Ecologists and policymakers presented their perspectives at last week’s debate on biodiversity.
A key tenet of the Georgina Mace Centre for the Living Planet (GMC) is to bring diverse perspectives and expertise together around biodiversity. On 21 July 2022 GMC hosted a panel debate between academics and policy professionals at Imperial’s Silwood Park campus, as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations.
GMC Co-director, Professor Matthew Fisher (School of Public Health, Imperial), opened the event explaining that its purpose aimed to examine how the urgency of the biodiversity crisis was being felt and acted upon across the cultures of academic science on the one hand, and policy and government on the other: “biodiversity matters, we know that,” he said, “but how does it matter? This is what we're here to explore.”
After the debate, which is now available to watch, we caught up with the speakers to find out what they’d taken away from the discussion, and reflect on how forums like this might help us tackle biodiversity issues effectively going forwards.
How often do scientists and politicians share their thoughts in this way?
There isn’t a single measure for biodiversity, nor should there be – we’re interested in the diversity, not the singularity. Professor Gideon Henderson Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
The value of the event was immediate for Professor Gideon Henderson. As DEFRA CSA he sits at an intersection between the academic and policy worlds, and yet “it’s quite unusual for me to be on a panel with a politician,” he said. “It happens occasionally, but it’s often somewhat more around a government agenda rather than a science agenda like this.
“I’m taking away some quite specific ideas of things we might be able to pursue,” he continued, particularly around utilising different biodiversity metrics to inform strategies around communicating the crisis, and making it meaningful.
His CSA role provides “a tension that’s interesting”, but despite recognition of the value of evidenced-based research in government, he often still finds himself a “lone voice” on the significance of the biodiversity challenge in the policy context, highlighting that its recognition “lags behind” that of the climate crisis. There’s a need to communicate its urgency across policy, politics and publics without reducing it to a single metric: “there isn’t a single measure for biodiversity, nor should there be – we’re interested in the diversity, not the singularity”.
Seeing the value in debate
If those who recognise biodiversity for what it is are not in conversation with those who don’t then I think it’s going to be very difficult to move public perception and possibly even to move policy [to] bring about the change that we want to see. Mr Adam Afriyie MP for Windsor, and Imperial College London alumnus
The value of stepping out of academia and being embedded in a different working culture on a day-to-day basis has been invaluable for Professor Henderson: “I’ve learned a hell of a lot from working close to government and trying to bring science into it. Whatever I go on to do after will be strongly influenced by it.”
Politics thrives on debate, and for Conservative MP Adam Afriyie taking this function into an academic space provides an important opportunity for the biodiversity crisis: “one has to be careful not always to be in a room with everyone that agrees, or where everyone is educated on a subject,” he said. “It’s through a process of debate, discourse, explanation and argument that ultimately the dial in society moves.
"If those who recognise biodiversity for what it is are not in conversation with those who don’t then I think it’s going to be very difficult to move public perception, and possibly even to move policy into a place where it’s dealing with the correct measurement systems, metrics and regulations which would actually bring about the change that we want to see.”
“Ecology is at the heart of the answer”, said Professor Kate Jones (UCL), “and we need ecologists to step up into that role – to start talking to the public health bodies, to the politicians – even if that’s hard. They have to make their arguments and operationalise some of these links and relationships, but unless we start to understand how government works it’s very difficult to influence what’s happening.
“My experience with interdisciplinarity has always been about the value of time,” she continued, “having time to talk to each other, explore concepts, get angry, reflect, think about what’s happening and start to understand each other – but that doesn’t happen overnight. You have to try and understand what people who don’t agree with you are saying, and what motivates them – it can take years to find a way through. It’s like learning a new language – it opens up a whole new conceptual mind map, and that’s so powerful and valuable.”
How long do we have?
Professor Andy Purvis (Natural History Museum and Department of Life Sciences, Imperial) posed a critical question: can we still bend the curve of biodiversity loss? He highlighted ways in which we might go about measuring biodiversity and how a combination of models and monitoring can provide us with a "sat-nav" as we face complex and varied environmental issues that are intrinsically linked to many other economic, political and cultural issues. His main message: action cannot wait.
“I’m taking from today that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind how serious the current situation is. Everyone agrees that we need to have more joined up, constructive ways of working – across professions, across disciplines within professions, across parties within Parliament – in order to bring about the changes that we need,” he said. “It’s also enforced in my mind that there is not enough focus and sheer urgency on this. We have not got ten years for this to look a bit better. In ten years it’s going to be desperately bad unless we accelerate our efforts. We are going in the wrong direction, and at the moment we don’t have enough of a course direction.”
There’s a lot of despair out there, and we need to turn that into action… you’ve got to go into the community and find out what motivates people, who’s pressing the buttons, and ultimately, how do you work together? Professor Kate Jones Director of the People and Nature Lab at University College London
Professor Jones sited reasons to be positive: “I think there’s a lot of despair out there, and we need to turn that into action… it’s important that we are inspired to act. My message was basically that we’ve got to start talking to each other,” she said. “It’s not enough to shout about it, you’ve got to go into the community and find out what motivates people, who’s pressing the buttons, and ultimately, how do you work together?”
Professor Purvis echoed this: “A really positive reason for trying to take some agency is that otherwise there’s a lot to be very, very anxious about. Ecoanxiety is potentially crippling, but if you channel it into constructive action it can be enabling and liberating, as well as genuinely helping. At COP26 I met activist groups who are brilliant at transforming ecoanxiety from an inhibiting force into a force of agency, taking control of what you can control, taking responsibility and actually being a citizen.”
GMC Co-director, Professor Vincent Savolainen (Department of Life Sciences, Imperial) agrees that the longer we leave it, actions to reduce and mitigate climate chaos is “only going to get more expensive and more difficult... that is the message from today's debate for the politicians. The message for the ecology scientists is that they could learn from the climate scientists, and find ways to communicate messages of what's going to happen to everybody's life if we don't look after biodiversity.”
“Five years ago I had very little optimism,” Professor Purvis continued, “and the person more than anyone else who has changed my mindset is Greta Thunberg, who is just astonishing by simply stating facts. She has not let the sometimes desperate situation stop her, it’s spurred her on. I admire her absolutely immensely.”
What’s the role of the scientist in policy?
“There’s a lot of academics who want their work to have policy influence,” said Professor Henderson. “Part of the problem at the moment is that there’s not enough policy people who understand how to hear that evidence. The challenge is actually getting the civil service, and perhaps politicians, better tooled out to understand the evidence base.”
As an Imperial alumnus, with an educational foundation in a scientific subject, MP Afriyie thinks his background has equipped him with valuable skills that help when it comes to making informed decisions about legislation. He emphasised the importance of making evidence accessible to Parliament via efficient, impartial and peer-reviewed channels such as POST notes, plus the need to equip MPs with key skills allowing them to better understand and infer meaning from scientific data when making and communicating policy decisions.
“There are two types of elected politicians in Westminster, and two types of people throughout the civil service – one comes from a scientific, numbers-based mindset, and the other from more of a classics background,” he said. “What we produce [at POST] does permeate the system, so that even somebody without a scientific background who’s about to speak in a debate, or give input to a policy, generally will have seen the POST note, and at least have a grasp of where the science lies. It’s a gentle tipping, nudging, rebalancing function that POST performs.”
He spoke positively about how the Environment Act 2021 aims to provides a long-term policy framework. He also put out an invitation for academic researchers to engage with government to fill in the framework’s content: “we now need academia to populate the measurement systems, the measures that need to be taken, to assist in the process…the door’s open to academia to get on the inside.”
Scientists have to talk to other people because we can’t make things happen – it’s not our job or expertise or skill set, and it’s not how society is organised. In order for scientists to have influence they have to connect [with] politicians, senior civil servants, the general public and businesses. Professor Andy Purvis Research Leader at the Natural History Museum and Research Investigator at Imperial College London
As Professor Jones notes, understanding how politics functions allows academics, and scientists in particular, to engage more effectively with it. Groupings such as the Climate Change Committee are key because it's “a separate body, set up by the government, to hold the government to account. The Committee's got free reign to report on the targets that have been set, and government has to take notice of it – that feels like how it should work."
Professor Henderson agrees: "Advocacy is probably not the right word. If you go into a discussion [as a scientist with a politician] and say – we have to act on climate change – that’s advocating for a policy direction. If, however, you lay out the science and evidence base – that if we don’t act on climate change, these are the repercussions: this is how much it will cost, this is the damage that will be caused – so it’s a factual story, which in itself might make it plainly obvious that you have to act – you could say it’s a form of advocacy… but you’ve got to be careful not to tip over into decision-making, which is the job of the policy people, not the scientists”.
Echoed by Professor Purvis: “scientists have to talk to other people because we can’t make things happen – it’s not our job or expertise or skill set, and it’s not how society is organised. In order for scientists to have influence they have to connect directly, or indirectly, with the people making choices and decisions, and that means politicians, senior civil servants, the general public and businesses. I spend a lot of my time at the moment discussing with businesses, how biodiversity models and indicators can help them make their companies more nature positive, so that they do more good, or at least less damage. Our planet is only going to be able to meet our needs if its ecosystems work”.
Moving beyond a political binary
The climate and biodiversity crises pose more of an immediate threat to some communities than others, but ultimately, these threats face us all and require us to ask existential, ethical and philosophical questions about ourselves on both individual and collective terms.
Multidisciplinary centres like GMC, and forums like the GMC debate, are vital in creating an environment in which people might overcome differences, not only between working cultures like academia and government, but also between political perspectives and motivations, to get beyond binaries of, for example, Right versus Left. What is the role of a scientist? “Your role as the science actor in those scenarios [in conversation with politicians] is really important,” said Professor Jones. “You’ve got to try to step away from political differences and remain true to the science – to give policymakers your evidence-based advice. I think we [scientists] could do a better job of putting our work under their nose, and understanding how important that is.”
Can anything more structural be done across academia and government to embed each culture more closely, so that key activities, such as COP15 and COP26, remain at the heart of the agenda beyond their moment in the headlines and the timeframe after which politicians and scientists disperse back to potentially siloed working environments? Is it possible to create a more symbiotic, foundational relationship between the two that encourages each to consider the other in the decisions they make?
Professor Savolainen brings up the Royal Society’s Pairing Scheme, but wonders if there might be more opportunities to give politicians from different parties access to the academic system: “having a scientific advisor in every government department is important, but perhaps politicians should come to us too – maybe there should be a political representative in every university to make the link work both ways.”
Each speaker emphasised the impact of Professor Dame Georgina Mace FRS – both personally in terms of their work and careers, and also the ways in which her research is a critical foundation on which ecology and conservation continue to grow.
“I’d like to mention Georgina,” said Professor Henderson. “She’s the reason I came this year [to the debate] and last year [for the GMC launch]. It’s because she was a total inspiration in this field, who carried out really fundamental work – a lot of what we’ve been talking about here builds on it. It’s great the GMC is name after her, and her legacy lives on because of it.”
Professor Savolainen also commented on the extent to which Professor Mace is revered across the ecology and academic worlds, and beyond:
“Georgina was the prime example of somebody who was a top scientist, but who was also communicating with the government, and institutions like the United Nations. In this way she really embodied what the Centre hopes to be, and it’s the reason it was named in her honour. Everybody loved her, and really was amazed by how she could do top science but also have a real-world impact.”
Professor Henderson emphasised that Professor Mace’s impact wasn’t just the compelling nature of her science, but also the authenticity and humanity that she brought to her work. “One of the stories that she told on stage at a Royal Society biodiversity event once, that’s lived with me – I’m probably going to hash it up now! – but she said:
"As I stepped out to come here this morning there was a thrush in the bay tree outside my front door, and it was singing, and I just stopped and listened, and it was incredible. In that moment, I didn’t care about the biodiversity, I just cared about the beauty of the thrush, and for many people that is what nature is about. It’s a privilege to study it, and to understand it, and to try and protect it – we value our biodiversity in ways that are quite deep seated and human.”
Find out more
- Learn more about the speakers’ views: watch the debate.
- Learn more about Imperial's policy engagement programme: The Forum.
Many thanks to our panel:
- Adam Afriyie – Conservative MP and Chair of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)
- Professor Kate Jones – Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity and Director of the UCL People and Nature Lab
- Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
- Professor Andy Purvis, Research Leader at the Natural History Museum and Research Investigator at Imperial College London
- Chair: Dr Bonnie Waring, The Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London
Recovering nature: building on Georgina Mace’s work to ensure a biodiverse and liveable future is due to take place at the Royal Society on 12-13 June 2023.
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