David is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge. His research looks into how the interpretation of climate science affects biodiversity conservation policy-making and practice in England. He is a keen birdwatcher and has a strong interest in British wildlife conservation.
I have been very interested in recent weeks to read articles on this blog about the nature of conservation science. Mark’s initial comments on what constitutes ‘good’ science in wildlife conservation were followed by interesting pieces by Andy Clements and David Gibbons, all of whom have very kindly contributed to my university research over the last 18 months.
The authority that science can command as a result of its rigorous methods and peer review process is a major factor in determining why policy-makers seek to use it to underpin policy. If we present science to policy-makers that is rich and varied, then it is more likely to have a real impact on decision-making. David Gibbons makes an important point that scientists need to talk to policy-makers to make a difference ‘on the ground’. And I think this should mean talking to policy-makers in a variety of different forms through a variety of different voices – whether that be scientist, conservation organisation staff member, amateur ecologist or just keen wildlife watcher. And each should try and use a range of platforms to get their message across, an ambition that has led me to try and write about my work in a much wider way than keeping it ‘in-house’ in academic journals.
I think that the tension between what may loosely be described as ‘top-down’ science versus ‘bottom-up’ science can hold back the richness of science that is presented to policy-makers. In using these labels I echo the useful comments made on Andy Clements’ article, where two readers point out the value of amateur science. It is clear to me that there can be a tension between more formal, peer-reviewed science produced by high level experts and more experience-based science, which is undertaken by amateur enthusiasts ‘on the ground’. Mike Hulme, author of ‘Why We Disagree About Climate Change’, writes that scientific knowledge is still too readily placed on a pedestal as though it were the only way to find meaningful knowledge about the world. And this can lead to a culture of ‘good science’, which was the subject of Mark’s initial piece on this blog. I think it can be divisive at times to talk in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science, and I agree with Andy Clements when he argues that we should not think in terms of whose science is ‘better’. It can allow a politics of inclusion/exclusion to take place against knowledge, which is not rigidly scientific, but nevertheless may be based upon credible local, experience-based knowledge (Wynne and Mayer, 1993, Ellis and Waterton, 2005).
I am sure that all readers of this blog know themselves the real value of amateur recording, which is something that I feel strongly that all keen wildlife watchers should get into, no matter how old the enthusiast. I think all those passionate about UK nature conservation were filled with enthusiasm with the dedication shown by the 10 year-old contributor to this blog.
In academic studies Brian Wynne’s case study of sheep farming in Cumbria (1995) is a widely cited example of where lay knowledge was ignored with negative consequences. In June 1986, the UK Ministry for Agriculture imposed a ban on the selling and moving of sheep in Cumbria after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Scientists had assumed alkaline clay soils, which would quickly decrease the levels of radioactivity, but instead acid, peaty soils predominated. Therefore, sheep were exposed to continual contamination. Scientists had assured local farmers the ban would only be in place for 3 weeks, but due to their basic, flawed assumption on soil type, there were still 9 farms under restriction by 2000. There was strong evidence to suggest that the local farmers knew themselves the soils they had farmed with for generations, but there was a perception from ‘outside’ expert scientists that they knew best and this local knowledge was not sought. Despite the fact that the local farmers hadn’t reached their conclusions through a formal scientific method, they still had the experience that outside scientists did not, and this experience-based science is vital in conservation. The experience of reserve managers about their own reserve or the experience of enthusiasts ‘on the ground’ of their ‘local patch’ can be vital in the formation of conservation knowledge. In the case of the keen enthusiast ‘on the ground’ they are often able to ‘see, hear, and even smell in a way’ that outside experts cannot (O’ Neill, 1993, 161).
This is why I think we should all take heart from many recent attempts to combine expert and amateur knowledge in environmental decision-making. For those who are not familiar with the work of several academics at Lancaster University in the ‘Amateur as Experts’ project, this represents an interesting example of trying to combine different forms of knowledge. Many of these members are also involved in the Loweswater Care Project, which is a good example of how a real impact can be made on policy and also significantly practice, if all forms of knowledge are combined and presented to decision-makers.
As a final point it is clear to me that conservation organisations, particularly the larger ones with many thousands of members, are perfectly positioned to co-ordinate the combination of expert and amateur science. Of course, they already do this in a variety of forms, but I think there can still be progress. A more inclusive scientific process would lead to a richer suite of knowledge being presented to policy-makers and would also perhaps harness public support as a result of the fact that knowledge from keen enthusiasts was shown to be widely accepted and useful. The amateur conservationist would feel valued and I am sure that this would galvanise them further. Aged 9, I wrote a letter to the RSPB and asked if they’d mind buying the lakes near my house to help the herons and ducks – I still remember how disheartened I felt when I didn’t get a reply!
Although it is of course important to constantly ensure that any science is conducted in a rigorous fashion, perhaps it would help if we stopped thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science when we are specifically dealing with a scenario of ‘expert’ versus ‘amateur’ knowledge. If we are to encourage the public to take an interest in nature conservation from an early age, then we should find ways to make them feel valued as part of the conservation science community. I think we could all do a little bit to make this happen.
And this includes, for example, birdwatchers who themselves are part of the conservation community. I can relate to younger birdwatchers, for example, that sometimes fail to find their voice in a bird hide filled with older and seemingly more experienced birdwatchers. This does not, of course, apply to all older birdwatchers- in fact I have come across many who have been very helpful over the years and I remember one older birdwatcher, in particular, at Titchwell who spent a good deal of time pointing out the subtle differences to me between many of the different waders on show. Although having now reached my early 20s, I can still remember my early days of birdwatching where, looking back, I can see there was and still is a culture of ‘good’ birdwatching and ‘bad’ birdwatching. I remember this clearly some years ago when I had spotted a Short-Eared Owl at a local reserve, well camouflaged on a fence post against a dark hedge. There was quite a gathering of more experienced birdwatchers looking for owl species. I made it clear where the Short-Eared Owl was, but no one paid any attention. Whether this was because I was very young and dressed in a hoodie and trainers and/or because I had only a small pair of binoculars, I don’t know.
But, here we can see that being young/inexperienced/lacking in equipment meant you were a ‘bad’ birdwatcher, in a way that being an amateur scientist can sometimes mean that you are seen as a ‘bad’ scientist. Today up to 4 wintering Short-Eared Owls can be seen on my local patch and I find that other birdwatchers now come up to me, now older and brandishing a birding scope (although still often the hoodie and trainers), to ask for my help- a novel experience indeed.
Well, to finish the first story I watched that Short-Eared Owl fly off over the hedge out of sight to the complete ignorance of those looking the other way and walked off back home pleased with my evening’s work while the group of other birdwatchers remained for who knows how long in freezing temperatures to see an owl that had flown out of sight. I saw a barn owl on the way back to the car- I did think about going back to tell the others about it as the owl seemed to be keen on conducting a detailed sweep of the large field. But I thought ‘maybe they’d think I’d seen a gull instead’ and carried on home…
- Posted in: Guest blog