In early April, Professor Sir John Lawton chaired a panel of experts who reviewed RSPB’s scientific programme. I was fortunate to observe the review and it was one of the most inspirational 24 hours I have spent at the RSPB, hearing about the breadth and depth of our science designed to find solutions to the plethora of conservation problems that nature faces.  Sir John has taken over my blog for the day, and kindly outlines his thoughts on the Science Review below.

I was delighted to be asked to review the RSPB’s scientific programme, not least because I had undertaken a similar review 15 years earlier, and was interested to see how things had changed. I think that it is desperately important for conservation organisations to ensure that their policies and practices are based on the best possible evidence, and consequently was pleased to see RSPB opening its science programme up to external review.  I was greatly assisted with the review by my co-panel members, Professors David Macdonald and Val Brown, and Dr Jenny Gill.

L to R: Dr David Gibbons, RSPB; Dr Jenny Gill; Professor David Macdonald;
Professor Sir John Lawton; Professor Val Brown; Martin Harper, RSPB.

Over a couple of days, we learnt – among other things - about the RSPB’s role in the (then unpublished) State of Nature report, and about its work to find solutions to recover the fortunes of threatened species – from skylarks, hawfinches and curlews, to migrants, vultures and pygymy hippos. We also heard about the RSPB’s innovative seabird tagging work, the suite of experiments they have undertaken on their estate, their rainforest and climate change research, and the measurements they have made of the services provided by ecosystems. The review was meticulously run by RSPB staff, and the fifteen separate presentations we heard were excellent without exception.

My fellow panel members and I wrote a report of our review, which I was invited to present to RSPB’s Council in early July. Our overarching assessment was summarised in the report as follows:

“The review group are unanimous in their view that the RSPB’s Conservation Science Department is outstanding. The quality, depth and breadth of its research would be regarded as excellent in any large internationally competitive UK university”.

We then went on to say that:

“Some huge, very important and exciting research problems are being carried forward with great skill and imagination”, and that “..the ‘in house’ Conservation Science Department is fundamental to the Society’s mission”.

We each individually thought we knew broadly what research was undertaken by the Department through our long association with RSPB. We were wrong. We found the shear breadth and depth of the work “staggering” (to quote one panel member at the end of the second day).

Needless to say, there is always room for improvement, so we made a series of recommendations for the future. We particularly felt that the RSPB’s scientific work deserved to be better known, and that they should seek ways of communicating their science better. For example, they should make much more creative use of social media to publicise the amazing work done by the Department. We also felt that the RSPB should undertake more social science. Whilst biological research should remain fundamental to the society, we believe that economic analyses, conflict resolution, human behavioural studies, political science and governance are increasingly important in trying to find practical solutions to environmental problems. Finally, we thought that the science programme could sometimes be swifter of foot in the way that it works, because the fast-changing world of policy occasionally demands rapid responses. However, we accept that finding resources for such science could be challenging.

Professor Sir John Lawton

  • A glowing testimonial.  And three of the recommendations jump out at me - do more social science, conflict resolution and human behavioural studies in order to enable practical (and dare I say it) non-divisive, less polarised solutions to environmental problems to be explored and hopefully adopted.  

    The yah-boo politicking so often seen on environmental social media sites and expressed in the traditional print media is depressing.  We need joined-up, concerted action from all stakeholders to address the problems faced by our natural world.  

  • 'Whilst biological research should remain fundamental to the society, we believe that economic analyses, conflict resolution, human behavioural studies, political science and governance are increasingly important in trying to find practical solutions to environmental problems.'

    A most telling comment  - Sir John Lawton has always been a pragmatic operator within the conservation world. His talk at the BOU Conf this year referred to 'needs & tensions' when lining up science data for biodiversity areas: aka our need for food!

    Biological science research is often very hard to translate for the layman without putting a 'spin' on it to suit a particular 'audience'. There is often little room to react directly to results of scientific research without a factoring in financial, social & political constraints.

    The RSPB et al are in for the long haul on the 10 yr Langholm Project and this could well be a showcase of how biological science has to find a place within modern day pressures and other 'sciences'.

  • An excellent piece of news.  I am sure the general birdwatcher thinks of RSPB - Protection and BTO - Science.  This will open a few eyes.

    Martin, I am sorry to comment once again but Glossy Ibis is right about not many positive comments on the magazine name.  I am sure that no-one will have any negative comments about the content but it is about what gets people to actually open it up in the first place.

  • Mr Ibis, thanks so much for  your comment.  I am very keen that our science work does not remain 'hidden' and we have plans to do something about this.  Regarding the magazine - of course I am aware of the noise about the name, but I would simply say to those that are grumbling about it - wait until you see it and read it before passing judgement!

  • Martin, I think this is a vitally important contribution by Sir John and his panel. It comes at a time of transition in the RSPB with it's objective of broadening it's conservation efforts. All the hidden work that the RSPB does should be given a much wider audience. Birds magazine is going to change but the objectives are not reflected in the proposed change of name to the bland and non-specific 'Nature's Home'. I'm afraid I haven't heard many positive comments on the change!