What we do
Whether it’s working out how to save a species on the verge of extinction, or restoring a destroyed rainforest. We also do it to keep us credible with governments and other decision-makers and successful - because conservation informed by evidence is more likely to succeed than that based on guesswork.
The science of conservation
Principal Conservation Scientist Mark Bolton talks about being a scientist at the RSPB, from getting involved in the whole scientific process to why it's a great place to work.
The RSPB Centre for Conservation Science
Our scientific programme is an amazing asset, matched by few other conservation organisations.
In April 2013, Professor Sir John Lawton chaired a review of the programme, and concluded that our science was outstanding and equivalent to that of any large internationally-competitive UK university. However, they also told us our science deserved to be better known.
So we've established the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science to showcase, promote and build the RSPB’s scientific programme. By sharing our science more openly through the Centre, we hope that it will have a greater impact on nature conservation.
Knowing the important problems
Our scientific work starts by identifying and prioritising the most important conservation problems for us to work on.
We do this by conducting and supporting monitoring schemes and surveys, often in collaboration with partners. This allows us to prioritise species which are most threatened, the sites which are most important to protect and the environmental challenges which are the most pressing.
However, although strongly influenced by these biological priorities, they do not solely dictate our scientific programme. We also try to predict the likely impacts on nature of new technologies, changing land uses, climate change, industrial developments and evolving government policies. This allows us to develop and advocate policies with confidence.
Knowing the causes
Once we've identified the most important conservation problems, we need to diagnose their causes.
This part of our scientific model, which can involve a great deal of painstaking detective work, is often focused on single species in the UK or overseas. Typically, this involves field-based studies of wildlife populations, to understand their ecological requirements and the external pressures they face.
For birds, this might involve locating nests, measuring breeding success and survival and marking individual birds to follow their lives in detail. While this work benefits enormously from new technology, it remains resource-hungry, but is vital to the conservation of many species
Knowing the solutions
Our diagnostic work leads us to potential solutions that we can test – wherever possible with field experiments.
Testing solutions on a small scale is often critical to gain the confidence of environmental managers prior to wider implementation. Not least because such tests commonly investigate the practical and economic feasibility. We're also increasingly measuring the impact of conservation interventions on a range of other ecosystem services.
Our scientists are fortunate in having access to a magnificent estate – 220 nature reserves and several working farms in the UK, rainforest sites in Africa and Indonesia, and other conservation projects overseas. This estate is central to our diagnostic and solution-testing work, providing unparalleled opportunities for scientific observation and experiment.
Knowing how the action works
The ultimate success for the RSPB's science is when our solutions are successfully translated into conservation action.
It is not usually the role of our scientists to implement or advocate conservation solutions. Typically, this is the work of others, for example land managers, advisors, policy makers or advocates. But it is our role as scientists to advise these people, to monitor the effectiveness of their conservation interventions and improve them where necessary.
Our scientific output
The ultimate test of the quality of our scientific work – its impact on conservation – is difficult to measure. However, our scientific output can be measured readily and has risen dramatically since 1995.
From 2003-12 RSPB staff members wrote 671 papers in peer-reviewed scientific literature and a further 292 scientific reports, theses, books and publications in other journals and conference proceedings. During this period, the average RSPB-authored paper was cited 21 times, with 51 being cited more than 51 times.
Publishing in the scientific literature is very important to the RSPB. We see it as an important conservation tool – conservation actions are more likely to work when supported by the quality control of peer-review.
Science also supports our work in many less-visible ways. For example, development proposals which threaten important sites are scrutinised to ensure the best possible science is used to assess the risks to wildlife.
Around three-quarters of the RSPB’s income comes from the generosity of our members and supporters.
We must continue to pursue a wide variety of funding sources to continue our science work and external funding is vital. Many organisations have funded specific science projects in the period 2003-13 and are also active partners in our research, or may have provided additional support and funds for wider conservation action.
Our featured funders are those organisations which have repeatedly funded our science or contributed a large percentage of our science funding in recent years.
By working with a wide range of partners, we maximise the quantity and quality of the conservation science that we can do.
Underpinning much of this is the huge contribution made by thousands of birdwatchers in the surveying, monitoring and ringing of birds. Their contributions, and the partnerships with them, are invaluable. The following organisations and individuals were active partners in our research during the period 2003–2013 (see full list below). Our featured partners are those organisations that we have repeatedly worked with over the years.
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