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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The two, or three, cultures

I had a great time at the New Networks for Nature meeting at Stamford on Thursday and Friday.  This was partly because it blended art and science in a novel and stimulating way.

Where else, in the space of less than 24 hours would you be able to hear about their work from the lips of one of the country’s most distinguished writers about the countryside and from one of the nation’s most distinguished evolutionary biologists?

On Thursday evening, Ronald Blythe, the author of Akenfield (and much else besides), in conversation with Mark Cocker, told us how he wrote and of his memories of rural Suffolk.  This will be broadcast on Radio 3 in December.  It will be well worth a listen.

Blythe has reached 90 years and is still productive and creative.  He talked in a very engaging and modest way about his achievements and in a tender way of his memories of people and and of the countryside past.

Professor Nick Davies FRS talked about his work on cuckoo nest parasitism.  Only someone with a great mind and a razor-sharp understanding of the workings of evolution by natural selection could make this fascinating but complicated story seem so simple and be so clear.

Nick, who is a birdwatcher, and who was the external examiner for my PhD (so I’ve known him for a long time), talked engagingly about the cuckoo, its hosts and the evolution of egg mimicry, egg rejection etc.  He, like Ronald Blythe, wore his erudition lightly.

Blythe and Davies were perhaps the stars of the twin peaks of the two cultures merging in the landscape of New Networks for Nature.  I won’t mention all the others – partly for fear of missing someone out. But it was a unique collection of people – and for me, a mixture of old friends, new acquaintances (how many will become friends?) and a great deal of intellectual stimulation.

There was also a ‘Question time‘- style discussion, nominally about whether the British love nature, but ranging quite widely. The panellists were Fiona Reynolds (now ex-Director General of the National Trust), Peter Melchett, Peter Marren and myself – chaired by the Independent’s Michael McCarthy.

Is controlling non-native species a waste of money? Are all the political parties a bit rubbish on nature? Why is it OK to tip 35 million non-native pheasants into the countryside every year but not a few white-tailed eagles? Is it too late to save nature?

So, you see, this was where, in this meeting of the two cultures, the real world of politics showed its face – a third culture? Fiona told us that the political parties don’t do nature very well and that’s why she has never been a member of any political party.  Peter Melchett, a past Labour minister in the Callaghan government, was sad that more politicians didn’t get this subject.  Peter Marren was in a delightfully curmudgeonly mood throughout.

I told the audience that, as a conservationist, I felt I had to join the Labour Party after it lost the last General Election – I care about endangered species.  I’ve ‘always’ been a Labour supporter but it certainly isn’t because of the Party’s brilliance on wildlife issues!  The people’s party is, overall, a disappointment when it comes to issues about the countryside.  I may use this blog a little more over the next few weeks to express my frustration over Labour’s low level of wildlife engagement.

Before setting off for Stamford the day before I had done my stint as a teller outside my local Polling Office in a dark, dank, misty and cold morning.  Later on Friday afternoon I was delighted to hear that Labour’s Andy Sawford had won back Corby and east Northants with a stonking majority.

When I asked the 200+ audience how may of them were members of any political party then around half a dozen hands went up.  My message is to join your favoured political party and agitate for it to take wildlife issues seriously. Don’t sit on your bum and moan about politicians. Vote for the ones you want and influence their thoughts and actions.

The same applies to the NGOs you admire too.  If, as I do, and said so, you feel that the National Trust has lost the plot on nature conservation then let them know!  It’s OK to moan, but do something about it!  Don’t act like a victim  – be a player.  You live in a country with a clear and open democratic process and where social media provide us all with unprecedented opportunities to learn and to express our views.  Use them!

At the end of the discussion we were asked whether it is too late to save nature.  My answer was as follows: It’s too late for us to do as well as we should have done, but it’s not too late to do as well as we can do from now on.  But that means we all must leave this meeting and do something!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all those who care about the natural world and all those who understand the natural world, got together and made an impact on those whose decisions do most damage to the natural world?

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Ralph Underhill cartoon

Ralph Underhill: follow me on Twitter @RU_orangejam
or on tumblr at http://www.tumblr.com/blog/ralph-orangejam

 

 

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It’s always nice to hear from you…

I received this letter by email a little while ago.  I thought I’d share it with you, without commenting on it (except I couldn’t resist adding a photo (or three) of a magnificent sea eagle (or sea eagles)).

 

By Bohuš Číčel (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bcicel/) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia CommonsDear Mr. Avery

I have never written to you before but have heard a great deal about you.

By Surub (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

I find your views on nature and nature conservancy somewhat confusing. On the one hand you wax lyrically about the beauty of our coastland birds and the sheer joy of seeing such a splendid variety and in such great numbers. Sounds good! Yet you, when Director of Conservation at the RSPB was one of the most vociferous supporters of importing the white tailed sea eagles onto our wetlands and coastal breeding sites in the East of England. Coastal breeding sites that are home to some of our most rare coastal birds.

This major predator being brought in to feed off these birds, whilst the RSPB rubs its hands at the thought of the money they hoped to make out of eco tourism these eagles could encourage.

When the RSPB was asked to respond to the great concerns of so many to the threat of these major predators, you actually lied, quite blalantly. The lie ‘the white tailed sea eagle will mainly feed off the rabbits that abound there’.

It was pointed out that this act of gross destruction would decimate our rare breeding sites, that these sites were already over-predated upon and yet you intend to release, I believe 20 pairs of white tailed sea eagles onto this area.

The small mammals and birds in our countryside are becoming more and more scarce, the lanes quieter, the skies deserted except for the hawks that populate every square inch to the detriment of so much. Every garden, every woodland, every piece of countryside is persecuted with growing numbers of hawks. Top predators, not predated upon and multiplying every year. Even here you lie saying that numbers are still very much down due to persecution, when in fact many hawks over populating and near saturation point, an admission by your RSPB.

The responsibility for this growing problem which will lead to an environmental disaster, is the RSPB’s and we will make sure the buck stops there.

Then you accuse those who are genuinely concerned with this growing problem of over-predation and want to see a balanced conservation programme;  hawk haters. Now how emotional is that? Not only that but the insults and abuse that comes from you and your supporters is appalling. How balanced is that?

This is not conservation, this is obssession and that is how you are seen now by a geat majority of the British public, as an obssessive.

From a disillusioned, once member of the RSPB

By Uclax at de.wikipedia (Original text : ucla) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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Whose science counts? Don’t droop your ‘h’s!

Einstein by Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember attending a Game Fair, in fact it was the last one in 2011 (rained off this year) when in the space of two days I heard people say that we British have the ‘best farmers in the world’, the ‘best foresters in the world’ and the’ best shooters in the world’ – and maybe we do, but it was noticeable that these views came from a farmer, a forester and a shooter respectively.  So it wasn’t as though these professions and pastimes were praising each other – they were quite happy to praise themselves and put themselves at the top of the tree.

I’ve never heard nature conservationists say that we British have the best nature conservationists in the world, and come to that I’ve never heard nature conservationists say that we have the best farmers, foresters and shooters in the world either.

I do fear it’s a little bit like that nonsense about the Premiership being the best football league in the world – it might be , with all those South Americans, Europeans and Africans playing in it, but it doesn’t lead to any UK national team doing well in World Cups or European football competitions.

It’s very difficult to decide who has the best science in the world (for that is broadly where we are going with this – although more domestic than the whole world).  What makes good science?  Well, it all depends.

I think good science is science that leads to the world being better understood or better managed for our own ends in a sustainable way – pure and applied science.  But those things are very tricky to measure for every bit of science.  It’s easy to spot the stars, probably as it is to spot the star farmers, foresters and shooters (is it?), but to rank every piece of science is very difficult.

So what follows is incomplete and imperfect, but if you have a better way to approach it then let me know or write a Guest Blog to show us all how it can be done.

Scientists tend to judge their work, partly (and partly wrongly I think) by its quantity and by the frequency with which other scientists refer to (cite) it.  So when I was a proper scientist, and believe me, I was, all those years ago, I was pleased whenever I published a paper and whenever someone else cited it.

For an organisation, or the science function of any organisation, keeping track of how many scientific papers they publish and how often they are cited is part of the assessment process.

I started thinking about this, I must be honest about this, because at that Game Fair I heard quite a few GWCT high-ups saying how good their scientists were/are.  And although I have a lot of professional respect for some of them I thought at the time they were over-egging things rather a lot.  And my impression was that the GWCT were resting on their laurels a bit, and still bathing in past scientific glories – which were indeed glorious.

You can see this wasn’t the most important thing in the world to me as it has taken over a year for me to do anything about it – but now (with a little help from a friend, and I’d like to thank her now (although she has ticked the box marked ‘anonymity’)) I can show you the analysis, such as it is , for GWCT, BTO,WWT and RSPB scientific output.

Some of this is easily understood, some needs explanation and my attempt at that comes below;

 

Publication metrics: RSPB, BTO, GWCT and WWT, 1981-2012

Data extracted from Web of Science, 4 November 2012

Organisation Years Publications Citations Cites/paper h-index Recent annual publication rate
RSPB 1981-2012 1025 21238 20.72 60 50-70
1991-2012 888 19761 22.25 59
2001-2012 693 12679 21.08 52
BTO 1981-2012 603 16197 26.86 57 20-45
1991-2012 527 15340 29.11 57
2001-2012 340 6704 19.72 37
GWCT 1981-2012 490 11791 24.06 51 10-20
1991-2012 418 9401 22.49 43
2001-2012 232 2670 11.51 26
WWT 1981-2012 257 3290 12.80 30 6-15
1991-2012 207 2438 11.78 26
2001-2012 108 804 7.44 14

Notes:

  1.  Search terms: RSPB, ROYAL SOC PROTECT BIRDS, ROY SOC PROTECT BIRDS, BRITISH TRUST ORNITHOL, BTO, GAME CONSERVANCY, GAME CONSERVANCY TRUST, GAME WILDLIFE CONSERVAT TRUST, GCT, GWCT, WILDFOWL TRUST, WILDFOWL WETLANDS TRUST, WWT.  Papers from other organisations with, coincidentally, the same acronym have been removed from analysis.
  2. Search included all WoS-listed journals and conference proceedings.  This excludes some ‘lower-ranked’ journals in which these organisations publish (e.g. Ringing & Migration, Scottish Birds) as well as books and book chapters.
  3. H-index derived by ranking all publications in order of number of times cited and identifying where rank = number of times cited.  In other words, an institution or individual who has published 10 papers each cited at least 10 times has an h-index of 10 (irrespective of how many publications they have in total).

 

OK – what did you make of it?  The first thing to note is that the three time categories overlap; 1981-2012, 1991-2012 and 2001-2012.  So all the publications in the last category are also in the former and the first category too.

The second thing of note is that different organisations produce more scientific papers than others – this isn’t surprising as they undoubtedly have different budgets and different priorities for their spends.  Size isn’t everything, but if it were, the RSPB would come out top.  That isn’t an insignificant finding but it might be better if we could measure output/pound or output/person and that simply isn’t do-able for me (and again, probably wouldn’t be a lot closer to reality anyway).  So let’s not totally dismiss, but let’s not make too much of, the gross differences between organisations in output.

Third, there is this thing called ‘h’.  Scientists are keen on ‘h’. Now ‘h’ is quite tricky to explain in few words so I’ll give you this link and this one and this one so you can work it out for yourselves. But, the higher the ‘h’ the better – and ‘h’ is bound to decline in the shorter and shorter time periods used in the table above.

So, I suggest that the most interesting thing to do is to look at how the four individual organisations have fared in each of the three periods.  Are their numbers of publications, citations and ‘h’s holding up – or are they heading down?

RSPB science looks very vibrant in the last decade – a high proportion of its papers were published, their citation levels were high and although ‘h’ drooped (as it must) it didn’t droop very much.

BTO science looks very strong too.  Lots of papers, lots of citations and strong ‘h’s – bit more of an ‘h’ droop here though.

GWCT has a fine past but a far less glorious present according to these figures.  Maybe the 1990s were their heyday and they just haven’t been able to keep it up in the last decade.  Lots of droop to be seen.

WWT are interesting as they have gone through some quite tough times in the last 15 years and that rather shows in the figures.  My guess would be that their output will pick up as time goes on though.  We’ll see.

These measures aren’t perfect.  They don’t tell the whole story, and the part of the story they do tell is not told perfectly.  However, they do back up what I was thinking at the Game Fair before last.  I think that the GWCT’s greatest science was led by, and quite a bit of it was done by, Dick Potts and that things have not been the same since he left as far as GWCT science is concerned.  However much ‘our farmers are the best in the world’ type of talk comes out of GWCT there is real reason to think that their science is less well regarded in recent years by the rest of the scientific community.

GWCT would be wise not to get into a bragging match about who has the biggest with the RSPB – if you are drooping then nobody is that impressed.

 

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