Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 66

Submission from the British Ecological Society


  1.  The British Ecological Society is the learned society for ecology in the UK. Founded in 1913 and with over 4,000 members, the British Ecological Society supports ecologists and promotes ecology, the study of living things and their relationship with the environment in which they live.

  2.  The British Ecological Society is actively involved in the promotion of education in ecology at all academic levels, from primary school to postgraduate. The grant and bursary schemes which the Society runs encourage everything from field work in schools, with awards made to teachers to encourage outdoor education, to support for postdoctoral projects and public engagement with research.

  3.  This response is strongly supported by the Institute of Biology, the professional body for UK biologists. The Institute was founded in 1950, obtained a Royal Charter in 1979, and is a registered charity. The Institute has 14,000 members across industry, research, education and healthcare, amongst other areas. The British Ecological Society is a member of the Institute's Affiliated Societies Forum.


  4.  The British Ecological Society and Institute of Biology are disappointed to see that ecology, along with its allied subjects, is not included within the list of Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS) receiving a targeted allocation under proposals to remove HEFCE funding from ELQs.

  5.  Ecology and its allied subjects produce graduates with a thorough understanding of natural processes. The understanding of ecosystem function and the interactions between organisms, including humans, and their environment, is crucial to understanding the challenges posed by environmental change.

  6.  Ecology provides a holistic understanding of the natural world, which cannot be garnered from any other single subject allied to environmental science currently listed as a SIV by HEFCE.

  7.  Ecology should be considered as a strategically important subject in its own right and thus should be exempt from the proposed funding changes.


Ecology as a Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subject

  8.  The British Ecological Society (BES) and Institute of Biology (IoB) are disappointed to see that ecology, along with its allied subjects, is not included within the list of Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS) receiving a targeted allocation under proposals to remove HEFCE funding from ELQs.[56]

  9.  Although Environmental Biology (JACS Code—C150) and Mycology (C220) appear on the list of SIVS, Ecology (C180) is not considered as a SIV subject. Biology (C100) is also not considered as strategically important under these proposals.

  10.  The HEFCE Advisory Group on Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects[57] defined a subject as Strategically Important if it could meet the following two criteria:

    (a)  Does the subject currently provide vital research and/or graduates with recognisably specialist knowledge, skills or competencies to the economy and to society?

    (b)  Is there a substantiated prediction that vital research and/or graduates with recognisably specialist skills or knowledge will be required by the economy, society or Government in future?

  11.  The BES would argue that, now more than ever, a scientifically and environmentally aware population is vital to ensure that the UK can respond effectively to environmental change. A degree in ecology produces individuals possessing the specialist skills and knowledge needed to identify changes to natural processes. Ecologists are, and will continue to be, crucial to the identification of measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

  12.  Ecologists' ability to identify organisms is vital to an examination of the Earth's biodiversity, both absolute and genetic, and to making informed conservation decisions. An understanding of biodiversity can better allow an understanding of ecosystem function, and so of the services which ecosystems provide for human beings.[58] An understanding of systematics and taxonomy is crucial to the identification of species, and so to levels of biodiversity. None of the subjects defined as strategically important or vulnerable by HEFCE would provide such a grounding.

  13.  The BES would like to draw the attention of the Select Committee to the inquiry launched by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in December 2007 into the state of systematics and taxonomy research.[59] The BES suggests that the Select Committee examine the results of this inquiry when available to inform decisions on the importance of ecological training. This has a crucial role to play in the development of these core skills.

  14.  Ecologists receive unique training as holistic and systems thinkers in managing environmental change. An ability to manage complexity across a broad field is a key attribute of a trained ecologist. Such skills can be transferred effectively to broader policy making, which, in Government in particular, requires a mutli-disciplinary understanding of environmental issues. Their expertise ultimately impacts on the policies adopted by society and so on the economy.[60]

  15.  DEFRA has recently launched a policy initiative aiming to embed a holistic approach to environmental decision-making across Government, the "ecosystems approach".[61] An assessment of the environmental costs and benefits of different policy options inherent in this approach and essential to meet DEFRA's objective to "secure a healthy natural environment", would not be possible without the expertise of trained ecologists, both carrying out research on ecosystem structure and function and providing input at the policy level.

  16.  Ecologists also have a key role to play in teaching the next generation, at initial, further and higher levels, to understand and respect their environment. Building environmental awareness and fostering behavioural change is crucial at a time when dangerous climate change poses a real threat to living conditions.

  17.  Ecologists' holistic knowledge and understanding of the environment, across the range of spheres in which this can be applied, from frontline research, to policy to educating others, is vital to a society facing unprecedented global warming and its consequent effects on water security, food availability and flood defences.

  18.  The BES would therefore argue that ecology meets the criteria of a strategically important subject as laid out by the HEFCE Advisory Group and should thus be exempt from the funding changes proposed.

Recruitment into ecology careers

  19.  There are many reasons why an individual with an initial degree may choose to pursue an undergraduate course in ecology, from re-skillng and reacquainting themselves with current research in the area, to fulfilling a long standing ambition or re-training to change career. The BES supports life-long learning for all and believes that those wishing to study ecology should not be discouraged, no matter when in life this decision is taken.

  20.  The University of London Careers Group suggests that mature students have additional skills to offer employers, compared to those following a first degree course. Their greater experience of organisations and jobs, coupled with motivation to learn something new later in life, adds to their employability.[62] Such students, with a real interest and enthusiasm for the discipline, are welcome in ecology.

  21.  Figures from the Open University (OU) suggest that many of those students taking two degrees, BSc (Honours) in Geosciences and BSc (Honours) in Natural Sciences, both of which contain environmental courses, anticipate this experience leading to a change in career, to further professional training or study within the three years following their graduation. Of graduates from the BSc in Natural Sciences, 50% of those responding to an OU questionnaire stated that they hoped to move on to additional study or training in the subject area. 30% of respondees hoped to move on to a new occupation as a result of the course.[63]

  22.  The Open University report that, had the proposed funding changes been in place in 2007, 35% of those students who recently passed a particular Open University course, "The Environmental Web", a component of the two degrees referenced above, would have been adversely affected.[64] This course covers the whole of environmental issues, from climate change to biodiversity.

Equality and Diversity

  23.  25% of all of the students registered for ecology courses at the Open University possess an ELQ and so would be negatively affected by changes to funding provision. 44% of these students are women.[65] The European Commission reported in 2006 that although 40% of PhD students in the natural sciences are women, this decreases to only 11.3% at higher academic levels, in professorial, research director and other senior roles.[66] Women should be encouraged to further develop their careers in science, engineering and technology (SET), at all stages, not dissuaded from returning to the sector due to the barrier of higher fees, a consequence of the proposed ELQ policy.

  24.  Courses for women returning to SET occupations, such as that run at the Open University, in conjunction with the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET, will be seriously compromised by the proposed changes to ELQ funding. The course acts to build women's confidence and to put them in touch with role models, mentors and resources which could help them to further their careers.[67] Such courses are invaluable in fostering diversity within SET, recognised by the Government as contributing to the economic competitiveness of the UK.[68] Over 500 women have completed the course, 150 of whom have moved into employment, training or further study.[69]

  25.  Both the BES and IoB strongly urge the inclusion of pre-emptive measures to protect the Open University and Birkbeck College, University of London, from any adverse consequences of the proposed changes. Full cost fees for environmental courses at the Open University and Birkbeck would seriously damage recruitment, and so damage the plurality of provision of environmental education currently enjoyed in the UK.


  26.  The British Ecological Society is pleased for this response to be made publicly available and will be publishing it on our website:

January 2008

56   Explanatory notes on the modelling of the withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower qualifications. Accessed 11 January 2008. Back

57   Strategically important and vulnerable subjects. Final report of the advisory group. HEFCE, 2005. Back

58   Ecosystem Services. Postnote, number 281. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, March 2007. Accessed 11 January 2008. Back

59   House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee: The state of systematics and taxonomy research. Accessed 8 January 2008. Back

60   See reference 3. Back

61   Securing a healthy natural environment: An action plan for embedding an ecosystems approach. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. December 2007. Back

62   Online Publication: Mature Students. University of London Careers Group, Accessed 4 January 2008. Back

63   IET Student Statistics Team. Open University, November 2006. Back

64   Communication from Jonathan Silvertown, Professor of Ecology at the Open University, to the British Ecological Society, December 2008. Available upon request. Back

65   ELQ Data, England & Northern Ireland, HESA 2006-07 (Student Instance Registrations). Back

66   M Wutte. Closing the Gender Gap. Nature 44, 101-102, July 2007. Back

67   Science, engineering and technology: a course for women returners. Open University. Accessed 10 January 2008. Back

68   Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014. HM Treasury, July 2004. Back

69   Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Annual Report 2007. HM Treasury and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, July 2007. Back

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