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Reflections on a successful UK freshwater biodiversity science-policy meeting

September 21, 2012

Congratulations to Martin Kernan and the UCL team for organizing a thoroughly interesting and worthwhile day bringing together those who do biodiversity freshwater science with those who use freshwater science.

Walking into the lecture theater in University College London it was clear that we were going to be in for a good day. The place was packed! Martin reported 110 registrations but there seemed more. Rick Batarbee commented to me that these sort of meetings seem to work in the UK because “maybe we are small enough to know each other yet big enough to bring a diversity of perspectives worth discussing”.

I came with the plan to try out tweeting a summary of the symposium. You can review my efforts, and those of a small cohort of fellow science twitterers, by searching on #fwbiodUK. In the afternoon panel discussion I asked whether the new media could enhance science-policy-practice dialogue. Colleagues from UK government agencies said that at work they were still fire-walled from accessing YouTube, twitter and even searching an angler association website!  A colleague from The Netherlands was amazed,  commenting something along the lines of “how can you govern if you can’t listen to your people?”  It seems that UK agencies might slowly be opening-up, but this was one point that underlined how institutional practices create barriers to effective dialogue between a community who share a passion for freshwater.

The day was full of interesting insights. Four that are foremost in my mind as I write this post on the train back to Oxford are as follows. First was Klement Tockner’s application of the term ‘domesticated’ to river systems. Three subsequent speakers picked up on this metaphor which made me wonder if it might have traction. It chimes with Frans Vera’s re-wilding work – the idea that we domesticate nature to produce a small set of services efficiently  (e.g. Auroch to milk and meat producing cow) and end up forgetting the wider suite of services produced by the original. When we actively de-domesticate (cow to heck cattle, canalised river to meandering) we set in train a set of processes with rich scientific and social benefits.

Second was the general unease with the ecosystem services policy frame. Stewart Clarke from Natural England did a great job of making the case for talking in £ terms, but for me Klement summed up the disconnect when he commented that scientists are being asked to directly  link freshwater biodiversity with ecosystem services, yet there are two steps in between – ecosystem process and function – and whilst recognizing the policy imperatives it is difficult for scientists to make the short cut.

A third point that got me thinking, was the talk from Mike Dobson from the Freshwater Biological Association. Mike reminded us of the vital contribution that specialist NGOs (he cited Pond Conservation and BugLife along with the FBA) can make at the freshwater biodiversity science-policy-management interface. I think he has a point. Whilst the branded conservation NGOs are more distanced from the scientific communities, NGOs like FBA are very much part of us and perhaps we should more actively look for ways to work together. As Mike noted the ‘impact’ requirements in research council proposals offer a great opportunity to do just this.

Perhaps the most intriguing policy relevant science I heard was from Nigel Wilby from the University of Stirling. In a nutshell,  he showed how gradients of (site) connectivity matter for freshwater biodiversity at the landscape level, and how connectivity is becoming polarized at the low and high ends of the scale. I had never imagined that we need policies to promote intermediate connectivity!

Once again thanks to everyone for such a fascinating and positive day. If you were at the meeting please add a comment with your take away message or insight.

I hope other colleagues in BioFresh can draw inspiration from this meeting in London to organize something similar in their country.

Paul Jepson.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Luca Marazzi permalink
    September 30, 2012 15:45

    I think scientists should make an effort to communicate more with policymakers and vice versa, “science translators” can help, but isn’t direct dialogue best?

    If researchers, managers and conservationists do not create a common language it will be difficult to get decisions right. Talking, arguing and negotiating is crucial in all spheres. When authors publish papers fighting each other’s ideas, never sitting down to discuss them, they only compete, while I believe we need more scientific cooperation to move disciplines and knowledge forward. Furthermore, if academics are seen as distant geeks, paper publishers and conference goers & policymakers as bureaucrats who don’t understand complexity and uncertainty, no progress can be made. Speaking in simpler terms will make us more popular and perhaps more influential in society…

    How can we attract more funding for important research? Mike Dobson’s advice to work hard on the “pathways to impact” sections of grant proposals was spot-on! Maximizing interaction with stakeholders before, during and after research projects, is key to transferring tangible and important outcomes to the communities that rely on the biodiversity that we study for their livelihoods. We ultimately study ecosystems on behalf of funding bodies and society at large, so we have a responsibility to communicate more and better with the public.

    How are we to help solve real-world problems if we don’t speak loud enough about the current ecological crisis and open universities and environmental management institutions to each other, and to the public opinion? It is all about broadening scientists’ audience so that values like respect for nature can stand against money and fame, which currently dominate to the detriment of human beings and the planet (whether or not people realize it).

    About ecosystem services, Stewart Clarke convincingly “defended” the monetary valuation exercises while stressing the fact that we need not forget nature’s inherent existence and spiritual values. If used carefully and with all the appropriate caveats, giving a monetary value to ecosystem services can help sustainable management. Nevertheless, biophysical indicators, such as the ecological footprint, should gain more importance than GDP, so that we don’t fool ourselves in basing decisions on something that we can print as we like, i.e. pounds, dollars and euros, but on what we really have as physical and biological resources, e.g. tonnes of wood, cubic metres of clean air.

  2. October 6, 2012 04:27

    Hi Luca,

    Thanks so much for your contribution! Some really interesting points you raise.
    A good example of these ‘science translators’ you mention is the Science Media Centre in the UK – http://www.sciencemediacentre.org/pages/. They do a great job. Are you familiar with these guys?

    I would definitely agree that a common language needs to be developed so that scientists and policy-makers can understand each other. But disagreement can also be very productive and help generate new ideas so a competition for ideas may not necessarily be a bad thing. It may be problematic if we aren’t speaking the same language though.

    It’s also a question of ‘how can we make science more effectively public’? This doesn’t just apply to making scientific findings more widely available to the public, but also involves making the production of scientific knowledge align better with publics’ concerns. So your point about engaging stakeholders in the research process is essential.

    Thanks again!

  3. Luca Marazzi permalink
    October 21, 2012 15:39

    Thanks for your valuable suggestion, I didn’t know the Science Media Centre.

    I fully agree that scientific competition is vital, especially when the ultimate objective is to tackle serious problems faced by society; I think that the credibility and popularity of the research community rely also on explaining people why for example basic science is crucial for policy and conservation and making that interesting to a lay audience.

    Wouldn’t the organization of more conferences / workshops open to the public and a wider involvement of objective and serious media enlarge our audience? this might create a new momentum for more funding to be given by governments and other institutions to universities in closer tune with society’s demands for knowledge and sound decisions.

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