Knowledge is power?

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Knowledge is power?

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The debate about the future of our marine wildlife intensified this week when 86 scientists called on the UK Government to inject some urgency into their plans to establish Marine Conservation Zones.    The fear is that unless ministers act quickly we shall be condemning our seas to over-exploitation and, as I wrote on Monday, marine wildlife needs more protection to help withstand pressures posed by human activity.  This latest intervention comes hot on the heels of the recent report of the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology which also pressed for immediate action. 

Ministers have said that the current suite of zones is proportionate and will protect economic interests.   We disagree.  We vehemently argued against the consideration of socio-economics in the selection of Marine Conservation Zones.  On land, SSSIs are selected based on science alone (hence Natural England making the right decision to notify Lodge Hill a SSSI because of the importance of its nightingale population) and we felt that a similar approach was appropriate at sea.  We lost this argument with the then Labour Government.  But the political issue is this - if your stated ambition is to establish an ecologically coherent network, then you should be judged on the adequacy of that network. 

The decline in the Kittiwake is being driven by a slump in the availability of sand-eels. Image by Genevieve Leaper (

The role of science in policy making and decision taking was brought into focus by two other events in the last week. 

First, the new Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, outlined his approach in his first speech and first broadcast interview last week.  He sees his role as ensuring that the best available evidence is available to inform political decisions.   Yet, he also notes the importance of addressing issues from all perspectives.  I have no problem with this unless, as a result of the decision, political commitments are ignored or, much worse, we fail to respect environmental limits such as the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases or we condemn species to long term decline or even extinction.  History suggests that the pendulum of decision-making swings against the environment.

Second, following the death of Margaret Thatcher two weeks ago, I dipped into her autobiography (the copy was borrowed not owned).  In that she writes, "For me, the proper staring point in formulating policy towards [global environmental problems] was science ".  We agree! Which is why we invest so much in our scientific research: we monitor what is happening to the natural world, we diagnose problems and then test solutions.  Just last week, our science programme was subjected to an independent review from four distinguished academics: Professor Sir John Lawton, Professor David MacDonald, Professor Valerie Brown and Dr Jenny Gill.  While we await their formal report, I wasn't surprised that they went away impressed by the quality and breadth of our science. 

We try to act on evidence to help make a difference and urge others to do the same.  We intend to continue to invest in our science capacity and capability.  This will, I argue, help us remain credibly and authorative.  While it will never be enough to win every argument (a good dose of public pressure is often needed), having the evidence to back up an argument sure helps.    And when it comes to protecting marine wildlife, we shall continue to make available the data we gather from our ground-breaking sea-bird tracking programme and we shall expect better from our politicians.

What do you think should be the role of science in decision-making?

It would be great to hear your view.


  • "history suggests that the pendulum of decision making swings against the environment! Bit of an understatement here ! ie if the 100 trillion (I'm always seeing different figures on its cost) spent on the Iraq war had been spent on driving US national energy security where would we be today; if only Blair had matched his rhetoric with action; Blair is not alone here and the swords into ploughshares argument remains as relevant today as it was after WW1 and the role of arms manufacturers /military industrial comp etc.

    I do nt know what Sir Mark Walport means by "all perspectives, it could be sensible or then not at all. Science has to remain at the centre of work but also economic justice has to be central to sustainability and I wonder if RSPB would agree that our remaining offshore oil/gas resource revenues should be ringfenced for UK investment in a national tidal/solar/wave energy budget ?