Before I complete my migration from the RSPB to start my new job as BirdLife International's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, I want to offer some final reflections from my decade as Conservation Director. Today, I talk about the role of science in driving the RSPB’s conservation work.
Soon after I started as Conservation Director, I worked with the then Head of Conservation Science, Dr David Gibbons to run an independent review of our scientific programme led by Professor Sir John Lawton. John concluded what I already believed to be true, that the RSPB’s science was outstanding. The RSPB’s track record has been maintained thanks to the exceptional quality of our scientists now led by Professor Jerry Wilson. In 2019, we published 135 peer-reviewed scientific publications, our highest annual total, and during 2008-18, our citation rate ranked fourth (behind my new employer BirdLife International, Kew and the Zoological Society of London) out of 61 UK institutions publishing in environment and ecology, exceeding all UK universities. This is about as good a proxy for assessing the impact of our science as we can get. And, this matters because we are interested in applying our scientific knowledge to help us make things better for wildlife.
While the priorities have shifted over the decade, our method remains. We continue to invest in monitoring to establish conservation priorities, do diagnostic research to determine why sites, species or habitats are in trouble, and trial and test solutions before ensuring they work when implemented, at different scales from individual nature reserves to nationwide plans (such as agri-environment schemes).
In the end, science saves us time ensuring that we are focusing our finite resources on the right issues in the right way instilling confidence in our actions and advocacy. Without science, we would not be calling for the ban on veterinary drugs (such as diclofenac) which are toxic to vultures, we would not have been able to drive the recovery of bittern and we would not have been able to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered by our nature reserves.
Science can also inspire by revealing the wonders of the natural world. When our team in Scotland discovered (through a tracking device) the red-necked phalarope's incredible 16,000 mile migration route from Shetland to Peru, it resulted in the production of a special piece of music, One Small Bird, performed by over 2000 children at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Image of red-necked phalarope courtesy of Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
In fact, our tracking work has increased enormously this decade providing fresh information to underpin conservation efforts. It has, for example, demonstrated the scale of persecution of birds of prey, helped us understand the movements of sub-Saharan migratory birds like turtle doves and wood warblers and, as shown by this fabulous story-map, revealed the foraging behaviour of our seabirds which in turn is helping us protect their most important feeding areas in UK waters. This approach has extended to our work on UK Overseas Territories and in the South Atlantic we have tracked petrels, penguins, frigatebirds, boobies, albatrosses and tropicbirds helping to make the case for major marine protection zones.
The range of collaborations has also increased during this period meaning that we pool resources more efficiently. In addition to the longstanding partnership with the BTO and JNCC over annual monitoring schemes like Breeding Bird Survey and with the statutory agencies over species recovery, our scientists have developed productive relationships with a range of universities (Cambridge, Oxford, Durham, York, Leeds, UCL, East Anglia, Exeter, Kent, Stirling, Aberdeen, and Highlands and Islands) and led the development of the growing partnership behind the three State of Nature reports which have helped provide a common evidence base for the whole conservation sector. The latter is only possible because of the incredible tradition of volunteers contributing to national surveys but must never be taken for granted. Long term investment in monitoring provides the foundation for all our conservation.
Increasingly, our most important interventions are designed to demonstrate how to tackle the nature and climate emergency in a more integrated way. Our Energy Vision provides options for how to deliver the much needed revolution in renewable energy in harmony with nature, while our pioneering carbon and nature maps make the case for protecting the best places for nature to tackle the climate crisis. These projects have successfully helped to shift the public policy debate as happened when our team used remote sensing data to demonstrate how vegetation burning linked to driven grouse moors had intensified on peatlands especially in protected areas. I do not believe that we would have secured commitments to a burning ban on peatlands in Scotland or even the partial ban in England without this work.
Our science does not prevent alternative truths emerging but I have watched our scientists win public inquiries on the back of the quality of evidence they cite and was delighted when we secured increased protection for mountain hare based on research which showed severe declines of populations on Scottish grouse moors. These results help to give confidence that decision-makers, in the end, respect facts. This is why all RSPB policies are rooted in evidence allowing us, for example, to make the case for a ban on neonicotinoids or regulating driven grouse shooting.
I'm sure that the RSPB will continue to invest in our outstanding science because it makes it a more effective charity. I have no doubt that RSPB scientists will continue to innovate, continue to collaborate and become even more solutions-focused over the coming decade. I expect the RSPB will also want to continue to build on the social science research that we have begun this decade especially as we need to grow our understanding of how to enhance people's connection to nature and in turn drive behavioural change.
Yet, the external operating environment could be a lot more helpful. We have seen an erosion in central government spending on research over the past decade and the Research Councils themselves allocate a paltry 0.025% to those organisations that do most applied conservation science. That’s why the RSPB, BirdLife and BTO challenge outlined in a letter to Nature in 2019 still stands, that “NERC could better deliver its strategy by directing greater resources to non-governmental and other organisations outside traditional universities that deliver societal impact through research enhancing the conservation of biodiversity upon which people depend.”
Investment in science is an investment in finding solutions to some of societies biggest problems today.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
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