Sunday, 18 December 2016

Strategic issues for biological recording

In my last post I highlighted the role that Government plays in generating biological/taxonomic skills that are critical to maintaining biological recording capacity. I used the analogy of architects and engineers to show how we look very differently upon nature conservation and wildlife data collection. Why is it that taxonomic skills are so under-valued?

Nature conservation has always been a low-paid profession and is populated by motivated people and has never been fiercely protective of its skill-base. You can just imagine the engineering profession's outrage if it was proposed that retired engineers should do the work of the existing cohort on a voluntary basis because Government cannot afford to pay for it! By contrast, Conservation professionals have very little access to standardised data because it is generally not funded. So, they have always turned to volunteer networks. Volunteer data has underpinned most of protected site designation and many of us volunteer in our spare time. The caring professions see much the same effect - there is always a charity there to step in when Government cuts social care funding - so Government feels that it can cut these aspects and somebody (the big society) will pick up the tab.

Unfortunately, we are hoisted on our own petard because we have shown what is possible. The problem now arises because these data are becoming a very powerful tool and Government Agencies and Departments and the NGOs want more of it. In my view, that is slowly changing the relationship towards biological recording being seen as an unpaid provider of essential data.

For me, the issue is not that we should be trying to reverse the trend in making biological recording data available for serious analysis. Nor should we be saying it has a financial value. People go out and record for any number of reasons. I'll use my own example - these days I have a 'patch' for birds that I put on BirdTrack. I do it because it gives me a reason to go out each day in the winter - forces me to get some exercise. In the summer I have regular walks that are effectively constant effort transects - but the primary purpose is to get exercise and stave off diabetes! In the process of doing this I generate useful information and maintain/develop skills.

A strategic disconnect

The problem that I see with biological recording is that there is now a disconnect between the users and the providers. The (seemingly) continuous effort to generate more data and efforts to set up new voluntary networks highlights very little understanding of the hierarchy that is needed to deliver data. This comprises

  • Troops on the ground - the recorders whose main interest is enjoyment of the countryside, learning about wildlife and acquiring new skills (and maybe new friendship groups).
  • Organisers - a lot of work goes into running a publicly-facing scheme. In the case of popular taxa that organisation can be vast - just think of the county flora committees and rare bird panels, not to mention the local organisers for WeBs counts. Within the Hoverfly Recording Scheme we have seen the impact of growing interest and activity - there are now eight people involved in running the Scheme. The work involves: ID of photos/specimens; data extraction; managing the FB page; data management; report-writing and production of newsletters. Just four years ago there were three of us (Stuart, me and David Iliff). The diagram I produced for a previous post serves to illustrate the volume of work that goes into scheme administration. 
  • The professionals - data managers in LRCs and BRC, programmers who write the data management and dissemination packages. 
  • Analysts - the statisticians who do the number crunching and deliver the outputs wanted by Government and NGOs.
Schematic representation of administrative jobs for running a modern recording scheme


At each level the numbers diminish but all are essential. What is generally overlooked is that although in some disciplines the technical ID skills are honed strictly on a non-vocational basis (e.g. most birding, butterflies, dragonflies), many others require an element of formal training and many years of study that is rarely achieved without access to museum collections and to other 'professionals' who play an important mentoring role. Those skills were once developed by local and national museums, research institutes such as ITE and the Commonwealth Institute, and even Government agencies - e.g. the late lamented 'Chief Scientists Team' of the Nature Conservancy Council. This latter team spawned many of the leading specialists of today, but has been disbanded and there is no replacement. When the CST generation goes, there is nothing to follow them.

I think it is absolutely essential that Government and its agencies start to understand this relationship and ensures that there is reliable employment and skills development. It is also essential that this process includes the maintenance/re-establishment of the link between one-s professional interest and non-vocational engagement. The challenge is, how do this.

It is noticeable that if you want an internationally recognised engineer with thirty year's experience you can expect to pay anything between £700 and £1000+ per day for those skills. By contrast, an entomologist with the same level of expertise will generally attract under £400 per day! True, the engineer will be creating commercially or socially important structures. But then, the recognised taxonomist may well produce the information that might help to avert a very different crisis. It is all about risks and values - the risk of ecosystem collapse is very poorly understood, whereas the collapse of a building is not uncommon, and its effects are immediate and high impact!

Friday, 16 December 2016

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry Opportunities

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has invited the science community and the wider public to suggest science and technology areas for scrutiny. Understandably, the biological recording community has started to discuss possibilities. As is often the case, the issue of funding emerges as a critical concern. I have seen this before in various other ecological disciplines and have been at the receiving end of negative comments as the representative of a Government Agency whose funding stream was diminishing.

My experience in those days has profoundly coloured my views, but my thinking may well be pertinent to current issues for biological recording. When we ran a contract to investigate the value of Estuary Partnerships, it rapidly developed into a situation where 'partnership officers' interpreted this as an attempt to close down 'partnerships'. I have never forgotten being met with comments at the English Coastal Forum in 1999 (Dorset) as 'here come the men that want to close down coastal partnerships' - aimed at me and Pete Barham. Nothing could have been further from the truth but the very fact that we were prepared to challenge the 'partnerships and to ask 'what benefits can we be sure about' was enough to put us in the position of 'the enemy'.

My rationale then and now is the same. If you can demonstrate your value in a way that resonates with those that hold the purse strings you stand a great deal more chance of maintaining funding. If you cannot, then don't be surprised if funding is cut. However supportive the responsible officers are, they will not be able to present a compelling case to senior officers who make the decisions!

So, let us look at biological recording. We have seen cuts in various ecological monitoring programmes - the Rothamstead Insect Survey and the National Moth Recording Scheme are obvious examples. Government wants the data, but does not want to spend the money. The fact that so much of the data come from volunteers implies that data are actually quite easy to acquire. The data generate results that do not shock after the first analysis - we know that moth numbers are declining - so what? There are no new high impact papers to be written, just an ongoing and generally negative message!

At the moment, Defra is evaluating bids to develop a national pollinator monitoring scheme. It might get 3+ years funding but you can be certain that funding will cease and it will be assumed that it will continue as a totally voluntary initiative. Is this really the way to treat monitoring of essential ecosystem services? To me, this is the nub of the current problem for biological recording. Would you expect the architectural community to monitor the state of our historic buildings for free? Of course not - they are valued professionals and are entitled to payment for their skills. Likewise, you would not dream of engaging volunteers to act as structural engineers to oversee the maintenance of the Dartford Crossing or the Forth Road Bridge! So, why expect volunteers to provide all the data on vital ecosystem services? Answer - it is ecology - anybody can do this as a 'citizen scientist'.

What Government tends to overlook is the role its own current and, increasingly, former employees play in biological recording. Many of the essential technical specialists are former employees of Government Departments, Agencies and Museums. The impact of reducing these posts is long-term and will only be felt in the coming decades. My friends ask with incredulity why I spend so much time on data collection for the Government when I am not being paid. In their professions they would not dream of doing 'owt for nowt'; so why is it that environmental issues are so different?

My feeling is that there is a serious need to investigate the value placed on specialist taxonomic skills and whether they can be maintained without relevant careers to develop the critical skills? Government is now almost totally reliant upon voluntary capacity to supply the vast bulk of ecological information. In any other profession this would be regarded as a serious erosion of the country's intellectual capacity, but in ecology it seems to be perfectly acceptable. That has serious long-term implications for GB Plc because we under-estimate how much current capacity is provided by people who have developed their skills whilst employed by Government bodies - cut that capacity and you cut a great deal of the long-term non-vocational capacity.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Trust the troops on point duty

We hear that Donald Trump does not believe the CIA and FBI analysis of Russian interference in the recent presidential elections. That has echoes of the experience many of us had with the erstwhile Chief Executive of Natural England.

In 2006, we rapidly got to realise that our CEO did not trust us. We frequently heard about meetings between the CEO and 'partner' organisations from our counterparts in said organisation. We had no firm clue about what was said and agreed (you cannot always trust your counterparts if they spot a weakness in your intelligence systems). Our CEO announced that we would be' told what we needed to know'! We had no firm idea about what our policy should be - try writing a policy paper with the instruction 'I'll know what I want when I see it'! Worse still, we had no clue about the information that would actually be valued by the CEO. Needless to say, this relationship was accompanied by an exodus of technical skills that have been lost for ever. It does not take a lot to kill off the relationship between management and the troops on point duty. Why stick your neck out if the Chief is as likely to chop it off than the opposition might seek to do!

If I was a member of the CIA or FBI I would be very worried. If the Chief does not trust you, and won't take briefings other than on an intermittent basis, you are in serious trouble. I always took the view that one should at least listen to the troops on point duty - they have the most relevant experience and are the eyes and ears of the organisation. If you don't trust them, then you are exposing the whole army (country/organisation) to acting blind.

God help the western World!

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A future for mankind

President-elect Donald Trump's appointment of Scott Pruitt to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency should be greeted with delight by those of us who believe in Gaia Theory.

True, both Trump and Pruitt are climate-change deniers. But then, they also have no respect for science, so there is precious little point in the scientific community getting very exercised about the political change. Realistically, Trump represents the view of at least 50% of the western World and probably closer to 70% of that World. I rarely come across people who really believe in climate change. Often, they argue that sea level rise is not happening, that the climate has always changed, and that there is no proof that humankind has changed the climate. It is a view that will be embraced by most people because the alternatives are pretty unpalatable.

Do we want to face up to reality and take action that will hurt us, or should we bury our heads in the sand and wait to be kicked up the behind by something rather unpleasant? In reality it is not my generation that will face the biggest kick up the backside. It is the next generation: my friend's children and grand children. My sadness is for them.

Nevertheless, the sooner that climate change kicks us hard, the better. That way, perhaps mankind will start to die out. Sadly, many of the iconic plants and animals that currently exist will also be lost. BUT, I take comfort from the 'Great Permian Extinction' and from the K-T event that led to the demise of the Dinosaurs. If mankind is eliminated, the world in 10 million years time could be a fantastic place. Donald Trump will be an irrelevance and mankind just a narrow footnote in history. Most of the major epochs lasted tens of millions of years but the Anthropocene may well last less than 10,000 years - a minor footnote in history! Should we care? Yes, because we love our decendents but no if we care more about the long-term possibilities for the World.