Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence



  Much work in the ecological and environmental sciences is today focussed on broad issues and principles. Nonetheless, it is still true that taxon-based work is important. This appendix describes that importance and the role of small, independent research groups and amateurs in such work.


  Because of the peculiarities of individual species and circumstances, the general principles of ecology and related sciences depend on a broad spectrum of empirical data: ecologists need to establish generalisations across the spectrum. Applied ecology especially demands knowledge of the particular.

  Much of the particular knowledge that is useful in applied ecology is established through studies based on particular taxa. Key areas are:

  1.  Population monitoring[71].

  Sir John Krebs has maintained that the BTO's monitoring of, and associated work on, farmland birds is one of the three fields where ecological and environmental science has had clear influence on policy (the others being global climate change and the hole in the ozone layer). Its influence has been on both UK and EU agriculture policy. Furthermore, similar monitoring of birds in other habitats has also been important and that monitoring of other taxonomic groups has played its part in illuminating policy. Population monitoring of various taxa is also a requirement of both domestic and international legislation.

  2.  Monitoring of distributions and movements[72].

  The importance of this is similar to that of population monitoring.

  3.  Research into the causes of change.

  Monitoring is most effective when it is supplemented by research projects into the causes of the changes that the monitoring revealed. Work on farmland birds again provides the most obvious case.

  4.  General natural history.

  To understand specific situations one needs to know about the ecology of particular places and particular species.

  5.  Taxonomy and species identification.

  No significant ecological work is possible without being able to identify the species on which one is working. Although the British fauna and flora is unusually well-known, there are still many groups where taxonomic uncertainty persists and even more where identification criteria and guides are needed.


  The universities and many of the major institutes have moved strongly away from taxon-based studies in recent decades. Much of the current work is therefore undertaken by small independent institutes. For birds, for example, a major part of current British research effort is carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (Research Department), and the Game Conservancy Trust. The GCT also researches other taxa. Some other groups, especially mammals and Lepidoptera, are also studied by professionals in small, independent institutions.


  Many of the taxon-based societies undertake research that uses the skills and labour of amateurs. Some projects are organized by professionals, with amateurs doing the fieldwork; some are also organised and written-up by amateurs. The monitoring programmes for British wildlife are entirely dependent on the huge volume of amateur labour that goes into them.

  Some amateurs are major researchers in their own right, publishing in both journals and books. They are often the chief sources of identification advice. They provide new knowledge in natural history and taxonomy. They undertake scholarly research of specific issues.

February 2004

71   By monitoring, we do not just mean surveillance. We mean surveillance of a system against a desired target (standard), carried out in such a way as to illuminate the reasons why the target is not being achieved, and linked to a mechanism for drawing to the attention of decision-makers any failure to achieve targets and possible reasons. Back

72   By "movements", we mean migrations and dispersive movements. Back

73   Amateurs include all of those who carry out their research without financial reward. Some may be professionals who are working in their spare time or after retirement. Back

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