Saturday, 26 November 2016

Increasing biological recording - why and how?

There is an interesting thread on the NFBR Facebook page concerning funding for biological recording.

Rather than place a response on that thread, I thought it might be more helpful to do a longer think-piece that can be easily accessed in the future.

Having run a recording scheme that gets no funding and self-funds (Stuart Ball and I cover costs and subsidise training events), I would be very wary of making any formal ties with funding streams. The more money you take from Government, the more indebted you are to it and as a consquence the more it feels it can dictate what schemes do. Target-setting is inevitable and then we simply become an unpaid arm of Government.

The direction of biological recording

I am decidedly uncomfortable with the way biological recording is going. There is now a huge administrative infrastructure and a comparatively large number of professionals running around looking at ways of increasing biological recording and making use of those records. That is all well and good, but in many ways it has reached the point where organisers of the bigger schemes have to start to spend their time as administrators of recording and not as specialists whose passion was their scheme.

Matt Smaith makes a very good point about scale. It is fine for societies with tens of thousands of members and a paid worksforce to run projects that depend upon co-ordinators and administrators, but the further one goes down the tree (or should I say into the furtherst branches) schemes are dependent upon a very small core of people. BWARS straddles the divide because it is a subscription society. The HRS is of analagous size in terms of the volumes of records it generates, but is totally voluntary. Would we want to become a formal society? NO – it is a nightmare recruiting the necessary officers and just adds to administration. So, I for one will vote to keep independence and to minimise the volumes of paper we churn out.

How, therefore, can we increase biological recording?

I suppose the first question must be: do we need or want to increase recording? My answer is yes we do, because society is becoming increasingly sceptical of scientific analysis. We only need to see the way climate science has been vilified – it is probably believed by less than 50% of the populus and yet the scientific community is thoroughly convinced. Changes in population size and distribution of animals and plants ought to be a fundamental concern to society because they are indicators of the health of Earth's regulatory system. But, the messages they convey are likely to be unwelcome and will be challenged all of the way. So, the data have to be as robust as possible. That means that we need more and better data.

Web-based products to improve recording skills are certainly one answer, but there are places where this is not viable. Likewise, web-based feedback is another. We have seen the phenomenal impact of Facebook; not only on the HRS but also on many other Recording Schemes. Digital media have an obvious place in the mix, but I don't think they are the total answer. What is definitely needed in many areas of species identification is new keys that fit the modern requirement for high levels of illustration and simplification of difficult concepts.

Production of new keys and field guides is an obvious area where a formal society is needed. In the case of Diptera, where would we have been without BENHS who were there and able to attract the grant-aid that made Alan Stubbs' first edition of British Hoverflies possible? The combination of British Hoverflies and British Soldierflies was arguably the trigger for much of modern interest in Diptera as a popular subject rather than a fringe specialism.

So, I wonder if the answer to improving biological recording is actually to find ways of supporting the publication of new generation keys? Stuart and I are working on a new guide to Diptera, but as yet we don't have a publisher. We hope that somebody will come forward, but if they don't then the project will languish in the wings.

In this respect, one has to think back to OPAL and the small-scale funding that it provided. Dipterists Forum and the HRS benefitted greatly from this funding stream: we bought a set of 13 microscopes and a trinocular microscope and camera that has been used on innumerable occasions to run courses. The scale of its impact is demonstrated by the range of venues that we have visited using this equipment: From Lerwick and Kirkwall, to Glasgow, Gateshead, Bangor (N. Wales), Exeter, Studland, Norwich, Cardiff & Bristol. The list is considerably longer than this and I guess we have provided training for around 500 people. It does not stop there, because various other DF members use the equipment to run their own courses. 

Quite how many serious Dipterists have been generated as a result is difficult to say, but even if we have only generated two per year, that adds up to a considerable number after the 8 to 10 years effort that we have made. Looking back, I can think of the Chair/Chair-designate that have become the backbone of Dipterists Forum because of the introductory courses run by the Forum in the past 23 years. It does work, but it is a very slow process!

My feeling is therefore that we need to look at the critical infrastructure that will be used by volunteers. What we need to do is to develop the next generation and imbue them with a similar ethos to ours so that when we decide to retire (or pop our clogs) there is somebody who will take over the baton and do the same again; thus forming a virtuous circle.

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