"A BES grant helped launch the Big Biodiversity Butterfly Count, leading to Brighton & Hove's 2010 Big Nature bioliteracy campaign"

Dan Danahar Grant recipient

Fledging the nest: an early career event for the next generation of Conservation Ecologists

Lydia Cole, Rezatec, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Liaison Officer @lydcole

Katherine Baldock, University of Bristol, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Early Career Rep @Kath_Baldock

Claudia Gray, Zoological Society of London, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Communications Officer @ClaudiaLGray

Heather Crump, Aberystwyth University, BES Conservation Ecology SIG Early Career Rep @hec72012

A line up of Experts for the first of its kind: an audience-participation Early Career event catering specifically for Conservation Ecologists.

A line up of experts for the first of its kind: an audience-participation early career event catering specifically for conservation ecologists.

Last Friday heralded the first training event of the revived BES Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group: an interactive workshop for Early Career Conservation Ecologists.  Jointly hosted by the Zoological Society of London and the British Ecological Society, the event brought together a herd of experts, working in fields ranging from journal editing, to university lecturing and policy, to guide early career attendees through five interactive sessions.

The philosophy behind the day was to provide an active learning opportunity where the bright, enthusiastic cohort of PhDs and postdocs currently trying to enter the world of conservation could learn a range of skills that would better equip them for this challenge.  And they flocked in their numbers, with over 65 gathering at the London Zoo, in view of the kangaroos, having travelled from as far afield as Falmouth to the south and Durham to the north.

Universities are busy places, full of busy supervisors, who do not always have the time to impart knowledge on how the world (of conservation) works and how best to get into it; this workshop attempted to bring that knowledge into one room and encourage the early career enthusiasts to tap into it.

The day was divided into five sessions, each an hour long, where participants spread themselves across five thematic groups:

  1. Funding
  2. Press and online media profile building
  3. Networking and CV development for non-academic careers
  4. Interview skills for academic careers
  5. Publishing


The Funding ‘station’, in action

The funding ‘station’, in action

At each ‘station’ ( = a round table + experts x 2 + useful materials + Post-its (of course!)), attendees were asked to perform a series of tasks to engage them with the theme, ranging from seeing how many “useful” new contacts they could make in a quick-fire networking break-out, to matching abstracts to journals, drafting a BES small grant application and putting together a communication strategy for a paper about to be published.  In between tasks, there was plenty of time to mine the knowledge of the experts, who must have answered several thousand questions over the course of the day (thank you, experts!).  And throughout, there was not a lecture in sight!

Informal feedback tells us it was a day well received:

To mark the event and share the knowledge gained from it, we will be running a series of blogs over the coming fortnight, with each post focusing one of the five workshop themes.  So if you missed the event, check out the blogs….and watch out for the invitation to #conscareers17!

And remember: you can easily keep up-to-date with the Conservation Ecology SIG news by following us on Twitter @BESConservation and Facebook through the BES Conservation Ecology group page.  Alternatively, you can join our mailing list by dropping an email to Nathalie.Pettorelli@ioz.ac.uk

This post can also be viewed on the Applied Ecologist’s Blog

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The Nagoya Protocol

By Amy G. Fensome, Policy Intern

The UK is moving ever closer to the full implementation of the Nagoya Protocol, or to give it its full title “The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic resources and the Fair and Equitable sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization”. The UK ratified the agreement on the 22 February and so will become a Party to the Protocol 90 days after this on the 22 May.

The agreement encompasses some of the most pressing issues of our time (and several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals) and supports the continued exploration and development of natural products (medicines, foods) for the betterment of human health and wellbeing globally, whilst making sure that this is not at the expense of indigenous communities, less economically developed nations or the planet but directly beneficial to them.

The stated goal of the protocol is “the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources, thereby contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity”. Where traditional knowledge has contributed to the identification of useful compounds occurring within natural products, the indigenous communities are to be consulted and mutually agreeable terms negotiated to ensure the equitable sharing of any benefits arising from the use of this knowledge.

This is potentially an extraordinary piece of international legislation and it’s been a long time coming. Part of the UN’s Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), work towards an agreement on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) began in 1997-98 with the establishment of an expert panel and culminated in the Nagoya Protocol in 2010. The agreement entered into force in October 2014 and has steadily taken root within EU (April 2014) and UK (March 2015) legislation.

But what does the protocol mean in practice?

Firstly, the protocol doesn’t apply to genetic resources identified and developed prior to 12 October 2014 but it does mean that as part of due diligence procedures it will be necessary to demonstrate that the materials pre-date the commencement of the protocol.

Anyone wishing to obtain and use new materials must obtain Prior Informed Consent (PIC).  This means that relevant parties in the provider country must be informed about the potential uses of the genetic material and if any indigenous knowledge is attached to the compound of interest then these communities must also be consulted as part of negotiating Mutually Agreeable Terms (MATs).

Benefit sharing is considered within the Mutually Agreed Terms. Benefits are supposed to be “directed in such a way as to promote conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity” and contribute to alleviating poverty. Potentially, benefits could include financial rewards including the setting up of trust funds for indigenous communities but are more likely to be activities and projects that contribute to the above stated goals, such as capacity-building, training, exchange programmes and access to relevant information and technology.

The EU regulations relating to the implementation of the Protocol require that due diligence will have to be demonstrated when researchers are recipients of funding for research involving the utilisation of genetic resources and at the final stage of product development (if applicable). This means providing evidence of the date and place that the genetic material was accessed, the source of the DNA and where applicable any permits or MAT agreements associated with the genetic resource.

Failure to demonstrate compliance with UK regulations relating to the implementation of the Protocol may eventually result in civil action. A series of notices to comply or halt work will be issued if due diligence has not been proven. Ultimately action against those who fail to comply could escalate to a fine of up to £5000 or 3 months in prison or an unspecified fine and 2 years in prison for indictable offences.

Information relating to the protocol on the CBD website is extensive and ranges from fairly basic fact-sheets that serve as introductions to the Nagoya Protocol and Access and Benefit Sharing and the terms of the agreement (e.g. Genetics, Traditional Knowledge, National Implementation) to a detailed overview of the protocol put together by the IUCN. The CBD have provided a short video. EU and sector specific guidance is in development and expected in 2016 and 2016/17.

Big heart, no teeth?

The underlying rationale of Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) is that by imbuing the source of genetic material with a value (as agreed in the MAT which could include but is not limited to a financial value) it encourages biodiversity as a whole to be valued and in this way creates an incentive to sustainably use and conserve both the resource and the wider biodiversity of the region. However, as this IUCN guide points out, there is no specific legislation that defines how the protocol, via the MAT and benefit sharing, ensures that these conservation and sustainability goals are achieved or how parties to the protocol can enforce them. The legislation leaves this key value of the protocol wide open for interpretation. Overall it seems that the protocol has its heart in the right place but it’s a little bit toothless.

At the same time the Nagoya Protocol is a stride in the right direction. On first learning about the protocol I couldn’t help wonder what the world would look like now if the protocol had been around 100-150 odd years ago. Sugar, chocolate and tropical fruits – these and many other natural products were taken from one place (Asia, South and Central America, Africa) and (via Dutch, British, French and American interests) introduced and grown around the world, especially in the global south, a colonial practice that represented a contributing factor to massive inequalities globally in terms of power and wealth. Inequalities that persist to this day.

Whilst we might roll our eyes at yet more bureaucracy the protocol is a statement to the effect that this modus operandi is not acceptable. And that should be welcomed. It also recognises that environmental, social and economic problems are intrinsically linked and that their solution must also be.

For further information visit https://www.gov.uk/guidance/abs

or contact abs@nmro.gov.uk


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Natural Capital and a Greener Budget

By Jackie Caine, Policy Manager

Yesterday, WWF-UK launched a new report: ‘A Greener Budget: sustaining our prosperity in a changing world’, the second in a series of WWF publications in the lead up to the spring budget announcement by HM Treasury.

The report sets out practical actions for the next budget to enable the UK to move to a sustainable, resource efficient, low-carbon economy. Karen Ellis, Chief Advisor in Economics and Development at WWF-UK said this was something the Treasury should want on economic grounds alone – a healthy natural world is the foundation of a healthy economy, and is vital for the UK to remain competitive in a resource constrained environment.

WWF state that despite Government’s long term aspirations for a sustainable economy, its immediate policy decisions are misaligned – for instance, Government recently decided not to include a long-term investment strategy for natural capital in the National Infrastructure Plan, and has introduced a number of policy measures that make it more difficult for the UK to meet its climate change targets.  They call for a restructuring of economic policy so that it promotes investment in the natural asset base.

The promotion, protection and improvement of our natural capital is a focal point of the report.  Mary Creagh MP, the recently appointed chair of the Environmental Audit Committee spoke about the importance of incorporating natural capital within every government department. She said that the single departmental plans  published this month  lack ‘SMART’ objectives, and agrees with the National Audit Office that there needs to be an ownership of responsibility when it comes to sustainability within government; we should be able to measure progress and ‘doggedly hold people to account’. The Committee’s inquiry on Sustainability and HM Treasury will explore this further, and Creagh encouraged businesses and the finance sector to respond to this inquiry.

Dieter Helm, Chair of the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), now in its second manifestation spoke about how natural capital is a ‘hard concept’ that needs measureable thresholds and limits – it is not a woolly term like sustainability. He said the robust science that Georgina Mace and previous NCI Chair Rosie Hails brought to the last NCC was a vital part of ensuring the committee’s work has science at its heart.

The new Natural Capital Committee will maintain its independence and run for five years, providing some continuity in the next government. Georgina Mace will again join the committee, alongside Kathy Willis, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Colin Mayer, Professor of Management Studies, Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford; Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at the University of Manchester; Ian Bateman, Professor and Director of the Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment (CSERGE) and Paul Leinster, Professor of Environmental Assessment at Cranfield University.

The Committee will focus on practical steps, and Helm spoke about ‘templates’ of activities that will work alongside the 25 year plan for nature; these templates will cover river catchments, cities, a landscape project and a marine project.

Finally, Zoe Knight, Managing Director of the Climate Change Centre of Excellence at HSBC said that if Government were to incorporate WWF’s budget recommendations, this would signal to investors a commitment to incorporating natural capital accounting, and encourage transparency and disclosure in the business community. She said that the UK can take leadership position on natural capital accounting, and the framework we set out can be of use not only to the global economy, but for UK companies that have global reach.

See the full recommendations from the ‘A Greener Budget’, and follow the Twitter conversation from the event at #greenerbudget2016

This post was first published on the Natural Capital Initiative blog. The Natural Capital Initiative is a partnership between the BES, the Royal Society of Biology, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the James Hutton Institute. Find out more.

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The EU referendum: what could it mean for environment and science policy?

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

EU Flag

Photo: MPD01605/Flickr

So finally we have a date. The Prime Minister’s renegotiation is complete, and the UK’s referendum on whether to remain in the European Union or go it alone will be held on 23rd June 2016. This week the starting guns have truly been fired in the campaign, with five cabinet ministers and the Mayor of London defying the Government position to join the push for a “Brexit”.

The outcome of the referendum will have a profound impact on science and environment policy in the UK for decades to come. Environmental legislation in the UK and the EU is closely entwined, with many EU directives transposed into UK law. The Common Agricultural Policy represents a full 40% of the EU budget, whilst the EU has a significant impact on the funding and organisation of scientific research in the UK, across all fields including ecology.

So if the UK wakes up on the 24th June having voted to leave the EU, what could happen? A firm commitment to leave would trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which gives a two year period to negotiate the complexities of an exit. In the event of a leave vote, the UK could remain a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), alongside Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, or could negotiate a completely new relationship with the EU.

What would “Brexit” change?

As many EU Directives are transposed into UK law, it wouldn’t be the case that this legislation would simply cease to exist. In many cases legislative change in the UK parliament would be required to repeal or alter existing laws. Indeed, if the UK left the EU but remained in the EEA, it would still need to adhere to many EU regulations, including most environmental directives and regulations such as the Water Framework Directive, legislation on genetically modified organisms and environmental impact assessment rules.

However a number of major policies and legislation would no longer apply, even if the UK were to remain in the EEA, including the Nature Directives, Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. The UK could choose to lower, maintain or increase levels of environmental protection.

The Nature Directives, comprising the 1979 Birds Directive and 1992 Habitats Directive, underpin the Natura 2000 network of protected areas across the European Union, as well as creating a comprehensive system of protection for priority species and habitats. Nature conservation projects also benefit substantially from funding through the EU’s LIFE programme.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) forms the largest element of the UK’s EU costs, providing a comprehensive regulatory and subsidy regime for farming. Departure from the CAP would have a dramatic impact on agriculture in the UK. While an alternative subsidy system could provide an opportunity to improve on the environmental aspects of the CAP – often deemed a failure – Environment Secretary Liz Truss has suggested it would wrong to “take a leap in the dark”

While the Common Fisheries Policy has also been criticised for its environmental deficiencies, recent reforms have been positively received, with some fisheries showing signs of recovery. If the UK left the EU, it would assume sole control of fisheries within 200 miles of the coast. Although this could give the Government greater freedom to create ecologically sound policies, it could also see the UK fishing fleet excluded from the waters of neighbouring member states unless new bilateral agreements are negotiated.

The EU also has a significant impact on scientific research in the UK. As well as being a major funder, with the UK receiving roughly €1 billion per year in the most recent Framework Programme funding round, researchers and institutions also benefit greatly from freedom of movement and structures supporting collaboration between scientists in different Member States.

While non EU-member states are able to access some EU research funding, these opportunities are conditional: Switzerland was recently partially excluded from Horizon 2020 funding programmes because of freedom of movement restrictions applied by the Swiss government.

Our role in the referendum

Ahead of the referendum, we will not be taking a position on whether the UK would be better off in or out of the European Union. We will be focusing on informing members about the role of the EU in environment and science policy in the UK, and the possible consequences of a vote to leave.

We’ll also be helping to make sure that policymakers understand what the EU means for ecology and ecologists, and have already responded to select committee inquiries on the EU and science, and the EU and environmental policy.

You can find out more about what we’re doing, and access external resources, through our dedicated webpage. The potential consequences of “Brexit” will also be covered in more detail in the Legislation Scan in the next issue of the BES Bulletin. We’re keen to hear from members about how the EU impacts on your work, so please get in touch with any issues you would like to raise, or post your comments on the blog.

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Biodiversity offsetting: cast into the wilderness?

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

Last week, almost two and a half years after it closed, the Government finally released the conclusions of its consultation on biodiversity offsetting in England. Given the lack of urgency in publishing these results, it is unsurprising that there appears to be little enthusiasm from Defra to push offsetting forward. There are no concrete actions identified as a result of the consultation: only that Defra will continue to work “with Natural England and interested parties to further our shared understanding of how best to compensate for biodiversity loss when it cannot first be avoided or mitigated”.

Back in 2013, we brought together a group of members to consider the scientific evidence behind biodiversity offsetting and submitted a detailed response to the consultation. In our response we suggested that any offsetting policy must be based on a scientifically valid, transparent and consistent mechanism, integrated into the mitigation hierarchy. We also highlighted the substantial uncertainties that remain in our understanding of habitat restoration, and that further ecological research into the design and implementation of possible offsets is required if they are to achieve the intended outcome of “no net loss”.

Since then, as previously discussed on the blog, further studies have urged caution with offsetting. Gordon et al identified the risks of “perverse incentives”, including the possibility that offsets may entrench biodiversity declines if baselines are poorly specified, and the danger of crowding out other conservation actions. Evans et al flagged up a number of areas where more scientific evidence is required, including extending our knowledge of offsets across a greater range of habitats, understanding the timescales required to create functionally equivalent ecosystems, and developing a framework for treating uncertainty.

This ambivalence about offsetting is reflected in the collated responses to the Defra consultation. Out of over 400 responses, just over half thought that the Government should introduce offsetting, with almost two-thirds of respondents suggesting that the proposed objectives were wrong. Concerns raised in the consultation include the lack of ecological expertise and capacity within local authorities to implement an offsetting system; the high degree of uncertainty over methodologies, and the potential for offsetting to undermine the mitigation hierarchy, especially if applied through a voluntary scheme.

Whilst consulting on biodiversity offsetting, Defra also instigated a series of pilot schemes in six areas, and the evaluation report of this pilot programme – also released last week – shares much of the caution found in the consultation results. The pilots were inconclusive, with no offsets actually in place at the end of the trial period and many aspects remaining untested. The report concludes that while offsetting may have potential, there is a clear need for increased resources and ecological expertise within local authorities, and in its proposed form it could deliver only “marginal benefits in terms of streamlining the planning process for agreeing compensation for biodiversity loss”.

So where next for biodiversity offsetting? It seems that this idea, much vaunted by the Coalition government and the previous Secretary of State, will not be rolled out any time soon. Yet the Conservative government is still keen on market-oriented mechanisms for conservation, with Liz Truss highlighting natural capital accounting and environmental impact bonds in her recent speech on reforming Defra. With the framework for Defra’s 25 year plan for the natural environment expected this Spring, we should soon have a clearer idea whether offsetting will make a comeback, or remain in the wilderness.

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The Soil Health Inquiry – clearer than mud

By Amy G. Fensome, Policy Intern

On 2 December the Environmental Audit Committee opened an inquiry into soil health. The aim of the inquiry is to ascertain the importance of healthy soil to society, how to measure and monitor soil health and what actions could be taken to maintain or improve soil health.

The British Ecological Society contributed evidence to the inquiry as did the National Trust; Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH); the Soil Association, the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast; Soil First Farming and Newcastle University and a further 59 organisations and individuals.

With their distinct remits it is unsurprising that these organisations provided documents that each had their own “flavour”, with slightly different priorities and approaches to the questions at hand.

For example, Newcastle University provided a detailed overview of some of the more academic background to soil health and monitoring such as definitions, methodological considerations and an overview of existing strategies.

Soil First Farming came from the perspective of farmers, pointing out that there are farmers who voluntarily put soil health at the heart of their business but that there are others who have different priorities (such as minimising costs) who may resist enforced changes to their management practices.

The Soil Association took a different approach entirely and highlighted three priority issues (the need to increase soil organic matter, restoration of peatlands and fens, the problems posed by growing maize) and the actions required to tackle them.

Drawing on the expertise of a number of BES members as well as an in-depth review of the literature, the BES response was very thorough, including a detailed overview of potential indicators and suggestions for how Government could develop a strategy for the future.

Despite the differences between these documents, there appears to be a great deal of consensus. We have reviewed some of the above submissions and pulled out a few of the key ideas that emerged for each of the inquiry questions.

How could soil health best be measured and monitored?

A reliable measure of soil health can only be obtained by measuring physical (e.g. structure), chemical (e.g. pH) and biological (e.g. earthworms) indicators.  Monitoring should take into account spatial and temporal scales and include all land types.

What are the benefits that healthy soils can provide to society? 

Soil is fundamental to life (at least non-marine life). Food security depends on healthy soil as does access to clean water. Soil regulates nutrient cycling and atmospheric composition including carbon and is therefore important in terms of global change dynamics. Soil is home to a wide biodiversity which supports aboveground biota.

What are the consequences of failing to protect soil health for the environment, public health, food security, and other areas? 

Ultimately, poor soil health will lead to an inability to provide sufficient food and clean water as well as further degradation of the atmosphere and biodiversity. Poor soil quality leads to soil erosion which leads to silting of lakes and streams with devastating consequences for organisms in those environments. Poor nutrient content of soil will necessitate increased chemical inputs on agricultural land. Loss of organic matter also reduces the ability of soil to absorb and hold water contributing to flood risk.

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?

The consensus view is that existing legislation, in so far as it stands, is inadequate. Whilst a strategy for safeguarding soil was developed by Defra in 2009 and Defra’s white paper “The Natural Choice” (2011) included a goal that by 2030 all soils in England should be managed sustainably and degradation threats tackled successfully, there is little legislation that backs this up. There are some requirements within the CAP that promote positive action for soils but these are limited to agricultural soils and according to Soil First Farming, uptake is minimal.  As CEH points out, these regulations only relate to agricultural soils.

The actions and strategies suggested by each organisation were extensive but key points include: more research (baseline data, relationship between soil properties and functions), incentivise good practice, make soil health a significant consideration in spatial planning and establish a UK wide monitoring network.

What role (if any) should soil health play in the Government’s upcoming 25 year plan for the natural environment?

There is agreement that soil health should be a significant aspect of the upcoming plan but there should be cross compliance with the 25 year plan for Food and Farming.

What next?

It is apparent from reviewing the written submissions that within a vast and complex area of research, there is consensus on many of the inquiry questions. The most varied responses were those relating to suggestions for future strategies that might encourage better management of soils as a resource. The deadline for written submissions closed on the 28 January. The next stage is for the committee panel to invite expert speakers to provide oral evidence.

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Reviewing the Research Excellence Framework: Government launches call for evidence

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

The UK Government has launched a call for evidence for its review of the Research Excellence Framework, the latest in a number of consultations on higher education and research policy.

Since May’s election, the Conservative government has been determined to make its mark on the higher education and research policy landscape. The Nurse Review of the Research Councils and forthcoming creation of Research UK, the higher education green paper and proposals for the Teaching Excellence Framework, and now a review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF): policy changes have been coming thick and fast.

The government’s intention to reassess the REF was first outlined in the autumn Spending Review, and was officially launched on 16 December by Science Minister Jo Johnson. The review will be chaired by Lord Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy, and will seek to ensure that quality-related (QR) research funding “is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research, and reduces the administrative burden on institutions”.

In its current form, the REF takes place every 5-6 years, and aims to assess the quality of research produced by higher education institutions in order to inform the allocation of QR research funding. The most recent REF, undertaken by the UK’s four higher education funding bodies in 2014, saw submissions from 154 institutions under 36 subject categories for peer review by appointed panels of experts. Submissions were assessed for the quality and impact of the research, and the research environment, to be graded on a four-point scale.

So what is up for grabs in Lord Stern’s review? The terms of reference make it clear that the government is committed to maintaining the dual support system of research funding, with the REF continuing to drive the allocation of QR funding. Likewise the frequency of the REF, at 5-6 year intervals, is deemed appropriate and will be maintained.

Where the review will seek to make changes, in the Government’s own words, is to ensure that “future university research funding is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research and reduces the administrative burden on institutions”. Importantly, it is emphasised that any revised system must carry the confidence of the UK academic community and other stakeholders: as science policy expert James Wilsdon writes, “the REF has become a condensation point for wider concern about the burden of audit, management and bureaucracy in academic life”.

The Stern Review therefore offers an excellent opportunity for the academic community to make heard their views on the REF. Where does it work well? What could be improved? Last week the Government launched a call for evidence as part of the review, outlining nine questions it is seeking to address. The questions are wide ranging, asking how the REF processes could be changed to assess research more efficiently and accurately; whether some elements of the REF could be reported at a more aggregate level; how institutions use the REF in decision-making and strategic planning; how interdisciplinary research could be better recognised; and what impacts the REF has on the work and behaviours of individual academics.

We will be contributing to the Royal Society of Biology’s response to the call for evidence, and are keen to hear from as wide a range of BES members as possible to inform our contribution. This is a crucial issue for the ecological research community, as it is for all UK-based academics, and we want to make sure your voice is heard.

If you’re reading this as a BES member and would like to share your views on any of the questions posed in the call for evidence, or more broadly about your experience of the REF, please get in touch with Jackie Caine, Policy Manager at jackie@britishecologicalsociety.org.

Download the call for evidence questions

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A Modernised Defra – Liz Truss announces the departmental plan

By Jackie Caine, Policy Manager

Yesterday the Environment Secretary Liz Truss gave a speech at the Institute for Government on reforms to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), explaining plans to make the department ‘more integrated, more open, more modern and more local’.

The room was packed as many were keen to see how the Minister planned to deliver Defra’s vital work with a Department that has been hit by some of the largest budget cuts in this and the previous Parliament.


Defra works with 33 agencies and public bodies, including the Forestry Commission, Natural England, advisory bodies and National Park Authorities, and the crux of  Truss’ plan is to integrate the work of these agencies, structuring their work ‘around river catchments and  landscapes’. Plans and budgets will be created at this scale for each area of the environment, rather than according to the agency or organisation.

This will be welcome news for many who advocate the ecosystem approach in decision making, and is perhaps driven by the Ministers’ recent first-hand experience of the widespread flooding late last year.

Greater integrated working across Defra is central to the reforms, but Truss stated that Defra heavyweights Natural England (NE) and the Environment Agency (EA) will maintain their legal independence, something she emphasised in later questioning. They will however share some back office functions, including IT, HR and communications.


Truss rightly identified that ‘Defra touches the lives of every individual and every business in the country’, and is keen to shape more local, people orientated services. She wants individuals to have more information and tools to be able to make local level decisions. She recognised that this means having more Defra staff on the ground who are able to make decisions and resolve local issues without passing them up the line.  Many environmental issues are the responsibility of local authorities, and linking these up with the Defra plan and NE and EA activities at the catchment area may be difficult. Truss recognised this issue and said that Defra’s plan should enable other organisations, such as local government authorities, to work with them more effectively.


Perhaps the most relevant announcement for ecologists is that of the new ‘Environment Analysis Unit’, which will bring soil, water, biodiversity, flooding and farming data together. The integration of soil health alongside other environmental factors in decision-making  was something the BES were keen to highlight in our recent Soil Health inquiry response, and we hope that the Environmental Analysis Unit will have real impact on the way the environment is incorporated into land use and planning decisions.

The Minister is keen on open data, stating Defra will release 8,000 datasets by June. They are also increasing capital investment by 12% resulting in a 30% increase in investment in IT, science and facilities.

Good news?

The Minister was optimistic and enthused about the work of Defra, and many will welcome the more joined up, landscape approach to Defra’s work. This is of course one way to do more with less money, but it also makes sense to join up Defra functions as much as possible.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, with Truss admitting that it will take years for many of these processes to be put in place, and that a department never really stops reforming if it is to keep up with the modern world.

The Minister’s plan is set against a background of boosting productivity, wanting to drive competitiveness and ‘minimis[e] the burdens of regulation’. She would not be led on questioning about the forthcoming EU referendum and what this may mean for environmental regulation in the UK.

And what about the 25 year plan?

We’ve welcomed Defra’s 25 year plan for the environment (and a separate one for food and farming), but information on this has been thin so far. Truss stated that Defra will launch a framework for the environment plan in the spring, with the final results expected at the end of the year. They will be using a platform called ‘Dialogue’, a live discussion app that enables contributors to have their say. The Minister has said that the area plans and budgets will be integrated with the framework for the 25 year plan for the environment, and the governance reforms will make it  easier ‘to bring in talents and finances from other organisations’. Truss didn’t mention integration of the 25 year plan for the environment with the plan for food and farming, but we hope with this renewed focus on joined up activity, that this will be on the cards.

Stay informed

The BES will be keeping a close eye on how Defra implements this reform, and we will be in touch with members to ensure that ecologists have a say in the 25 year plan for the environment. For the full speech text see the Defra website, follow tweets at  #truss and hear the Minister speak further about the work of Defra at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s recent inquiry.

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Science Minister underlines importance of the EU at CaSE Annual Lecture

By Ben Connor, Policy Officer

At Wednesday’s Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) Lecture, Science Minister Jo Johnson gave a strong endorsement of the importance of European Union membership for UK science. Concluding a speech outlining the Government’s vision for science, he argued that “while there is nothing in our EU membership that limits our ability to work with other countries, the onus is now on those who want to leave the EU […] to explain how they would sustain current levels of investment and collaboration.”

In the storied surrounds of the Royal Institution, the Minister addressed an audience of 400 representatives of the scientific community, outlining his laudable aim to “make Britain the best place in the world for science, engineering and innovation”. Yet he clearly acknowledged that this goal was not something the UK could achieve in isolation, emphasising the vital importance of international partnerships to scientific research. He pointed to the UK’s success in obtaining EU research funding, also highlighting the value of free movement for researchers and students, and the fact that research publications involving international collaboration – as over 50% of UK papers do – have much greater impact.

In the autumn Spending Review, scientific research funding was protected in real terms, to rise with inflation over the course of this Parliament. This was a broadly positive settlement in the context of significant spending cuts across government; a point the Minister was keen to stress. In his speech he also made two new funding announcements: doubling the Newton Fund for international research to £150 million per year by 2021, and launching a new £30 million Science Capital Fund for science centres in partnership with the Wellcome Trust. He also reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to implementing Sir Paul Nurse’s recommendation to improve research co-ordination through the creation of Research UK.

Yet the funding and organisation of scientific research – policy for science – is just one part of science policymaking. Science for policy­ – making sure decision-makers are equipped with the right scientific evidence for making decisions, is also crucial, and the Science Minister is responsible for managing the relationship with the Government Office for Science, which aims to deliver this goal. Yet while the “science budget” has been reasonably well protected by the current Conservative government and its Coalition predecessor, departmental budgets for “science for policy” have been subject to substantial cuts.

Analysis by CaSE in 2014 showed that in 2011/12 half of Government departments cut research and development expenditure by over 20% compared to the previous year, often out of proportion to their overall spending reductions. So in the Q & A session after the CaSE Lecture, we asked the Minister how he will support Government departments across the board to retain their capacity to generate and use scientific evidence to best inform policy decisions.

In response he assured us, and the audience, that the Government has set up a structure to monitor departmental science spending, with the Chief Scientific Advisor playing an important role, and able to step in if departments are making excessive cuts that threaten their scientific capacity. Yet while the existence of this structure is welcome, the scale of cuts to departments such as Defra – which has lost roughly £1 billion from its budget since 2010, and will be subject to a further 15% reduction over the course of the Parliament – has inevitably led to the loss of important research projects.

In the context of this funding pressure, Professor Ian Boyd, Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has outlined in the department’s Evidence Strategy the need for “greater participation from, and collaboration with, external partners and providers of evidence” to inform government policy. With their role in synthesising and communicating evidence, as well as advocating for government investment in research, it is clear that learned societies such as the BES have an increasingly important role to play in this collaborative endeavour.

Posted in BIS, England, Event, Science, Science Funding, Science Policy, UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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