Friday, 27 February 2009

Gordon Brown to Set Ambitious New Targets for Science and Maths Education

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to announce ambitious new targets for science and maths education when he delivers the Romanes Lecture at Oxford University later today.

In the lecture, the Prime Minister will explore how the UK can capitalise on our scientific and intellectual heritage to make Britain the best country in the world in which to practice science. The Prime Minister will signal his desire to move the country away from a reliance on financial services, instead placing science and technology at the heart of the UK economy as the country emerges from recession.

Within five years, the PM will announce, 90% of state schools will be expected to deliver triple science (single subject biology, physics and chemistry) at GCSE level; up from 32% currently. The Government aims to at least double the 8.5% of state school pupils studying triple science within this time period.

The lecture follows Lord Drayson's comments earlier this month, regarding whether Government should set the priorities for scientific research as a means to achieve delivery of the innovation and scientific advance needed to strengthen the UK economy. The scientific community reacted angrily to Lord Drayson's remarks.

Speaking on the Today Programme this morning, academics Professor Don Braben and Lord Krebs discussed the need for scientific endeavour to operate at arm's length from Government: the so-called 'Haldane Principle'. The Prime Minister's speech this afternoon is bound to stimulate questions on whether, in a time of recession, the Government does plan to direct funding for scientific research more stringently; with an emphasis on targets and deliverable outcomes and away from 'blue skies' endeavour.

More on this from BBC News

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Wild Deer: Seminar in Parliament Tomorrow

Tomorrow sees the formal launch of the POSTnote written by the 2008 BES POST Fellow, with a seminar in Westminster. Laura Spence has spent the past few months working at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, researching and writing a briefing note for parliamentarians (POSTnote 325) on "Wild Deer".

Wild deer populations are increasing in number and geographic range in the UK. Deer are a valuable natural resource if managed sustainably, but when occurring at excessive densities, they can have negative effects on biodiversity, the rural economy, human health and
safety, and animal welfare. The POSTnote examines the current status of wild deer in the UK, their ecological, economic and social impacts and legislation on their management.

The seminar will take place in the Jubilee Room, Westminster Hall, from 3.30 - 5pm. To find out more see the Event Flyer.
If you would like to attend, please contact or telephone Emma Kearney on 020 7219 2840.

To apply for the 2009 BES POST Fellowship, visit the BES website. Applications must be received by 6 April.

Monday, 23 February 2009

'Save the Albatross' Campaign a Remarkable Success

The outlook for endangered albatross species has dramatically improved, thanks to the success of an international conservation programme implemented by the RSPB and Birdlife International.

The Albatross Task Force (ATF) was established in 2006 in order to reduce the number of accidental albatross deaths caused by long-line fishing. At the time, it was estimated that one bird was killed every five minutes from long line fishing, and 19 of the 22 albatross species were under threat from extinction.

The birds dying because they were taking bait from fishing lines fed into the sea from boats fishing for tuna or swordfish. Once they swallowed the bait, they would become caught on the hook, dragged underwater and drown.

Specialist instructors from the ATF went out with fishermen and taught them techniques that would stop the birds becoming entangled. They were encouraged to fish at night, weight their lines and attach streamers the back of vessels to scare the birds away. Government legislation also played its part by stipulating that no more than 25 birds could be caught as "by-catch" during trips.

The programme has been heralded as a resounding success, and has reduced deaths by up to 85% in some locations.

Dr Ross Wanless, coordinator of the Birdlife programme in Africa, said: "Changing entrenched attitudes and practices is a slow process, but the ATF has shown that by working with government and industry, change is possible."

Whilst the 19 species are not freed from the threat of extinction yet- many are still snagged by trawlers, breeding is slow and habitats are endangered - the campaign is likely to have made a remarkable impact on their population stability and its success cannot be understated.

Learn more about the 'Save the Albatross' Campaign here

Read more about this story at the BBC News website and the Times News website

Friday, 20 February 2009

Historical Trends Show Food Security Threatened by Climate Change

Research published recently in Science illustrates the destabilising effect which extreme weather events have on agricultural productivity, and predicts that without significant investment now in adaptation measures, climate change will lead to major food crises in the next 100 years.

Based on an analysis of 23 global climate change models, researchers suggest that unusually hot summers, for example the 2003 heatwave in Europe, will become common by the end of this century. This heatwave, in which the temperature was 3.5oC above normal, led to 50,000 heat-related deaths and poor yields from grain and fruit crops across much of France and Italy.

Droughts in Africa from the 1960s to 90s, and consequent effect on crops, led to very many hunger-related deaths.

Examining these events, the researchers conclude that agricultural yields may fall by 20 - 40% over the next century as the climate warms, without investment in adaptation measures. They urge governments to prioritise research and development in climate change adaptation for agriculture, including investment in genomics, breeding, management and engineering.

Battisti, D.S. and Naylor, R.L. (2008). Historical Warnings of Food Security with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat. Science. 323: 240-244.

A Million Ponds by 2059

Yesterday evening, the BES Science Policy Team attended the launch of the Million Ponds Project. The ambitious project is a national initiative to reverse the long-term decline in ponds; from around a million 100 years ago, to 500,000 now. Of those that remain, only 8% are thought to be in good condition.

Launching the project last night, Alan Titchmarsh focused on the need for the conservation community to communicate with the public over not only the importance of ponds for wildlife, but also the joy to be had from engaging with nature. Well set-up and maintained ponds provide a fantastic habitat for freshwater organisms but also provide a unique area where children can learn about the natural environment.

Pond Conservation, a national charity dedicated to creating and protecting ponds, and other freshwaters, and the wildlife they support, is co-ordinating the project. Other organisations who are taking part, digging the ponds and providing advisors to assist those wishing to establish ponds on their land, are: Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England, Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and many others. In total, 11 major partners are involved. The Ministry of Justice and Defence Estates are key partners, wishing to establish ponds in prison grounds and on firing ranges.

Over the first five-years of the project, which is to run for 50 years in total, Pond Conservation hope to facilitate the establishment of 5,000 ponds, at a cost of £3million. Establishing and maintaining ponds is key for the survival of freshwater species: the IUCN has warned that freshwater biodiversity is extremely threatened, and there are more threatened species in ponds in Britain than in lakes or rivers.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

EASAC Launch Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) yesterday launched a report on 'Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity in Europe'. The EASAC working group behind the report was led by Professor Alastair Fitter, University of York, a past-President of the BES.

The report provides a review of the state of ecosystem services in Europe, and examines what is known regarding the contribution which biodiversity makes to maintaining ecosystem services.

As urbanisation and intensification of agriculture compromise the environment and lead to declines in biodiversity, so too will the ability of ecosystems to provide the essential services on which we depend be threatened. As an example, soil biodiversity provides a key role in nutrient cycling, essential to maintain high-levels of productivity in agriculture. As fertilisers are likely to become more costly in future, whilst food prices are set to increase, maintaining the integrity of soil ecosystems in Europe will be vital to deliver the produce needed by a growing population, increasingly unable to afford the high cost of imported food.

One of the key messages of the report is that although European ecosystems can deliver a range of services, managing land to primarily deliver one service will reduce its capacity to deliver others. EASAC recommends that European governments introduce a new Directive, encouraging the active management of land for a range of ecosystem services; putting in place legislation to ensure that management is systematic and to standards uniform across Europe.

A copy of the report can be accessed here:

Monday, 16 February 2009

Severity of Global Warming Underestimated

Leading climate change scientist, Professor Chris Field has announced that the severity of global warming over the next century will be well beyond anything predicted.

Field, a senior member of the Nobel-prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC), revealed his findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago on Saturday. He told the attendees that IPCC’s previous report on climate change in 2007 (of which he was co-author) had substantially underestimated the rate of global warming and the extent of the problem.

"We are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we've considered seriously in climate policy," he said.

Increases in greenhouse gas emissions from 2000-2007 have accelerated more rapidly than forecast “primarily because developing countries, like China and India, increased their electric power generation, by burning more coal” he said. This means that temperatures rises could exceed 6.4 oC over the next century.

The temperature rises could cause large scale melting of permafrost in the Arctic and dry out tropical forests enough for wildfires to breakout. This would dramatically increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and have potentially devastating consequences for the global climate.

"Without effective action, climate change is going to be larger and more difficult to deal with than we thought," Field warned.

Read more about this story on the BBC news website and the Guardian news website

Return of Set-Aside Schemes for Farmers

Environment secretary, Hilary Benn has announced new proposals to bring back payments for farmers who set aside areas of uncultivated land to promote biodiversity and environmental benefits.

The system of subsiding farmers for setting-aside areas of land from agricultural production was introduced in the 1980’s in order to curtail over-production, which had generated food surpluses and caused a dramatic reduction in some commodity prices.

The scheme was effectively abolished by the European Commission in 2008 after harvests were devastated by extensive flooding and global food prices began to soar. Environmental groups and conservationists did not welcome the decision as the uncultivated land provided a vital source of food and refuge for wildlife in agricultural landscapes, especially birds.

In a speech to the National Farmers' Union conference in Birmingham later today, Benn is expected to propose two possible options; a mandatory scheme requiring a minimum area land to be set aside with incentives to expand, and an entirely voluntary scheme. A decision is expected in the summer.

"I welcome the idea of a voluntary scheme, led by the industry, if we can be sure that it will deliver," he is expected to say.

Read more about this issue on the Guardian news website
Updates on the NFU conference can be found here

All Party Parliamentary Environment Group Discuss the Climate Change Act

The BES Policy Team recently attended an All Party Parliamentary Environment Group meeting at the House of Commons to discuss the Climate Change Act and the potential implications of its key provisions on economy and society in the UK.

Guest speaker Joan Ruddock (Labour MP) started off the session by describing the Climate Change Act as ‘ground breaking legislation’ that would contribute to the search for a global agreement on reducing emissions. She reviewed the key provisions of the Act and acknowledged that the Cap and Trade system, due to be enforced next year, is likely to be the most effective strategy for reducing C02 emissions in the UK. It is hoped that more schemes will be included in the system and that Cap and Trade strategies alone will save the UK 4 million tonnes of carbon each year by the year 2020.

Gathered from the discussion, participants were calling for the following:
• The need for the Government to begin to take action at the ground level to increase the energy efficiency of existing building stock, for example, provide a framework and budget for the installation of double glazing and insulation in existing buildings;
• A recognition that a global agreement on emission trading is essential; there are fears that European countries may be placed at a competitive disadvantage if they are the only ones required to have a cap and trade on emissions;
• The need for the public to have a more realistic understanding about the size and impact of their carbon footprint and how they can minimise it;
• The need to make public transport more attractive to the community and reduce dependency on private cars.

Participants also voiced concerns about whether it was sensible to press ahead with plans to build a third runway at Heathrow, considering the Government’s commitment to include emissions arising from the aviation industry in reduction targets. Ruddock empathised but argued that it was crucial for the economy to maintain a hub at Heathrow to prevent the UK from being out-competed by other EU members. It was stressed that this was not a decision that had been taken lightly and would be subject to constant scrutiny.

Ruddock concluded her lecture by stating that she intended the December international agreement in Copenhagen to be a ‘negotiation of substance’. The Climate Change Act should ensure that the mechanisms to create a low carbon economy will be in place in the UK by the time these talks commence. It is hoped that this will enable the UK play a big part in the discussions and that UK legislation will provide a ‘blue print for other countries to emulate’ when tacking the difficulties of climate change.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Vacancy for Science to Policy Liaison Officer at QUEST

QUEST have a vacancy for a Science to Policy Liaison Officer at their headquarters in Bristol. This post is offered as a part time (two days per week) secondment until September 2010.

QUEST (Quantifying and Understanding the Earth System) is a multidisciplinary £23M programme of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). It brings together UK scientists working in a wide range of disciplines to answer policy relevant questions on the global environment. For example: How are atmospheric composition and climate naturally regulated? To stabilise climate, how much greenhouse gasses can be emitted and when? How much climate change is dangerous (risk analysis, vulnerability of ecosystem services)? What are the biological options for reducing climate change (avoided deforestation, forestry and bioenergy) and their sustainability?

The ideal candidate will be either:
- Policy person already working within a government agency, other policy institution or NGO (e.g. Defra, DECC, DfID, Environment Agency, WWF) with a science background or good scientific understanding.
- A post-doctoral researcher in the environment or climate change field with strong experience working on policy interface.

Level of experience: equivalent to 3 to 10 years post-doctoral or agency work, PhD not necessary, experience more important. The post will require mobility, familiarity with the workings of government and ideally good personal links across it, excellent written skills, excellent networking abilities, good organisational skills and the ability to work in a team.

For more information, and details of how to apply, see the QUEST website.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

IUCN Consider Successor to Biodiversity 2010 Target

The BES Policy Team yesterday attended an international conference in Brussels, to explore the successor to the target to 'halt biodiversity loss by 2010'. Organised by Countdown 2010, the meeting brought together representatives from the European Parliament, NGOs, learned societies, European agencies and academics to consider whether the 2010 target would be reached, including how to build on successes and mitigate potential failures in policy.

Stavros Dimas, European Commissioner for the Environment, was frank in acknowledging that the target would not be met. However, speakers and participants recognised that the existence of a target has spurred on the development of policy, and led to actions which would not otherwise have occurred. Developing a successor to the target was therefore acknowledged as a vital next step.

The 2010 biodiversity target 'had teeth'; this was the prevailing view of the audience. The Birds and Habitats Directives had provided core, useful components to allow member states to take steps towards addressing biodiversity loss. The Natura 2000 network should also be recognised as taking steps towards success. However, there was general recognition that more needed to be done, and that a successor to the target should be far broader.

Gathered from discussion during the day, participants were broadly calling for the target to possess the following, post-2010:

  • a broader focus, incorporating ecosystem services and encouraging an ecosystem-wide approach to biodiversity conservation.
  • to include sub-targets to assess progress on the way to achieving the overall goal by 2020 or 2025.
  • to take into account the unique conservation needs, incredible biodiversity, and incredible challenges, faced by the Overseas Territories.
  • a recognition that EU-wide policy is important, but that implementation should be sensitive to local needs and conditions.
To make any target a success, broad societal change would be necessary, not least the shift to a 'Green New Deal'; a change to the economic and policy framework underlying society, a re-think of GDP and the development of an economic successor to this tool which measures natural capital. Integration of land-use for multiple needs will be absolutely vital. Education of the public, raising the profile of biodiversity to public consciousness in the same way as climate change over recent years, will also be integral to success. Perhaps to facilitate this there should be a change in terminology. Is 'biodiversity' too sterile, too devoid of any 'spiritual significance' - is it too 'scientific'. Do we need to shift to present the target as 'halting declines in life on earth'?

Ladislav Miko, Director of 'Protecting the Natural Environment' at DG Environment, stressed that although the European Commission had its own ideas about the successor to the 2010 target, the target would be developed through stakeholder engagement. He called on NGOs, individual ecologists, economists and others, to participate in the development of the target over the coming months. It was hoped that a successor to the target could be introduced in the first half of 2010.

The BES is working with the IEEM to deliver a reception in the UK parliament in October 2009, exploring the 2010 biodiversity target, and successor, from a UK perspective. If you would like more information, please contact

Happy Birthday Darwin!

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, naturalist and the 'father' of modern evolutionary theory. 2009 also sees the 15oth anniversary of the publication of 'On the Origin of Species', Darwin's seminal work, setting out his exploration of evolution by the process of natural selection.

Celebrating Darwin's achievements, his detailed observations of animals and plants through his voyage on the Beagle and the crystallisation of the theory of evolution on his return to England, should give us pause to consider the situation which the organisms which he so carefully examined, collected and recorded, now find themselves. Conservationists have warned, reported the BBC this morning, that the Galapagos face irreparable damage if tourism to the islands is not curbed. The number of visitors to the Galapagos has quadrupled over the past 20 years, threatening established organisms through the transport of invasive alien species, including the pervasive fire ant, which threatens birds and tortoises, and a species of parasitic fly.

Speaking to the BBC, the director of the Galapagos National Park, Edgar Munoz, acknowledges the challenge but says the Ecuadorian government's actions will tackle the problem. He is hopeful that the threat can be reduced within the next '50 years'. Conservationists have expressed concern however that tackling these insects will not be easy.

Along with many others organising festivals and events around the country to mark these important anniversaries, the BES is celebrating Darwin's life and work by staging two productions of 'Re:Design', a play commissioned by the Darwin Correspondence Project, written by the playwright Craig Baxter, and performed by the Menagerie theatre company in Cambridge. You will be able to see 'Re:Design' either at our Annual Meeting (9 September) or at the British Science Festival (5 September - tbc).

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Scotland Launch Grey Squirrel Cull

A nationally co-ordinated programme has been launched in an attempt to save Scotland’s red squirrel. The £1.3m project will develop habitats in which the red squirrel can thrive, but will also attempt to control the grey population by trapping and killing them.

To achieve this, a "red squirrel protection line" has been drawn across Scotland, stretching south-east from Montrose on the North Sea to Inveraray on the west coast. All grey squirrels caught north of this line will be culled. It is expected that many tens and thousands of greys will be killed, making this the largest mammal cull in the UK.

The number of British red squirrels has been declining since grey squirrels arrived from North America in the 19th Century. The larger and stronger greys easily out-compete reds for food and habitat and also carry squirrelpox; a virus which is harmless to greys but generally lethal in reds.

It is estimated that a mere 160,000 red squirrels are left in Britain - 75% of which live in Scotland - compared to approximately 3.3m greys.

Stuart Brooks, the SWT conservation director, told the guardian that unless concerted action is taken, reds could be extinct on mainland Britain within 30 years.

The project has received criticism from animal campaign organisations such as Advocates for Animals, who feel that the protection of the red squirrel should not come at the greys' expense, and should be achieved through effective habitat management and the development of a squirrelpox vaccine. However, this could take decades to take effect, by which time, many fear, there may be no red squirrels left to protect.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Should Science Investment be Determined by Industrial and Economic Priorities?

The UK Science minister, Lord Drayson, has called for a debate about weather a larger proportion of the research budget should be allocated to areas which could directly benefit the economy.

During his lecture at The Foundation for Science and Technology, Lord Drayson said that, in light of the current economic climate, he wanted to “stimulate a debate on our national science and innovation strategy, and whether it is adequately geared up to cope with the future.”

He then went on to ask his audience whether the time had come to make choices about the balance of investment in science projects based on their compatibility with industrial and economic priorities.

This has heightened concerns amongst scientists that pure research will lose out to areas that have commercial potential.

Nick Dusic, of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK (Case), told the BBC that Lord Drayson's proposal could undermine the government's hard work in building up the UK's research base over the past decade.

"There has been a lot of effort over the last few years to increase the impact of the research base, including setting grand challenges and creating new institutions to focus on translational research," he said. "More direction from the government would cause alarm across the research community”.

Read more about this story on the BBC News website

A recording and transcript of the lecture is available on The Foundation for Science and Technology website

Call for GM Debate to be Reopened

Leading agricultural scientists are calling for another debate on genetic modification (GM), claiming that we will need ‘every tool in our armory if we are to cope with the food security issues raised by population growth, climate change and environmental degradation.’

The genetic modification of plants raises important issues for science and the public. There is legitimate concern about whether GM products safe to eat and release into the environment, but they also hold enormous potential to increase yields and food quality, whilst reducing the need for pesticides.

In 2003 the Government held a national debate on the commercialisation of genetically modified crops in the UK, before setting out its overall policy on the issue in March 2004.

However, many participants felt that the exchanges made in 2003 were marred by anger and personal grievances, which prevented the central issues from being discussed rationally and answered adequately.

With estimates that food production must double by 2050 to feed an anticipated population of 9 billion (FAO), it is imperative that government considers all options at its disposal to ensure food security and mitigate human poverty in the UK. Consequently, leading scientists have called for the debate to be reopened, so that the issues can be addressed with appropriate, evidence based discussions.

Listen to a Radio 4 broadcast on the issue here.

For more information about GM crops, including government policy, click here.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Green Living: Access to Green Spaces Improves Health

New research published in the Lancet shows that access to green spaces, such as parks and river corridors reduces health inequality. The health gap between richer and poorer residents in areas with access to green spaces was half of that in areas where such access was not possible.

Researchers examined records from more than 360,000 deaths across England (excluding men and women above the standard age of retirement). Access to green spaces was defined as the proportion of such spaces in a resident’s local area, excluding gardens. The study concentrated on those in the lowest to middle income brackets.

Links were revealed between the levels of income and access to green space, in relation to deaths from all causes, but particularly circulatory causes, such as heart disease. Researchers surmise that access to green spaces encourages activity and exercise, whilst other studies have linked access to green spaces to stress levels.

The study demonstrates that differences in health inequality can exist between populations exposed to the same welfare state, health service and income, but living in different types of physical environment; with access or not to green areas. The researchers recommend that the impact of the physical environment on health inequality be taken into account in urban planning and development.

Mitchell, R. and Popham, F. (2008). Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study. The Lancet. 372(9650): 1655-1660.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Voice of the Future: 10 March 2009

The Royal Society of Chemistry's annual Voice of the Future event is to take place at Portcullis House, Westminster on 10 March.

This is a free event, open to all those interested in science, and aged under 37.

Voice of the Future aims to strengthen links between the scientific community, parliament and Government. It provides a great chance for young scientists, and aspiring scientists, to question members of Parliament about the use of science in policy-making; and about support for science across Government more generally.

For more information, see the Royal Society of Chemistry website. Places are expected to disappear quickly so do register as soon as possible.

Monday, 2 February 2009

GM Crop that Needs Less Fertilizer

Canadian Scientists have successfully developed genetically modified (GM) rice plants that take-up and metabolise nitrogen more efficiently, thereby reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers and increasing yields.

Nitrogen is quantitatively the most essential nutrient for plants and a major factor limiting crop productivity. Plants are particularly inefficient at acquiring nitrogen from applied fertilizer, and as a result, excess nitrogen frequently leaches from the soil into waterways and damages aquatic ecosystems, or volatizes to nitrous oxide, an atmospheric greenhouse gas.

To meet growing food demands, the global use of nitrogen increased from 3.5 million metric tonnes (MT) in 1960 to 87 million MT in 2000, and is projected to increase to 249 million MT by the year 2050. Clearly, the importance of developing agricultural crops with enhanced nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) cannot be understated. These crops not only have the potential to lower production costs and reduce environmental pollution, but their increased productively could make a significant contribution to our long-term food security.

Given the complexity of plant physiology, research into the production of transgenic plants with increased NUE is ongoing. Ultimately, all GM crops must be thoroughly assessed on a case-by-case- basis to ensure they meet the stringent safety regulations required by legislation before they can be considered for commercial use.

Source Article: Shrawat, A.K., Carrol, R.T., DePaum, M. et al. (2008). Genetic engineering of improved nitrogen use efficiency in rice by the tissue-specific expression of alanine aminotransferase. Plant Biotechnology Journal. 6: 722-732.

BES Members Interviewed on Plight of UK Bees

Writing in yesterday's Times (Sunday 1st February), Richard Girling explores the plight of bumble and honey bees in the UK. Examining the massive declines in bee populations in the UK, accelerating from 6% of honeybee colonies failing per year in 2003 to over 30% lost each year now, Richard explores the potential causes of the species' perilous state, and the consequences if bee species were to become extinct in the UK.

Two members of the BES were interviewed to inform the article; Professor Dave Goulson, University of Stirling, and Dr Mick Hanley, Plymouth University. We are always keen to hear from members of the BES interested in engaging with the media, and can offer support towards media training if necessary. Please contact the BES Press Officer for more information.