Saturday, 26 November 2016

Upping our game in biological recording

As a follow on to my last post, I note that there was a further post in the NFBR thread that started my thoughts. This new post suggested that there should be engagement between NFBR/NBN and Defra and its agencies to determine how biological recording could 'up its game' in order to attract more funding from them. That has me very worried because I fear that critical evidence is being overlooked.

A little while ago, there was a major outcry because Natural England had decided to cut short its commitment to fund LRCs and would only be making funds available to increase the centralisation of data that is completely freely available. In the meantime, we have seen a vast swathe of natural history curators at regional and national museums made redundant. Funding for long-established monitoring schemes such as the Rothampstead Insect Survey and the National Moth Recording Scheme is also diminishing.

In total, this paints a very clear picture: Government is not committed to supporting biological recording, even if there is genuine good will within Defra and the Country Agencies. Instead, there is an increasing belief that Government data requirements can be provided from volunteers and that the infrastructure that facilitates that voluntary effort is un-necessary. I'm afraid the increasing publicity surrounding 'Citizen Science' generates the idea that there is an untapped wealth of technical capacity to meet data needs. I don't see an untapped source; rather, I see a highly active network of volunteers who are already giving very freely and in places are stretched to the limit.

I would therefore be very wary off talking about 'upping our game'. That suggests that we are not doing enough and that Government is right to think that technical capacity can be replaced by volunteers. I'm not sure it is a fair reflection of what is going on at the moment. The UK has perhaps the finest network of biological recording in the World. True, the Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians do a pretty fantastic job too, but I firmly believe that the UK is in the vanguard. 'Upping our game' can only be translated into – how do we get a quart out of a pint pot? Or, to use modern parlance – how do we achieve efficiency gains and improve productivity?

When it comes to biological recording it is pretty clear where the bottlenecks are:
  • Weaknesses in the infrastructure of professional appointments where technical skills are learned and honed.
  • An increasing demand of data and for data verification using an existing small cohort of specialists.
  • Increasing need for administrative capacity within recording schemes and societies. For example, the majority of specialist societies struggle to recruit key posts such as the secretary or the treasurer.
  • Shortages in people willing to step up to the role of County Recorder when the incumbent steps down.

So, how do we resolve these problems? Well, it is effectively incumbent on the existing organisers, shakers and movers to put in extra effort to try to generate our replacements. And, perhaps, we also need more people to step up to the jobs. Join the local natural history society or Dipterists Forum, BWARS etc, and then take on some of the administrative jobs that make things happen. Or, perhaps, take on the job of local field meetings secretary, County Recorder etc.

I think there are also some very simple things that could be done to assist that long-term investment:

  • A central insurance system for people who are prepared to run field meetings. I had considered setting up a local 'Active Naturalists' group but then I would need insurance to do this.
  • A simple grant system for capital outlay that might assist training programmes – something akin to OPAL.
  • A mechanism to support the publication of new keys and field guides. True, we do have the AIDGAP series, but even this will probably struggle to fund expensive colour productions.
These are just a few thoughts - I am sure there could be more. But, for me, I think we need to be a lot more vocal about what we are already doing and what Government and its agencies are already getting for very limited investment. I think we also need to be a great deal more vocal about what we need to deliver existing aspirations, rather than asking to be hit with more demands.

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