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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.

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