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!

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