Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Is the biological recording community ageing?

When I started in entomology some 40 years ago I attended the meetings of the entomology section of the Croydon Natural History Society. The section was chaired by Ken Evans who was a great inspiration and very kindly provided transport to several of us younger entomologists to moth trapping venues. At that time there were respectable numbers of young members of the section – apart from 'yours truly' there was Graham Collins, Mike and James Halsey, David Lees, with a slightly older generation comprising the likes of Jim Porter and Roger Hawkins. Several of that group have gone on to be quite influential in today's entomological World. I am told that the section is still running but that there are no new recruits – it is getting older and its numbers are diminishing.

Similar declines in attendance and membership are reported by other societies and there is a perception at least that the numbers of up-and-coming entomologists are declining. Is this really the case? Somehow I doubt it.

A common view is that as Universities no longer teach taxonomy, these skills are being lost. But is this really true either? I look back to my taxonomy-dominated undergraduate days – both at A-level and in my first and second years at Uni and wonder whether my interest/involvement in invertebrates was strictly generated by that experience? I certainly moved towards an interest in moths as a result of one field course, but I don't think the teaching element necessarily prepared me for any work involving insect taxonomy and in particularly Diptera.

It would be fair to say that the course was responsible for basic analytical skills and probably the 'confidence' to try keys. After that I was on my own and dependent upon interactions with others more skilled than me. For that I relied upon membership of various societies and meeting and discussing with both my peers and the then luminaries of those bodies. To my mind, the opportunity to engage with people with more experience than me was of particular importance.

Fast forward to 2015. Relatively few young people attend society meetings and the general view is that the next generation just is not out there. I think this is a misconception because those such as me are long in the tooth and still rely on personal contact. We even enjoy meeting people and attending field meetings, AGMs and other events that bring together like-minded individuals. Our successors work in a different paradigm – that of the electronic media. Various Facebook forums are populated by a wide range of age classes and although one gets the feeling that a substantial proportion of contributors to the UK Hoverflies page are not in the first phase of youth there iare numerous of young entomologists.

The big question that follows is whether that new generation will be willing to take on the sorts of roles that have traditionally maintained a community of special interests such as hoverflies etc? My guess is that they will, but that depends upon the ways in which the older generation recognises and adapts to a changing World. It is we that must think in new ways, otherwise the structures that we cherish will fade away. BUT, I think there remains a place for the traditional society and for the contributions that they make to field biology.

If one simply looks at interactive media as a way of immediately satisfying needs for assistance with identification or sharing the excitement of a recent find, then the traditional society will become redundant. That is only part of the story, however.

Many of the most important initiatives and activities have resulted from these societies. For example, there would be no Hoverfly Recording Scheme as we know it today without the BENHS, who sought out the grant that allowed the first edition of Stubbs and Falk to be published (for that matter, there would not be the Wildguide either because we would not have taken up the HRS). Major taxonomic works at affordable prices is something that societies can make possible. The alternative is the Fauna Ent. Scand. series, where the publications are so expensive they can only be afforded by a few specialists. Yes there will be popular books such as Britain's Hoverflies but the chances of another Stubbs & Falk would be very remote because sales are not high and profits will be marginal.

Of course one could argue that the future of publication lies in electronic media. That may be true – I am too long in the tooth to envisage a World without books but it may be on its way (sadly). Even so, books don't just happen – they need the authors but they also need peer-review, editing, formatting and publishing – tasks that demand a range of skills. So, there remains the need to create a forum that is capable of bringing together those disparate skills. Such a forum is analagous to a Society, so in all respects there remains a need for Societies. There is therefore a place for young people to join societies and to get involved.

The question then must be 'why is society membership ageing?' Perhaps part of the problem is that electronic media have left the traditional society behind and it is time for societies to re-invent themselves in an electronic age. On-line resources are an obvious way forward, but providing those resources is actually not without costs. Hosting websites is not expensive but it does require funds and it also requires continuity – not just altruism on the part of a benevolant individual. There will be other costs if communally beneficial projects are to be initiated and maintained. If the communty relies on individual altruism the situation will arise when a major supporter dies and the society dies with them. So, it might be argued that there remains a need for formal societies to provide the necessary platform for interaction.

Thus, it seems to me that there is a two-way process to be pursued. On the one hand the old guard must embrace new technology and the communication medium that it provides. Meanwhile, the next generation must engage and join societies to make sure that the platforms for engagement are maintained. Those of us who currently deliver particular roles are simply the custodians of an ongoing legacy. We must support and enthuse a further generation, whilst they in turn must rise to the challenge and take on the mantle as the old guard gives ground and makes way for new blood.

This paradigm is one that all recording scheme organisers need to consider too. They (we) do not own the schemes; rather we are custodians and guardians who need to foster a new generation and make sure that our successors are well established before we have to give up. This seems to me to be the next big challenge for the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. Stuart and I have run it for nearly 25 years. We have plenty of energy to go on, but there is a danger that we will kill the scheme by staying in place for too long and not giving space for a new generation to become established. It is a dilemma that we are starting to consider.

Our training programme was the first step in that direction – growing the constituency and the capacity. The Facebook page is arguably a second stage in which a wider constituency has been built and potential replacements have started to show themselves. The next stage must be to expand the team, spread the load and make sure there is a new cohort of 'names and faces'; after which we must subside into the background and let others run the scheme along the lines that they see fit.

So maybe the critical slogan is: The society is dead. Long live the society!

1 comment:

  1. This film was made by researchers interested in older and younger people coming together in an "inter-generational space" for a common interest at a natural history society and how knowledge is passed on. We are social creatures, but societies do need to be consciously welcoming of younger age groups if they are to carry on.