scientists on the issue of the badger cull and bovine TB.

Many of the speakers spoke of the importance of distinguishing policy for science (i.e. governmental funding) and science for policy (i.e. provisioning of evidence). James suggested that due to this “messy boundary”, scientists don’t always understand that although they may be well informed to comment on the science of an issue, they may have little or no place commenting on the political or social impacts of a decision, and are really there to help politicians navigate through the evidence.

Sir Mark lamented this point in his keynote address, as he believes scientists must understand that ultimately public policy decides. Science needs to listen to the needs of government as much as the other way round, helped by the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) which helps translate science for parliamentary need.

Sir Mark believes that we tend to view trust as an all or nothing thing but in fact it is very context specific. When scientists talk about contentious issues the level of trust changes. As an example of poor communication, he drew upon examples from the recent controversial fracking proposals, claiming that that those fighting against it are not doing so on a scientific basis but have instead created a reactive up rise in the media that is not addressing any of the scientific concerns (such as earthquake tremors and contamination of aquifers), but is instead based on the fact that they don’t like fossil fuels, they don’t like big companies and they don’t want it happening in their own back yard. To avoid these situations and increase trust, discussions between, government, parliament, the scientific community and the general public must be facilitated.

Liam Byrne MP, Shadow Minister for Universities, proudly launched the Labour Green Paper on science and innovation policy, which is open to comment until 1 August. This follows on from comes two years on from Julian Huppert’s Liberal Democrat science paper.

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, concluded the event, and said that scientists need to be available in public debates to find out which aspects of an issue might need clarification for the public. This prevents polarisation of debates. With climate change, extremist views dominate; many say it’s not happening at all and many others say it will bring on dire catastrophes imminently. He calls for the need of specialists to contribute to policy but also generalists who understand wider landscape and scientific policy.

Hopefully many of the attendees walked away feeling that there is a place for science in policy, and by improving communication and engagement, public trust in science and in scientists can be maintained.

Posted in Event, Parliament, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Science Funding, Science Policy | Leave a comment

JNCC seeking two independent members

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is looking for two new independent members to join the Committee from November onwards. More information is available below, and application forms are available on the Cabinet Office website. The closing date for applications has been extended to 11th July at 6pm.

JNCC members are currently paid £9836 per annum for 2.5 days per month. Appointments are usually for up to three years.

Further information (from JNCC):

JNCC is a public body which advises the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland on UK-wide and international nature conservation.

Independent members of the Joint Committee contribute to the Committee’s work in providing UK Government and the Devolved Administrations with effective support for their evidence needs and policies for nature conservation across the UK and internationally. Independent members need to understand the natural environment and its vital importance to everyone including its contribution to achieving better outcomes for the economy and for society on a sustainable basis. 

They need to promote a positive and constructive relationship with everyone that works with the JNCC including Defra, the UK country nature conservation bodies, Devolved Administrations, other Government Departments, EU institutions, UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and a wide range of non-government organisations and other interest groups both within the UK and internationally. 

Candidates should be able to demonstrate the following:

1. Experience in, or scientific knowledge of nature conservation in a field relevant to JNCC (e.g. natural and social sciences);
2. The ability to provide technical advice and offer oversight in the scientific aspects of the work of JNCC;
3. The ability to contribute to the strategic development of JNCC’s work through the management and interpretation of evidence to support advice to government and other customers and to ensure that JNCC delivers good value for money to the taxpayer;
4. The ability to carry out financial governance and the work of an audit or similar committee in the private, public or voluntary sector.

Posted in Defra, UK | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Developing the next generation of scientists and engineers by consolidating efforts in education, business and industry

The Westminster Higher Education Forum connects policymakers in Parliament, Whitehall and government agencies with key stakeholders to discuss topical matters. Earlier this month, the BES attended the seminar which considered issues concerning the next generation of scientists and engineers. Here are some highlights…

Professor John Perkins, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) kicked off the seminar by looking at engineering skills in the UK. Reflecting on the Review of Engineering Skills (November 2013), Professor Perkins reported that the skills shortage would impact the government’s ability to deliver its industrial strategy. One of many positive responses to the report has been from the Royal Academy of Engineering who have devised four specialist Finish and Task Groups to consider the review’s 22 recommendations. He emphasised the significance of a collective effort from stakeholders in business, industry, and education, coming together as a community to consolidate initiatives like Tomorrow’s Engineers driving inspiration, and the employer-led Trailblazer Apprenticeships which value alternative, work-based routes into engineering.

The seminar then went onto consider the current provision of STEM in schools, from the school curriculum, to practical lessons, teaching and careers advice.  Professor Louise Archer, from the ASPIRES Project reported findings from the five year survey where 19, 000 school children across the UK were interviewed at ages 10/11, and then again at 13/14. A positive finding was that the majority of young people are interested in science. However, this interest does not translate into them wanting a career in science, with most students opting for a career in business instead which is the most gender, ethnic and class equal of all career aspirations. However, the report did find the greater a young person’s ‘Science Capital’ – knowledge, resources, contacts in STEM – the more likely they are to aspire to a career in STEM. Professor Archer urged for greater promotion of the transferrable skills students acquire from studying science, whether or not they do actually pursue a career in it – they should keep their options open for as long as possible.

Tim Bowker, the Head of Physics at Bodmin College in Cornwall successfully demonstrated the different ways to encourage STEM in schools; from STEM club, to university trips, peer mentoring and collaborating on research projects with partners like Flybe and the Marine Biological Association of the UK. He emphasised the significance of setting up structures in schools so students and teachers can harness inspiration and opportunities into action for the long term.

Never too far from most talks concerning Higher Education is the issue of tuition fees, highlighting the important influence of policy on funding and educational outcomes. Interestingly, Lis Edwards from Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the regulator and funder for Higher Education in England, reported that they have managed to protect and maintain the levels of high cost funding for lab based subjects in 2014/15, despite an overall cut in the teaching funding available. What is more, there is support for growth from BIS that is expected in the next year, £185m coming over the next four years from 2015/16, with additional capital funding in 2015/16. Questions do remain around barriers to further growth in higher education and how the upturn of STEM in school is carried forward beyond further education, which HEFCE are keen to explore.

According to Melanie Radford from the University Technical College (UTC) Cambridge, the UTC movement looks promising for closing the STEM skills gap in the UK. She emphasised that aside from the more obvious funding issues, it is important that all issues are identified and understood in order for them to be closed. As well as encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers, there is a need to support disadvantaged youth diagnosed with disabilities and B/C GCSE grade students who are passionate about science. UTC Cambridge have longer school days and school year, and are currently mapping the curriculum to STEM employer led challenge projects through strong industry partnerships which should ensure students are better placed to achieve the necessary qualifications to study STEM subjects at university.

At postgraduate level, the new government backed centres for Doctoral Training Providers (DTPs), is envisioned to help meet the needs of STEM graduates in industry and academia too. At each centre there will be small cohorts of approximately 10 students per year on a four year doctorate course. There is an expectation of original research, a broadening skill set, and enhanced technical knowledge embedded within a research area of the university, which would need to be identified as a priority area through consultation with industry and business too. We are pleased to announce the BES has a number of bespoke training courses available to PhD students at UK institutions that are part of the new NERC DTPs. Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council expects around 5,000 innovative and internationally competitive students to be trained through the DTP process. Having already leveraged extra funding from industry, this initiative demonstrates the endless possibilities which can come about through connecting industry and academia.

A common theme which ran throughout the seminar was the call for continued efforts to connect and maintain links between education, industry and business. Professor Perkins reported that the time constraints associated with the STEM supply system are over ten years, so strongly recommended interested stakeholders continue to take collective action.  Only then will the progress made within and across these sectors take effect, and challenge these long standing issues at a national level.

We are keen to hear your view on issues concerning the STEM skills gap and issues affecting the current and future generation of scientists and engineers in the UK. Share your opinions by tweeting us at @BES_careers.

Posted in BIS, Education, Education Policy, Equality and Diversity, Government, Science Policy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Defra network’s evidence strategy: efficiency, collaboration, innovation…and more efficiency

This month Defra announced its new evidence strategy for 2014/15 for its network which highlights how they will encourage the production of more high quality evidence to assist policy makers. The strategy outlines how they hope to do this through working collaboratively, improving access to and quality of evidence and last but not least by improving efficiency to produce ‘value for money’ evidence.

This evidence strategy encompasses not just Defra’s evidence plans but the whole of its network’s shared policy priorities reflecting their desire to work more collaboratively on their evidence goals. The network includes bodies such as Natural England, Forestry Commission, and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. However, it is made clear that they also hope to strengthen their connections with other key partners and the scientific community. A strong theme of efficiency is echoed throughout the strategy. Evaluation of current projects and policies is highlighted as a necessary process in order to deduce where funding should be withdrawn or extended. However another way they hope to achieve their goals of delivering lots of high quality evidence on a tight budget is by encouraging more co-funding of projects.

Defra hope to use modelling to improve scientific understanding and suggest it may be a more economical approach. They pledge to make better use of data by making it more accessible to others, utilizing citizen science projects and social media and combining existing data sets to potentially answer novel questions.

Whilst Defra will continue to maintain their critical capability to respond to notifiable diseases and other known risks, they have acknowledged the need to investigate lesser known risks and react with a strongly evidence based approach. Defra have developed a new framework to decide where to invest in and have highlighted the need to identify research priorities that come out of horizon scanning procedures, reflecting the government’s pledge to improve their horizon scanning programme last July.

Risk analyses will help develop strategies, and prioritise key areas for example in combating tree pests and diseases, and coping with flooding. The wet winter has pushed research into flood resilience has been pushed high up the agenda, with research from the Joint Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) to help farmers build resilience to extreme weather in the face of climate change.

Defra have a number of statutory evidence obligations which will receive approximately 35% of the £200m allocated expenditure on evidence. This includes monitoring pesticide residues in food, monitoring air quality, monitoring animal and plant health, monitoring Marine Protected Areas, monitoring biodiversity and water quality. They anticipate that around 40% of this budget will be spent with external suppliers of evidence. Defra and partners hope to encourage innovation by jointly funding £160m of research into the technological advancements and  in agriculture over the next five years, to achieve sustainable intensification.

The scale of the evidence referred to varies, from small scale interactions in local communities, to the projected eight terabytes per day to be delivered by Copernicus satellites over the next few years. The strategy draws upon examples of best practice that it hopes to implement more widely, such as the Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI).  Nine projects have been jointly funded a total of £10m over five years by the five bodies in the partnership. The results from these projects inform agricultural, environmental stewardship, pesticide and pollinator health policy. More cooperative approaches could benefit large scale projects such as river catchment restoration which often require multiple organisations to combine resources to produce valuable evidence.

The Defra network have promised us efficiency, collaboration and innovation in their approach to tackling evidence needs and now face the critical question of how to implement this strategy.

Posted in Agriculture, Defra, England, Government, Pollinators, Research and Development, Science Policy, Wales | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Achieving no net loss of something or other

In this guest blog post, Bruce Howard, the NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow on biodiversity offsetting, gives his take on BBOP’s ‘To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond’ conference recently held in London. Bruce is based at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Representatives of over 30 countries gathered on 3rd and 4th June for the first global conference on approaches to avoid, minimise, restore and offset biodiversity loss. This sequence of four activities, known as the mitigation hierarchy, is crucial to protecting ‘biodiversity’ from the impacts of building things on the ground or at sea.

The conference, which was spearheaded by the Business and Biodiversity Offsets (BBOP) Programme, was entitled To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond. No net loss of biodiversity is what many believe should result from correct application of the mitigation hierarchy. The idea was used as part of the rationale for Defra’s 2013 Green Paper on plans to bring about greater use of biodiversity offsetting in England.

The discussions at the conference demonstrated that while the logic of the mitigation hierarchy is accepted widely, the assessment of whether it is being applied will always be subjective. For example, does avoidance include development proposals that were abandoned before they were properly documented? Similarly, is minimisation just sensible environmental planning?

Most delegates appeared to agree that biodiversity offsets are a last resort at the end of the mitigation hierarchy. There were, however, differences of opinion among participants about the effect of the option of offsetting on steps further up the hierarchy. Some at the conference claimed that offsets provided an incentive to drive up standards throughout the mitigation hierarchy, not least because of the costs involved.  Others would disagree, or at least argue that the evidence for this among all the offset schemes worldwide is lacking.

The conference contained a mix of parochial and planetary considerations. In a plenary debate about the pros and cons of including offsets in the mitigation hierarchy, Tom Tew, Chief Executive of the Environment Bank asserted that offsetting for England was not about “saving the planet” but rather “introducing environmental accountability into [spatial] planning”. This down-to-earth view contrasted with the more general and global view of others. Overall, the conference made clear that where offsets are permitted, success or failure of offsets will always depend on the circumstances. These include the availability of data to establish an ecological baseline, the extent of good governance and the technical merits of restoration proposals.

Strangely, there was little discussion among conference participants as to exactly what the biodiversity we don’t want to lose actually is. The Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Braullio Dias, spoke about the roles of biodiversity in health and poverty eradication but not its identity. The CBD’s definition of biodiversity, which focuses on variability among living organisms and the ecological complexes of which they are part, is giving way to the view that it is all things that people value about nature. Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development made the provocative claim that biodiversity is a “meaningless” term in the goal-oriented world of business.  Without clarity on what we are trying to protect in diverse situations around the world, it will be impossible to monitor progress towards any no net loss goal.

The idea of no net loss perhaps found greatest meaning in a keynote speech by the Environment Minister for Gabon, Noel Nelson Messone. He set out a vision for protecting his country’s natural resources by means of extensive protected areas and bans on the export of raw commodities. No net loss of virgin forest in Central Africa is far more tangible as a goal than the avoidance of overall biodiversity loss around the UK.

A business roundtable on day two focused on building a business case for biodiversity and putting no net loss into practice within the private sector. The businesses represented had many different approaches to biodiversity protection, ranging from accounting for impacts along supply chains to the application of the mitigation hierarchy. The need for more partnerships between businesses and nature-based NGOs and governments was identified.  At a session on safeguards, standards and tools for biodiversity protection, the need for trained ecologists with good communication and negotiation skills was noted.

The conference was entitled To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond. The ‘beyond’ was perhaps an allusion to the idea of net gain. However, until we can deliver no net loss for the something or other that we call biodiversity, the achievement of net gain will remain a task for future generations.

Posted in Biodiversity Offsetting, Conference, International | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Measuring and improving well-being – what is the role for natural capital?

Progress in the UK has long been measured by GDP and other economic metrics such as employment rate. To get a fuller picture of the health of society and its pathway to sustainable development, attempts can be made to measure and quantify the well-being of citizens. Many sustainable development indicators are particularly relevant to well-being, highlighting how integral it is already to sustainable development.

Following on from their 2012 report on sustainable development indicators, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last week released a report into well-being. Assessing the Office for National Statistic’s (ONS) work into well-being, the use of well-being research results by government, and the work of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), the EAC encourages the momentum behind the NCC to continue, and for the Government to start using well-being data to improve existing policies.

A broad concept with many definitions, well-being is broadly understood to be a positive physical, social, and mental state. The three capitals of sustainable development – economic, social, and natural – encompass well-being. Since 2011, the ONS has been working to try to address the state of these capitals to see how the UK is faring overall. The work of the Measuring National Well-being Programme was encouraged further in the outcomes of Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012, which highlighted the need for new measures of progress to complement GDP. Despite the focus in this area, the EAC report highlights that the ONS data has yet to be developed to a stage where it can identify the causal links between well-being and life that are needed for policy making.

The difficulty of developing a headline metric for well-being that might be considered alongside GDP was also addressed by the Committee’s inquiry. One of the witnesses to the inquiry, NEF, indicated that a headline indicator could engage the public with the well-being evidence, and others highlighted how other initiatives have achieved this e.g. Oxfam Scotland’s Humankind Index. The Committee recommends that the government and ONS should not attempt to define a headline measure for well-being just yet. A measure would be better received once there all component measures have a track-record of effectiveness, they have a reasonable level of public familiarity, and a general consensus has been reached on their value and usefulness.

The pillar of sustainable development that has been a recent focus for government is natural capital. The 2011 natural environment white paper pledged to put natural capital “at the heart of government accounting”, ending the situation where gains and losses in the value of natural capital go unrecorded and unnoticed. As part of this commitment, the government set up the Natural Capital Committee in 2012 to provide expert independent advice on the state of England’s natural capital. The Committee has been set up initially for 3 years and is due to be reviewed just before the general election in 2015.

The NCC has published two reports to date, with a final due in spring 2015. The first – The State of Natural Capital: Towards a framework for measurement and valuation – set out a framework to better measure and account for changes in natural capital accounts and feed these in decision making processes. Their second – The State of Natural Capital: Restoring our natural assets – goes beyond this, analysing the state of natural capital in England, the risks facing these assets, and giving specific recommendations for government. As outlined in the natural environment white paper, the central aim for government is to be ‘the first generation to improve our natural environment’. In their latest report, the NCC set out the need for a 25-year landscape plan to deliver on this objective.

The EAC highlights the need to keep the momentum behind the NCC’s work up. With the current remit finishing just before a general election, there is a risk that its future will not be sufficiently considered. The Committee therefore recommend that the government puts the NCC on a long-term statutory footing, and respond formally to its annual reports. It is also recommended that the government accept the 25 year plan for improving England’s natural capital as proposed by the NCC. A permanently established NCC would then be responsible for providing advice on natural capital and monitoring progress on the 25 year plan.

The EAC’s recent report sends a strong message to Government about the future of the Natural Capital Committee. Although environmental factors form just one part of people’s well-being, they play a key role in health, happiness, and social relations. On a broader scale, England’s natural assets provide a wide variety of benefits, from fish stocks to insect pollination of crops. The EAC recommends ‘hard-wiring’ this into policy making, but emphasises that this would be best achieved with the help and advice of the already established NCC. The EAC now awaits the government’s response to their report to see if these initiatives will be put into place and taken forward.

Posted in England, Parliament, Select Committee | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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