Memorandum submitted by the British Ecological
1. The British Ecological Society (BES)
welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Committee
and notes that a two-month period has been provided for the consultation,
in line with government guidelines.
2. The BES is the oldest ecological society
in the world having been established in 1913. Since 1980 it has
been a charitable company limited by guarantee. Membership is
open to all those who are genuinely interested in ecology, whether
in the British Isles or abroad, and membership currently stands
at 4,200, about half of whom are from overseas. The members are
employed in a wide variety of professional capacities including
academics, environmental scientists in government and industry,
biology and geography teachers as well as environmental consultants
3. The Society's income is entirely derived
from membership subscriptions, the sale of its learned journals
and investment income. The Officers of the Society are elected
by the membership, and unpaid except for small honoraria for editors.
The Society maintains a London office with five staff headed by
an Executive Secretary to administer the Society's many activities.
Around 25 per cent of the income is spent on administration.
4. The BES receives no government funding
in any form. Besides publishing scientific journals it runs educational
projects, supports ecological expeditions overseas and provides
small grants for ecological studies world-wide. In recent years
the Society has also been publishing a range of educational booklets
for the public and policy makers on topical ecological problems
such genetically modified organisms, fisheries management, land
management and the CAP, the destruction of coral and water quality.
5. The Public Affairs Committee of the BES
is responsible for organising and providing independent scientific
comment on government green papers and departmental policy documents.
It undertakes such activity where the subject matter is of sufficient
interest from an ecological viewpoint and when adequate time is
allowed for consultationsadly Departments often abuse this
latter point. In many recent cases the BES has chosen to make
a joint reply with other interested learned societies through
the Institute of Biology.
6. The Society has recently established
a web site (www.britishecologicalsociety.org) through which it
intends to increase its communication with the public interested
in ecology and its application, and establish a more vibrant internal
discussion between its members on areas of topical concern.
7. The Society is a member of the Parliamentary
and Science Committee and attends those meetings with an ecological
component. The Society is also represented at the Environmental
8. The BES considers that good policy making
requires informed judgements and in respect of science it seems
unfortunate that so few members of Parliament have an adequate
scientific background in a society that is science and technology
based. Looking to the future the BES is concerned that government
has so far made inadequate efforts to place sustainability as
a core requirement of all policymaking in all Departments. Despite
some positive indications, such as enthusiastic support for the
Kyoto agreement and the Darwin Initiative, there is little evidence
of adequate understanding of the need for hard choices if the
environment and the quality of life are to be protected for future
9. A more effective interaction between
the scientific community and the public would benefit both and
provide Government with a more informed electorate. However, MORI
polls show that government scientists are believed to be less
trustworthy than NGO scientists, who frequently lack both the
data and the qualifications to speak with authority. Yet the government's
manipulation of the scientific findings of those employed in the
Civil Service and the Agencies has been a major element in spreading
distrust of science and its findings. Many learned societies,
who could be providing an independent voice in these affairs,
have also considered that they should not become involved in scientific
discussions that develop overt political or ethical overtones,
thus depriving the public of independent and reliable information
and leaving the field open to misinformation provided by overtly
political groups. The Royal Society, as the premier scientific
society in the UK, has been attempting to provide leadership here,
but unfortunately (as with other learned societies) too often
in recent years its input has been too late, and too inaccessible
for the public to understand.
10. The BES would contend that improvements
in communicating science to the public are not simply linked to
the provision of finance. The publication of "Open Channels"
by POST in March 2001 provided a good summary of the forms of
dialogue and experiences up to that point with using them. The
latest OST initiative, moving the focus away from talking at the
public to discussing the options with the public, is a clear lead
in the right direction but will not be simple or cheap to implement.
A more scientifically literate electorate, both inside and outside
Parliament, is what is required but it will take some time to
achieve. In the mean time government should actively promote policy
discussion, avoid suppressing ecological and environmental information
produced by government labs and instead take the opportunity to
explain publicly what it means. Continuing encouragement for learned
societies to provide input to policy making through consultations
and workshops is also welcome.
11. One continuing problem is the expectation
of certainty in advice. By its very nature science can only provide
advice based on the most probable conclusions from the existing
data. Despite the comments from some politicians, it is clear
that the public can understand uncertainty in a particular framework,
as the record receipts in the betting industry show, but the concept
seems to be difficult for the public and government to grasp in
the context of science. Ministers in particular should be active
in developing the recognition that scientific uncertainty must
be accepted as a normal part of decision and policy making, and
that it is in many respects much more reliable than the economic
forecasting with which government can apparently deal.
12. There is a long way to go to achieve
the goals outlined above. The BES recognises that science is only
one element in policy making but in a complex technological society
such as ours it merits special attention. The BES hopes that the
outcome of this investigation will provide some new incentives
and suggestions that will help reduce public disquiet at science,
increase the level and quality of public debate and recognise
the importance of good environmental management in ensuring an
adequate quality of life for future generations.