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.