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.


  1. Indeed - another erudite contribution, Roger. I suspect/think that environmental work is commonly regarded as non-specialist at worst, or can be done at a relatively low skill level at best. In some ways the environmental community generally has supported that view by using and empowering interested volunteers for different surveys and studies - insect surveys, bird surveys, SeaSearch, etc, etc. And, of course, many laypeople do have huge interest in the natural world, so they're keen and happy to do it - great! But the knowledge and experience that lie behind such programmes are key. So, without an ongoing commitment to develop the new professionals that will support and nurture the work in future, we run a huge risk that it'll disappear. It's not particularly sexy, but taxonomy is a real skill (that I don't have), and it'll be extremely hard to re-establish the knowledge base if it's allowed to disappear completely. Long term datasets are really, really important...