Guest blog – BTO science by Andy Clements

Dr Andy Clements was trained as a scientist with a PhD in animal behaviour from the University of Wales, and has spent 30 years as a professional nature conservationist. He is currently the Chief Executive of the BTO.


It was great to see science for nature conservation discussed in Mark’s blog last week,  and to see one outside world perspective showing BTO science in a healthy light. Rather than making comparative judgements, I see a bigger and more pressing question – how can we all ensure that our science continues to count for conservation for decades to come?

BTO science makes its contribution in particular ways, reliant on the capture of data from the observations of thousands of volunteers. We present evidence from scientifically rigorous, long-term datasets such as the Wild Bird Indicator relied upon by Government and, soon to be produced, relative abundance maps from modelled data for Bird Atlas 2007-11 “the most important British and Irish bird book for two decades”. We also use survey data for further research, for example Breeding Bird Survey data informing climate change adaptation. Scientific reviews in book form contribute too, the best from those with broad perspectives built over a long and productive career – Rob Fuller’s just published Birds and Habitat is a prime example.

BTO is a charity with membership to look after, and a need for a flourishing profile to attract more support and funds – a unique combination for a scientific research institute, neither the flexibility nor self-determination of a University research group, nor full alignment as a Research Council agency. And the impartiality of our science – a crucial value for BTO – means we cannot attract support through making too big a noise: we don’t lobby, or prescribe Government policy.

Attracting science funding is now more demanding than ever. The public sector requires more for less, in much shorter timescales, and the occasional longer-term partnership agreement such as ours with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee is gold dust. For Government this is high value for money –  levering 80 times more work because of investment in BTO’s 40,000 data gathering volunteers. BTO is highly successful right now in attracting contract funding for policy relevant science – the impact of Environmental Stewardship (here and here), the implications of forest management (will ash dieback be a new earner for us?) or modelling the impacts of offshore wind developments on birds. However our success in maintaining and even growing the flow of contracts brings with it significant pressures.

The very day before Mark’s blog, BTO Management and scientists debated at length and with great seriousness the difficulty we face in making time for scientific paper writing. Contracts require a report but will not fund the time needed for publishing in the peer reviewed literature. Contracts focus on a specific question, but this is not the whole story. BTO long-term extensive datasets allow us the opportunity to think outside the here and now, and bring new perspectives to emerging scientific issues, informing solutions.  The Migration Mapping tool, for Government during the Avian Flu outbreak is an example.

BTO’s scientific reputation is our lifeblood – and it is crucially dependent on the quality and morale of our fabulous scientists at the BTO. All scientists, young and old, are passionate about their careers. Publishing peer reviewed science is a reward in itself for scientists, adding worth and value to work which is then accessible to the global scientific community. It is important that BTO nurtures scientific careers. The pressure is telling – we have certainly invested in BTO communications and fundraising recently, and further investment in our science is needed.

So how do we answer the bigger question of collectively keeping our science productive and influential? It is so important right now for informing solutions to declining biodiversity and meeting the challenges of modern environmental conservation. We should collaborate more, rather than compete, and contribute shared funds to science as RSPB’s joint funding of the Breeding Bird Survey demonstrates. Together we are strong and our influence carries weight. However we definitely need more money to be able to undertake more and better science – attracting unrestricted funds is the hardest part, and it is why BTO has just launched a capital appeal for new funds to support our science. All organisations mentioned in Mark’s comparison carry out important science for the benefit of our natural world – let’s not worry too much about whose science is best, but recognise consistent high quality across the sector, and do more.

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29 Replies to “Guest blog – BTO science by Andy Clements”

  1. 'will ash dieback be a new earner for us'!! Like 'foot and mouth' it was spread by the people making the most money out of it. Do you want to fall into that category? Next you will be saying there is evidence of 'man made' global warming!!

    1. John, unless the BTO are planning to open a tree nursery at the Nunnery they won't be falling into "that category" any time soon. Ash die back is spread by the import and movement of infected plants and by spores on the wind, not through ecologists/scientists studying the affects of the disease.

    2. There's nothing wrong or unusual in profiting from misfortune. Disease, disaster, crime and all that there are essential for the economy. Without them the medical and veterinary professions, the fire and rescue services, most of the police, the legal professions and the insurance industry would be redundant. As would be innumerable scientists worldwide had it not been for the crucial word "Climate" in a research proposal, acting as a fearomone causing involuntary disgorging of a funder's wallet contents.

      But there might be an outcry if the NHS was to organise visits from 40,000 MRSA data-gathering volunteers.

      1. so true Filbert - let's hear it for another two unsung virtues too - laziness and greed - cornerstones of our civilisation without which we'd still be in the caves.

  2. Mark’s article on 15 November, and this Guest Blog, are largely about scientific papers published by staff employed by the NGOs themselves. I am concerned that another aspect of ornithology has, I believe, declined: papers written by amateurs (= unpaid professionals).

    It seems to me that, as the editors and publishers of journals chase ratings and citation indices, many journals have become more abstruse and difficult for an amateur to publish in. I have not done the analysis as Mark’s anonymous friend did, but I think the contribution of amateur authors to, for instance, the BTO’s journals Bird Study and Ringing & Migration has dropped over the years.

    This matters because many worthwhile findings are no longer being published. Local, amateur studies usually do not test hypotheses or conduct experiments, and may not by themselves impact greatly on science or national policies, but they often can make a valuable contribution to understanding ecology. Many amateurs conduct long-term and extensive studies that can nicely complement the (usually) short-term and intensive professional approach.

    The advent of Open Access publishing ought to help amateurs in allowing them to read journals at present restricted to library-users, but conversely could finally kill off amateur authors if they are expected to pay for their papers to be published.

    1. Couldn't agree more on the virtues of scientific papers written by amateurs. Indeed with professional scientists now so conscious of where the next grant is coming from they are under significant pressure to produce sexy results or, when their funding is tied to a particular theory or idea, may find it difficult to abandon their own pet hypotheses when they properly should. Amateurs suffer no such pressures (although they face plenty of different challenges as David notes) and so are free to seek the truth without fear of jeopardinsing their careers.

    2. Your correct David that many journal chase citations and rankings. Its cut throat these days and as a ornithological journal publisher I make no apologies for doing this with the BOU journal Ibis. Its our life blood and as such we have to maintain its rank as number one in ornithology in order to maintain our membership and sales to institutes. And of course there are a lot more professional ornithologists than there ever were studying birds and writing papers (e.g. the BTO has almost-doubled the number of scientific staff since I was there in the 1990s), so journals such as Ibis can be very choosy about what we publish (and BTO staff frequently publish in Ibis further illustrating that the BTO is at the very top of ornithological research). However, I must stress that as a publisher we know that the majority of papers published actually contribute very little to our Impact Factor and overall ISI rank. Its the half dozen or so papers which are heavily cited which drive this, so what ends up in Ibis is a balance of our editors spotting the nuggets which help drive the journal with a spread of papers which are within the wider scope of the journal.

      But the two BTO journals you cite, Bird Study and Ringing and Migration, are not among those journals chasing the professional author, citing or rankings. So I think it must be something else which is driving the lack of amateur authors publishing in these journals.

      I personally wouldn't count many of those contributing to forums and blogs as necessarily amateur ornithologists. Birders, yes. Conservationists, yes. Environmentalists, yes. But Amateur scientists? I bet not many would hold there hand up to that tag. I certainly wouldn't. I may contribute to science, but I would never profess to be a scientist. No, I think there has been real decline. Some have turned professional with the proliferation of ecological consultancies and increased number of NGOs employing an increased number of scientists. So maybe its as simple as the cream of the amateurs, the ones most likely to publish, are now professional?

      I agree with you about Open Access. It will improve the overall readership of science, but it will put publishing in many journals out of reach for those without funding for their research and subsequent publication of their results. The BOU is looking at this carefully as we manage the jump in the next year or so and we'll be looking at ways of assisting authors in this respect. I see this as a likely increasing function for those society publishers which can afford to support science in this way.

    3. The internet has created opportunities for self-publishing for everyone if they so wish and it's surprising that more people don't publish their observations of the natural environment-o-sphere. This is common on climate blogs - admittedly much reanalysing of data wrung out from its source by FoIA - but it generates its own momentum.

      The question of peer review remains but readers of every blog under the Sun are very happy to correct errors and omissions and expose baloney whenever a posting is a waste of pixels. What better peer-review could there be, than the entire on-line population?

  3. Dear Andy,this is not a spiteful note but hopefully will help your fundraising which in my experience is a waste of time.
    We had a years free BTO sub given when we bought a scope and towards the end of that year we thought we would see about renewing mostly to support the work you do so we visited Portland Bill BTO and person there did not even bother looking up from PC,needless to say we are not BTO members.
    Contrast that to any repeat any of perhaps the dozen RSPB places we visit and the staff always absolutely very attentive and extremely helpful more than could be expected.
    Think fundraising depends on that initial impression and certainly renewing must depend on feeling wanted.

    1. Dennis, I am sorry to hear of your treatment at the Observatory. However the Observatory is not part of the BTO and these are charities in their own right.

      I am sure the BTO would welcome your membership and support where possible as a volunteer.

    2. Denis, I have been a member of the BTO for many years & thoroughly enjoy the Newsletter. I have always loved doing survey work, & it just made sense all those years ago to join the BTO. I am also a member of the RSPB which I regard as a profoundly important organisation for conservation, but to me the BTO is the most important, because where would we be without the data provided by BTO volunteers.

  4. " How can we all ensure that our science continues to count for conservation for decades to come"

    Andy, A very appropriate time to make these comments. After todays announcement that the Govt intends to restrict judicial appeals against its own decision making, the more we know before they make those decisions the better.

    I have always found the idea of an NGO / Charity existing in order to provide information for others to use a bit of an oddity. Certainly that coupled with most of your information coming willingly through volunteers who are not, in the main, members is also strange. I suspect it does give BTO an independence that allows others to accept the reliability of such research. It certainly works and long may it do so.

    1. Dennis, now is the time to try the BTO again and you can do just that for £1! Go to and put my name in the member referral box and you get your membership for a quid.

      Personally I believe every British birder should be supporting the work the BTO does.

  5. Sorry but I will not be joining any organisation that accepts money from Songbird Survival. You might as well have Maltese Hunters running UK raptor conservation.

    Every charity to keep charitable status should have an ethics policy (published online) and many charities do not - and if they do it doesn't always cover investment. They are not the only one who I refuse to support because of this.

    1. Phillipa
      I share your distaste for Songbird Survival but are you being a bit harsh on the BTO? They were paid to carry out a study to determine if birds of prey could really be blamed for song bird declines. As far as I am aware they carried out the work objectively and honestly reported their findings which largely exonerated birds of prey although that can hardly have been the result SS were hoping for. I struggle to see what is unethical about their actions. Even if, hypothetically, they had shown that birds of prey were the cause of song bird declines we would be better off knowing that than not (and no doubt any such finding would have been very carefully scrutinised by the conservation community!).
      If there was evidence that the BTO produces reports that tailor the conclusions to suit the wishes of the body paying for the research you would have a point and indeed at that the entire organisation would lose it's credibility.

      1. Jonathan - you are right of course, but you will see that SS sponsor the Yellowhammer page in the Atlas too. I'd forgotten that.

        1. I was going to mention this too, Mark. A couple of years ago, I asked a well-known staff member manning the BTO stand at the Birdfair, why SS (the complete antithesis of unbiased science, and conservation) had been permitted to sponsor the Yellowhammer page. He/she was unaware of this sorry state of affairs, and was as puzzled as I was!

  6. Thank you for the link to the BTO work on Stewardship. As a manager of several schemes is good to see that it has some impact although it is obviously a shame to see how limited this has been. Just on the ground I had thought that the results might have been a little better given my own observations. Future uptake by farmers looks increasingly unlikely unfortunately but I would imagine that's a subject for another day.

  7. Reading the links to the bto work. It looks as though farmers need to be motivated to grow feed crops for birds.
    Well one for the 30 million pheasant brigade.
    In Jan Feb March just over my fence the pheasant cover of maize and some millet has flocks of yellow hammers and reed buntings visiting. Talking to someone else in the village another pheasant cover plot on the estate has “masses” of finches visiting it. The local wildlife trust had a wild bird seed plot on some land a couple of miles away and it did not get visited. I guess it takes time for the birds to learn where to go. It certainly took nearly a year for the Goldfinches to move from our neighbor's feeder. We saw two or three in that whole time and I wonder if these birds that are coming now are migrants as they have just arrived in good numbers.
    So what with this seed contribution and the dead pheasants on the road providing feed for corvids and presumably other scavengers (I have seed kestrels down at them). The pheasants are helping some species.
    Yes and rats.

  8. Yes somehow you need to publish your research and someone needs to present it in a readable form for the lay audience. Vis Fridays blog topic of the woefully ignorant diatribe about the possible effect of introducing the White Tailed eagle. I would have thought the RSPB would have been up for this but its corporate magazine seems less informative of complex info and more promotional a bit like the TV. The RSPB used to publish a more technical research mag, ( if you are old enough to remember). Dont know what the solution is ... education education education?
    By the way, why did they abandon the wte project in East Anglia?

  9. Thank you to all who read and have commented on my Guest Blog - an interesting flow back and forth of important issues. It was good to see others' defence of the potential for BTO science to contribute to the Ash dieback problem - we would hope that our research can contribute in due course to understanding the ecological implications for biodiversity of the loss of such a significant biomass, and important habitat component across the country.
    I was interested to see again how my view sparked comment about BTO's relationship with Songbird Survival. BTO members who read BTO News will have seen my explanation in my Comment, July 2008, 'Without Fear or Favour'. The Songbird Survival research was in partnership with GWCT and St Andrews University, and the results were published in the peer reviewed literature in Journal of Applied Ecology - our agreement to do the work extended not only to independently publishing the results (of course), but to agreeing their interpretation in the media immediately after publication. Mark's comment about SS sponsoring the Yellowhammer for the Atlas is not really different in principle. Species sponsorship will assist in funding the considerable and far-reaching research programme spawned by the amazing Atlas results themselves.
    It was great to see strong BTO supporters commenting and helping out others. Bob Philpott's unstinting support hopefully enabled Dennis to approach us again after his unfortunate experience in Portland.
    Seeing debate about the difficulties amateurs face in publishing their own studies is a knotty problem we haven't managed to crack yet. Our Ringing Committee recently debated the issue, and it is volunteer ringers whose data is often most suited to publication as a local or specific study. We will continue to try and help.
    Lastly, thanks to Steve Dudley, another great BTO supporter putting his view about the relationship between our BTO journals, and Ibis, and it was good to hear from Julian (a farmer?) on Environmental Stewardship, as Mark says, an issue again for the future particularly given current EU budget discussions. And I do agree with Andrew about turning peer reviewed science into captivating stories for the public - BTO's Annual Review, BTO News and our eNewsletter aim to do just that! Thanks again for your interest in my guest blog, and to Mark for making it all possible.

    1. Andy - thank you for a stimulating blog. BTO is doing great things and certainly deserves all of our support - and gets mine.

      For those who want an even deeper understanding of the BTO's work, and a lot of fun, the BTO annual conference is coming up in early December (7th-9th) at Swanwick in Derbyshire


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