Â· Academics hope list will influence policy decisions
Â· Old and new controversies covered in debate
David Adam, environment correspondent
Monday August 21, 2006
Scientists have drawn up a list of the 100 biggest questions to face the UK environment, including controversies such as whether farmers should be allowed to kill badgers to protect their cattle from disease and how many seabirds are slaughtered by wind farms.
The list, a roll call of Britain’s most pressing ecological problems, is based on the suggestions of more than 650 experts in universities, conservation groups and government institutes. It is intended to inform policy-makers and steer research over the next decade to answer key questions in areas such as farming, climate change, pollution and urban development.
Bill Sutherland, an ecologist at the University of East Anglia who led the exercise, said: “I was very nervous about this and whether it would work because I don’t think anything like it has been done before. But scientists tend to think that policy-makers ignore the science and this was an attempt to narrow that gap.”
The list includes current controversies in environmental science, and introduces some new ones. It asks whether there is evidence that organic farms are better for the environment, as supporters claim. It revisits the problem of whether badgers spread bovine TB to cattle. And it raises the thorny issue of the damage that domestic cats might be doing to bird and animal populations, a long-standing question that ecologists rarely voice in case they anger the UK’s millions of pet owners.
Dr Sutherland said the list was an attempt to get politicians to base decisions more on the available scientific evidence, similar to the way medics treat patients based on pooled results rather than individual experience. His team published the questions in a report this month in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
Several of the questions cover the indirect environmental effects of government decisions in related fields, such as energy. Groups including the RSPB have objected to large wind farms, such as the one planned for the Isle of Lewis, because they argue not enough is known about their impact on wildlife. Scientists in Norway recently reported that coastal wind turbines there were responsible for a spate of sea eagle deaths, and are now investigating how to keep the birds away from the blades.
The experts who compiled the list also want to know more about the environmental impact of other forms of renewable energy, including wave power.
Some of the questions are “effectively unanswerable”, the report admits, while others are “essentially too vague”. For that, Dr Sutherland says we should blame the policy-makers, who had the final say and deliberately broadened the specific problems posed by the scientists.
The report says: “Scientists are frequently best equipped to answer specific questions. This means it may be necessary to extract the underpinning question before researchers can proceed.”
The original survey gathered 1,003 suggested questions – including “if the government gave more money to ecologists, would the country be better off?”. These were whittled down during a two-day exercise at the University of East Anglia in February 2005.
The suggestions were printed and pasted across the walls and the policy experts invited to mark their favourites with sticky labels. (The scientists were there to advise only, and, in the words of Dr Sutherland, “to make the tea”.)
Paul Armsworth, a lecturer in the animal and plant science department at the University of Sheffield, said the exercise was among the strangest experiences of his career. “For a nerdy scientist who usually sits at my desk this was a very physical experience. It was very much a one-off – a unique and ground-breaking effort.”
The final 100 cover 14 different topics. “By the end of the mayhem, there was too much exhaustion in the room for the final 100 to be announced with a drum roll or toasted with champagne, it was more a sense of satisfaction and collective relief that we’d made it,” Dr Armsworth said.
While some questions are complex and could take years to solve, others are more straightforward, he added. “There are a few bite-sized projects there and for hungry PhD students, they’re absolute sitters.”
Dr Sutherland would not be drawn on how much it would cost to fund research to answer all of the questions, though he said the exercise had already thrown up one useful pointer to the policy-makers. “Some of the original questions have already been answered and that’s quite a serious problem because it shows that scientific results are quite hard to access in the primary literature.”
How long does the seabed take to recover from dredging, wind farm construction and oil and gas extraction?
How does the ecological impact of UK farming compare internationally?
What are the ecological impacts of airports?
What are the ecological impacts of faecal matter, pesticides and undigested food flows from aquaculture?
How can we better understand diseases within wildlife reservoirs to protect humans and livestock?
What impact does plastic litter have on the marine environment?
How can we measure natural capital (renewable and non renewable resources) and integrate such a measure into GDP?
What are the effects of light pollution on wildlife?
Which habitats and species might we lose completely in the UK because of climate change?
What hedgerow structure and management produce the greatest wildlife benefits?
How can flood control be assisted by habitat management and what are the impacts on biodiversity?
Conservation and endangered species
Global fishing crisis
Waste and pollution
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites)
IUCN – the world conservation union
Joint Nature Conservation Committee
Marine Conservation Society
WWF UK: endangered species
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