Science at the RSPB
How does science fit into the work of the RSPB and how do we set our scientific priorities? Dr David Gibbons, Head of Conservation Science, attempts to answer these questions.
Monitoring and prioritisation
Science plays a number of distinct roles in the RSPB’s conservation work. Monitoring of birds and other taxa informs us of the status of each species and their population trends. This knowledge is used to set conservation priorities, so that species with an unfavourable status, such as the skylark, the bittern or the great yellow bumblebee, become high priorities.
These priorities are broadly shared with partner organisations because the methods of setting them are also shared. In the UK, the Birds of Conservation Concern red and amber lists, and Biodiversity Action Plan listings guide our species priorities for birds and other taxa, while the global red-listing process guides our international bird species priorities.
The RSPB acts upon its scientific results in order to improve the fortunes of wildlife, both on its own land and off
Unfortunately, we are unable to study all priority species, especially internationally where there is a vast array of threatened species. We have to be more pragmatic and prioritise further, and we do this within the RSPB's strategic plan. In the UK, we focus on those priority species for which the RSPB is best placed to deliver research, conservation management and advocacy, whereas internationally, we study threatened species in those countries in which the RSPB focuses its broader work.
We subsequently undertake research to diagnose the causes of the unfavourable status of these priority species. Although they overlap, we adopt two separate approaches, either intensive studies of species’ ecology, or studies of ecological processes. While single species studies provide a wealth of information to guide that species’ conservation, it may sometimes be more efficient to study wider ecosystem processes where these may have more general effects across species and habitats. Climate change, agricultural intensification, pollution and predation are all examples of such ecological processes. Both approaches allow us to suggest remedial solutions to improve the status of wildlife.
We endeavour to test these solutions, ideally by experiment, prior to implementing them more widely. This allows the likelihood of success to be measured and the practicalities determined. Wherever practical in the UK, we test solutions on land that we manage or own, while accepting that in some cases experimentation may be impossible.
Research for advocacy
Although strongly influenced by biological priorities, our scientific programme is not solely dictated by them, else we would be unduly focused on the past and present, rather than the future. Industrial developments, changing land management practices and evolving government policy all require our research programme to be flexible to meet changing demands. Research is needed to allow us to understand the likely response of wildlife to these changes, so that we can advocate our view with confidence. Predicting the biodiversity effects of renewable energy technologies, continuous cover forestry, or of the Common Agricultural Policy in EU accession countries fall squarely into this category. In addition, unpredictable events as diverse as disease outbreaks among Indian vultures, volcanic eruptions on Montserrat and foot and mouth in the UK have all required a rapid response from our research programme.
In principle, many research organizations could undertake such monitoring and research work. Arguably, the RSPB’s greatest strength is that it acts upon these scientific results in order to improve the fortunes of wildlife, both on its own land and off. Underpinned by a range of strategic plans, the RSPB combines its scientific knowledge with policy development and advocacy to influence wildlife legislation and policy areas such as agriculture and planning. Perhaps the best recent examples of the inter-dependency of science and policy and science and practice, respectively, are the RSPB’s role in the development of management options for agri-environment schemes, and the management of our own land for bitterns.
Back to monitoring
Finally, of course, we continue to monitor populations to assess whether or not our actions, and those of others, have improved the status of species, allowing us to modify our actions if necessary.