Social research is good for you - most of the time

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Martin Harper's blog

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

Social research is good for you - most of the time

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I was very fortunate to spend Monday at Minsmere.  Someone within the RSPB had the fine idea of encouraging Board Directors to 'volunteer' for the day.  My prize was to contribute to some social science research designed to help us improve the experience of visitors to our nature reserves.  So while Environment Secretary Rt Hon Liz Truss MP was giving her conference speech (see transcript below) and while Karmenu Vella was being grilled by MEPs to assess his suitability for appointment as Environment Commissioner (more on this later in the week), I was standing around with a clip-board trying to find someone to talk to.

With Cetti's warblers for company, I was pleasantly surprised that people didn't mind being asked a few questions about why they were out and about.  Not surprisingly, apart from a very well behaved school group, the vast majority of those I saw were those with time on their hands - mainly retired folk having a wonderful day in a beautiful place.  "Everyone knows Minsmere is the best reserve in the country" said one, "that's why I am here".  I know 209 RSPB site managers who might disagree, but it was good to see the reserve busy even in mid-week.

My companion for the day courtesy of David Tipling

The RSPB has often dabbled in the dark arts of social science especially to help us understand what our members want and how we can inspire more support.  I say dark arts, simply because I was trained as a natural scientist and I was rarely exposed to social science.  

Yet, it was only this year that we employed our first social scientist.  We did this in response to the independent review of our science which had been led by Professor Sir John Lawton.  In his conclusions, he was clear that we needed to embrace social science to improve our understanding of people's behaviour and to demonstrate how nature is important to human wellbeing.  It made sense to me.  We say we want to influence change in policy, legislation, attitudes and behaviour.  We know that you cannot rely on the power of ecological evidence alone to win an argument or effect change.  If it was that simple, then there would have been no badger cull, farmers would all be including skylark plots in their arable fields and the Ministry of Defence probably wouldn't be proposing to build houses on the nation's finest nightingale site.

Maybe we don't need the research.  Last night at a fringe meeting hosted by the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, Liz Truss said that "we all depend on nature whether we are from urban or rual backgrounds".  We need nature for food, for shelter, for energy and yes for inspiration.   There is growing evidence of the importance of contact with nature for both our mental and physical health and, next week, we expect the Institute of Health Equity at University College London will publish a summary of this evidence.  The more we understand the importance of nature to us as humans, the less likely we are to so easily trade it away and the greater chance that we shall invest to protect it.

So, we are exploring how social science can help us and I hope, over time, it adds an extra string to our bow.  For me, while I felt better having spent a day at Minsmere listening to Cetti's warblers, I may not be allowed to get hold of a clipboard again - one unlucky interviewee whacked his head on a sign probably trying to escape from me.  I think I should stick to the day job...


Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP speech to Conservation Party Conference 2014


I have to confess that I was both delighted and surprised…

….. when the Prime Minister offered me this role.

I was delighted…because I love the countryside.

I represent one of the most productive agricultural areas of the country in the fine

county of Norfolk….

…..and I am infatuated with British food.

But I was also surprised to be appointed because I have so much in common with

..... Ed Miliband.

We both grew up in left-wing households.

We both have parents who are academics.

His father talked about Marx and Trotsky over the dinner table.

My mother took me on protests.

I went on marches.

I made banners.

I went to peace camps.

For me, it wasn’t ballet or My Little Pony.

Instead, it was saving the planet…..and the CND.

The most useful thing I learned…..was how to make myself heard in a crowd.

Which I still make plenty of use of today.

But while Ed stayed with the predictable Left Wing Establishment.

I, Conference, became a rebel.


And I rebelled for 3 reasons.
Because I believe that you can shape your own destiny.

Because I believe people should succeed on merit.

And as a practical Yorkshire girl….

I believe in not just talking

……. But in getting things done….

And, when it comes to the Environment, the Labour Party have always been good at


While we’ve been really good at doing.

It was a Conservative who pointed out that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer.

It was a Conservative who championed international efforts to ban them.

It was a Conservative who signed the Treaty phasing out their use.

And the name of that Conservative was Margaret Thatcher.

The ozone layer is getting better and we’re now leading international efforts to

tackle climate change.

We have cleaned up almost 10,000 miles of river and improved our beaches.

Numbers of important birds like the linnet and the goldfinch are on the rise.

We are planting a million trees and over 20,000 acres of woodland.

Our defences against flooding are being upgraded to make them more robust.

We are spending £3.2 billion – half a billion more than the last government – better

protecting 165,000 houses and 580,000 acres of farmland.

We are constantly vigilant.

All this means that families can enjoy clean rivers and beaches…

…..and have peace of mind in their own homes….

….. while children get to know the sound of birdsong in our woods and meadows.

This is not about targets or turbines.

It’s about real improvements…..

…….practical conservative environmentalism…

….. where a strong, healthy environment….

… a core part of a strong, healthy economy. And our Long Term Economic Plan.

And that is exactly what our farmers and food producers need.

Just like our country…

….there once was a time that our food was in decline.

We had an inferiority complex about our traditional dishes.

We’d lost pride in our country…

…..and we’d lost pride in our food.

The amount of British Food we consumed and produced went down.

The last Labour government…

….tied our farmers up in red tape….

…… wasted £600 million on EU fines ….

……..and left us with the worst bovine TB problem in Europe.

The fact is: Labour don’t care about the countryside.

They think that we can’t grow enough of our own food.

They think that we can just outsource it.

Well they are wrong.

Decline is not inevitable.

Under this government, food and farming is one of our biggest success stories.

It’s our largest manufacturing sector….

…….bigger than aerospace and car production put together.

Modern farming is not about shire horses and steam.

It’s about systems and satellites.

At every stage of the supply chain there is cutting edge technology….

….whether it’s GPS in tractors

…..automated celery rigs

…… or Sainsbury’s employing an army of coders.

That’s probably why it’s one of the fastest growing areas for entrepreneurs.

We’re helping producers compete by slashing red tape and opening up public


….as well as nearly 600 new overseas markets – thanks to the hard work of my

predecessors Owen Paterson and Caroline Spelman.

Our exports have increased by more than £1 billion in the past four years.

And the results are superb.

We are growing wheat more competitively than the Canadian prairies.

We’re producing more varieties of cheese than the French.

And we are even selling tea to China.

Yorkshire Tea.

When it comes to British food and drink….

……we have never had it so good,

As well as exporting our fantastic food abroad, I want to see more British food sold

in Britain.

Two-thirds of the apples and nine-tenths of the pears that we eat are imported.

Not to mention two thirds of the cheese.

And that is a disgrace.

From the apple that dropped on Isaac Newton’s head to the orchards of nursery


…..this fruit has always been a part of Britain.

I want our children to grow up enjoying the taste of British apples as well as

… Cornish sardines, Norfolk turkey, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Wensleydale

cheese, Herefordshire pears……. and….of course… black pudding.

Under a Conservative majority government, I want Britain to lead the world in food,

farming and the environment.

In a fortnight I will be in Paris at the world’s largest food fair…

….bigging up British products.

In December, I’ll be in Beijing negotiating new markets for pork.

I am determined that our farmers and producers will have access to more markets

both at home and abroad…

…..generating jobs and security for millions.

I am determined to press ahead restoring habitats,

….cleaning rivers

….and improving the quality of our atmosphere…..

….so that future generations can breathe clean air and enjoy the countryside.

I am determined that our flood defences will be always be strong enough to protect

us against the ravages of a changing climate.

And I will not rest until the British apple is at the very top of the tree.

  • Great to hear you enjoyed your day volunteering at Minsmere Martin.

  • I'm pleased you enjoyed your visit to Minsmere and had the chance to chat to some of our lovely visitors. We look forward to welcoming you again soon.

  • Should I mention that Liz Truss hasn't voted for Bob yet?  My MP hasn't either........and her constituency includes Minsmere.

  • Minsmere remains my favourite reserve - I'm delighted you had a lovely day but it was inevitable you would!  Good to see Liz Truss is such a fan of our wildlife.