Top 100 eco-dilemmas for Britain

The impact of wind farms on eco-systems and the UK species likely to be wiped out by climate change were among Britain's top 100 ecological questions, as identified by environmental policy-makers in an innovative academic experiment.

With scientists complaining that legislators ignore the science and policy-makers grumbling about scientists’ failure to answer their questions, the two groups could do with talking to each other more, scientists from the University of East Anglia decided.

In an attempt to bridge the science-policy communication gap, a team led by UEA’s Professor Bill Sutherland asked hundreds of organisations involved in policy making, from government institutions to NGOs, to choose the questions they considered priority. Their top 100 are listed in a scientific paper in this month’s Journal of Applied Ecology, free to access online.

Although it may seem that 100 questions will do more to confuse researchers than to help them focus on topics relevant to policy, the paper splits these into manageable chunks of narrow subject areas, such as farming, forestry, fisheries, urban development, pollution or energy.

As for the subjects policy-makers wanted to know about, there were some surprises – researchers did not expect to see the question of how light pollution affects wildlife on the list, or that of changing ocean currents in a warmer world impacting marine habitats.

But it is not just the subject matter, but the type of question policy-makers ask that sometimes leads to dissonance, the research project found. Science needs precisely formulated problems while policy-makers want to know about the general state of affairs.

“For example, a policy-maker will ask “what is the effect of human disturbance on bird populations?’ and the researcher will say “well this is the effect of dog walking on the breeding success of this particular species. So as you can see there is a slight mismatch there,” Prof Bill Sutherland told edie.

“Sometimes research is not actually answering the questions policy-makers want answered. There is also the issue of finding a means of making information available,” he added.

To provide a platform for communication, Dr Sutherland’s team set up the website including conservation management case studies.

While he hopes that the project will inform the research agenda, Prof Sutherland would not like it to dictate it – even if that were a possible outcome.

“You need a balance – including pure curiosity-driven research – but also it is useful to have people saying this is what we really want to know,” he said.

“If it was the case that all research funding was to be targeted at these questions then I think that would be a mistake.

“But I am not sufficiently deluded to think that would be the case,” he added.

Some of the questions policy-makers want answered:

· What are the benefits of protected habitats in terms of water resources and carbon sequestration?

· How can we measure natural capital (renewable and non-renewable resources) and integrate such a measure into gross domestic product (GDP)?

· What are the environmental benefits of large-scale woodland planting schemes such as community forests and the new national forests?

· How can provision for wildlife be maximized in existing and new urban development, urban greenspace and brownfield sites?

· How long does the seabed take to recover from disturbance such as dredging, wind-farm construction and oil and gas extraction?

· What impact does plastic-derived litter have on the marine environment?

· What will be the ecological impacts of changing agricultural patterns in response to climate change?

· What are the consequences of biofuel production for biodiversity at field, landscape and regional levels?

· What methods most accurately measure ‘ecological status’ in the EU Water Framework Directive?

The complete list can be found in the online edition of Prof Sutherland’s paper, The identification of 100 ecological questions of high policy relevance in the UK, which can be accessed here.

Goska Romanowicz

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