Saturday, 15 October 2016

Data for data's sake

Aaron M. Ellison's article in Nature (11 October) gave considerable food for thought. It got me thinking about the issue of data and what we use it for. Is there a tendency for researchers to call for more and better data even though the real power of data may not be at the level of minutiae? It is much the same as the usual caveats about monitoring after a development project.

I have seen far too many cases where there has been a 'monitoring' package that is far too woolly and unfocussed to generate any real enlightenment about the impact (or otherwise) of a particular project. In development cases, what is proposed is often more closely aligned to what the developer is willing/able to pay for and not what is needed to pick up causal links. I concluded a long while ago that much of this monitoring was of very limited value and that conservationists rarely kept much of an eye on its outputs. In my experience, an agreement is made, the development takes place and a lot of expensive 'monitoring' is carried out. The resulting reports are rarely scrutinised by anybody in sufficient detail to determine whether they have actually served their purpose, and any critical lessons are rarely, if ever, learned.

As an example, I will use the monitoring for South Humber Bank Power Station back in the mid-1990s. ERM did an excellent piece of work that clearly showed that shorebirds were not affected by pile-driving – they habituated very rapidly. This same piece of work drew attention the the daft anomaly whereby a developer was expected to put in place millions of pounds of measures to protect birds from noise and human disturbance, whilst those same birds were constantly disturbed by dog walkers (and dogs), fishermen (beachcasting) and even by birders. The list of 'other' disturbances was shocking.

I certainly drew a lot of conclusions from this and regularly cited the report. I also marked it as a critical report when I left EN's Wakefield office. Two years later I wanted access to the report but the local team could not locate it. I went back to Wakefield to look for it and found it: when I left, I had carefully laid out all the the critical documentation with carefully compiled notes so that my successor had an idea of what mattered. The following day the they had simply piled all the documents up, put them in boxes and dumped them in a corner of a store cupboard. Nobody knew a thing and that explained why I was regularly rung up with queries. What a waste of three weekends on my part – I should not have bothered!

Do we need more data?

In the early days of English Nature many of us were shocked by the message from above that we had sufficient data and that there was no need to collect any more! That saw the demise of survey teams such as the 'England Field Unit'. In fairness, we were in a very difficult financial state but that does not justify the statement that we don't need new data. Subsequent events have shown that there is an ongoing need for new and better data, but that it must be collected and USED, rather than simply collected to sit in unread and forgotten reports.

That brings me on to what sort of data should we collect? In terms of biological recording, data on all taxa are needed. BUT, I would argue that there is a crying need for better data on more obscure taxa and, more particularly, people who actually understand what they mean. Thus, those who wish to pursue a career in conservation I think the critical issue is to be both a user and a contributor of data. That means developing field skills and then pursuing a course of investigation that takes you beyond the comfort zone of popular groups. If we don't see a significant expansion in skills in less popular taxa they will always be Cinderella subjects and will not gain traction when used to justify the case for conservation.

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