Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Is better funding the answer to improved biological recording?

My post yesterday generated an interesting thread on the issue of funding biological recording. Is this the solution to an apparent dearth of records in taxa such as slugs or ground beetles; or for that matter hoverflies, bees or other pollinating insects?

I think the issue is a bit more complicated than simply money. For a start, you have to be very clear what you want data for, before throwing large amounts of money at it. In yesterday's example it was studies into a Section 41 species, which arguably means money needed to commission extensive single-species surveys, which are probably the only way of generating the presence/absence data that might help some aspects of autecological work. However, even those sorts of studies will not say that a species is absent, they can only say that it was not found when looked for, so a level of caution remains. Nevertheless, money could be injected into surveys for Section 41 species [the species in question (Carabus intricatus) was a species targeted by English Nature's 'Species Recovery Programme'].

Do targeted surveys solve the problem though? I recall one classic study into the 'Phantom Hoverfly' Doros profuges that lasted 3 years and in the entire time not a single record was generated. One has to conclude that it was probably not the greatest 'value for money' but the exercise did show how difficult it is to gather information on some of our rarer, or perhaps more elusive species. From what I can see from the data, Doros profuges is likely to be doing something that makes it scarce, rather than it necessarily being all that scarce where it occurs.

Current data needs

The big challenge at the moment is how to reverse the massive overall decline in invertebrate life. There has been a lot of noise about data derived from a 27-year German Malaise Trap programme. That noise also implied that the UK lacked the necessary data to detect declines (apart from butterflies and possibly moths). The German work was based on traps run by 'amateur' entomologists who conducted the massive task of sampling, sorting and identifying each year's material. The people who did this were not the 'average man on the street' but a highly skilled team that includes some of western Europe's best taxonomists and conservation scientists. The only reason you would call them 'amateur' is that they did the job for nothing and probably would not have taken it on if it was a paid task because it is such a huge and often un-rewarding job.

Could such a similar dataset have been assembled in the UK? Well, yes it probably could, had there been the willpower, insight and sheer determination by a big enough group of individuals. But there is the rub - a big enough group of individuals that see this sort of work as their priority. Running Malaise Traps is no easy task; indeed, any project that samples systematically and in large volumes is not a job for the faint-hearted! I regularly provide identifications for academic projects that run Malaise Traps and it takes an awful lot of time to do the identifications, let alone the basic sorting.

Yet, as I have previously written, I think there is a case to be made for establishing a Malaise Trap programme (posts of 11 & 12 November). The crucial point about this sort of programme is that it needs to run for at least 10 years before any meaningful outputs emerge, so if it were to be a funded programme the sums involved would be astronomical. To use an example, I ran the Dungeness Invertebrate Survey using pan traps and pitfall traps in the late 1980s (with Mark Parsons). It ran for two years and would have cost somewhere in the order of £80,000 including support costs. In today's money that would probably be closer to £200,000. It depended very largely on Recording Scheme organisers to do the identifications, so the real cost would have been a great deal higher if their time had been paid for at consultancy rates. I rather doubt any scheme organiser would readily volunteer to help on this sort of project today because the demands on their time are so much greater now. So, what would the German Malaise Trap programme have cost? Many millions I suspect!

So, what are the alternatives?

UK biodiversity data is predominantly derived from the work of countless 'Citizen Scientists' that range from the technical specialist and leader in their field, to the person who enjoys a walk in the countryside and posts their resulting photographs on iSpot in order to find out what they have seen. Each has a place in the process, but the whole thing is utterly dependent upon the very small number of people who have acquired the necessary technical skills and are willing to share those skills with a wider community; not every specialist will do this and I know a lot who won't go near photographic recording. Indeed, it has  been commented to me by various specialists (on several occasions) that I am wasting my time and I would be doing more good engaging in private ecological or taxonomic studies.

Assembling the data from these sources is no small task. To the relative newcomer it may appear to be a random and unfathomable process that fails to take full account of modern technology. Unfortunately, what we see today is the result of 150 years or more of recording using the most viable means of the day:

  • Until the 1970s notebooks and diaries plus odd notes in Natural History journals were the only way to disseminate data. These, plus Museum collections provide the foundations for what we know about the history of our wildlife assets. Some of these repositories have been converted into modern accessible data, but there are vast amounts still to do.
  • In the 1960s and early 1970s we saw the growth in biological recording closer to its current form. The BSBI plant atlas was perhaps the crucial model, but by then some natural historians were running their own card indexes - I recall the remarkable AA (Tony) Allen who always seemed to be able to write a note quoting various records that he had clearly noted in some voluminous index (or he had a brain the size of a planet). By now, early computing was making it possible to produce dot maps and these became the rage for about 25 years - national and local atlas schemes were in vogue. Why? because we did not have the internet and the printed word was the only way of making information accessible.
  • By the mid-1980s personal computers were becoming available to the masses, and the more adventurous (or able) designed their own databases, that morphed into the current pillar of many biological records centres: RECORDER.
  • By the 1990s, personal computers had become sufficiently  accessible (and powerful) that biological recording schemes started to take on the data management process themselves. They did so because there was totally inadequate central funding for data management - in the case of the Hoverfly Recording Scheme we digitised about 175,000 records from record cards - who now would even know what a RA33 or a Gen7 was? It was darned slow and tedious work but done by volunteers because there was no money (especially after 1991 and the dismembering of the NCC).
  • Then came the Rio Convention and the development of 'Biodiversity Action Plans'. A whole industry of BAP emerged with relative novices running around compiling great tomes on what occurred where and what was important in a local context. The 1990s was the decade of BAP planning ('plans, plans and more b..... plans' I remember was the catchphrase of one ports industry commentator). BUT, this episode highlighted the need for better co-ordinated data management and we started to see the growth of bespoke 'Local Records Centres'. This was partly driven because there was an obvious local need as the Habitats Directive started to bite and local authorities and developers needed to know where protected species occurred. The desktop computer had come of age and it was being put to good use in biological recording - less than a generation ago.
  • A network of Local Records Centres is all well and good, but biodiversity reporting demands central access to information; hence the need for better co-ordination and the growth of the NBN and its online facilities; hence too the development of GBIF at a global scale. The advent of the NBN has been accompanied by a massive growth in the facilities available for data capture - major investments by the Statutory Agencies and some NGOs.

So, here we are today after a long journey of system development - a great system for acquiring and processing data. We have iRecord, innumerable specialist online data acquisition systems ranging from the BTO's excellent 'Birdtrack' to the Mammal Society's online facility. They have generated a great deal of new interest in biological recording because it is relatively easy to input data (and you can re-access your records without having to resort to pen and paper or personal spreadsheet if you so wish).

But, biological recording is not only about acquiring and disseminating data. It is about feet on the ground, hand lenses, microscopes and so much more. If you want data you have to have the skilled technicians to generate it! Where are they? 'Citizen Scientists' of course!

Data suppliers - the reality

Most recording schemes rely on a minuscule number of diligent and technically  competent recorders. In the case of the Hoverfly Recording Scheme that comprised just 20 people across the country who supplied 50% of the data up to 2011. Since 2011 the situation has changed markedly, with the numbers of records arriving each year having doubled from between 25-30,000 to 50-60,000 records. BUT the numbers of recorders who do the tricky identifications has not risen in line - if anything they have dropped - we have lost several of our most diligent recorders in the last decade - the Grim Reaper marches on! Meanwhile, as I have previously shown, this change in recording effort is affecting the composition of the data and therefore the story they convey, if incorrectly interpreted.

Also, now, we rely on technical specialists such as me, and the 'Resident Team' on the HRS Facebook page to provide identification and verification services. This is a new task and one that has ballooned in the past five years. We have no greater capacity but far more demands on our time. So, instead of sitting at the microscope identifying material beyond the limits of my own scheme, I sit at the computer identifying and extracting records of hoverflies - the HRS gains records (volume) whilst other recording schemes lose out!

What would increased funding do for biological recording?

My example of survey costs tells a lot about what the costs are for assembling data. Bearing in mind there are perhaps 50,000 plant and animal taxa in Britain, and there are about 2,900 land hectads (10km squares) the costs of improving data by commissioned surveys and increased numbers of technical specialists would be immense. And, that is BEFORE we enter the marine environment where the costs rocket to immense figures. What is more, to achieve that sort of skill level you need skilled trainers - the same people who currently run the recording schemes and provide the validation and identification services. There are only 24 hours in a day and those people, by and large, are already operating at capacity - there is no spare capacity.

So, yes you could throw money at biological recording but in the end it boils down to a dearth of technical specialists and ever-increasing demands placed on those who have until now been willing to shoulder the task. Will that continue? Well, I for one would like to retire from running a scheme - but can/will only do so when we have replacements lined up, willing and able. It is a daunting task and not one that is likely to appeal to anybody with aspirations to have a family or a life!


  1. Spot on Roger. There has been a massive thrust to broaden the base of biological recording in the last 15 years, but the base of the pyramid is now so broad that the few people (such as yourself) who have spent decades scaling the dizzy heights and now sit near, or at, the top of the pyramid see more and more demands on them. The wastage between initial enthusiasm through the hard graft of years of building the skillset before becoming competent enough to verify material broadly is immense.

    We need a broad base, but it takes a lot of time to develop the next generation of taxonomic specialists and experts who can operate competently at the top of that pyramid

  2. "you could throw money at biological recording but in the end it boils down to a dearth of technical specialists". If it was my money I'd "throw" it at raising new cohorts of technical specialists and material (field guides/keys). Next question then becomes how many potential specialists there are, especially considering they will almost all probably have to be amateurs.

  3. A major problem of finding taxonomic specialists is that there is no funding for long term salaries. A young graduate who wants to devote their career to UK Diptera can look forward to a series of short term posts, none centred on their target, and with no real interest in their speciality fron the funders. The alternative path is the one that Roger has taken, to become a an ecologist funded by the need for environmental impact statements. Taxonomy can never deliver a large enough return on the investment to fund professionals.
    The alternative then is to develop amateur expertise. Amateurs can commit to many years effort and make long term plans, far longer than any professional. They also do not retire, not until ill health forces them to. The problem is that they lack resources: journal access, lab facilities for DNA barcoding, funding to go to conferences, and equipment. If we could devise a scheme whereby amateurs could team up with Universities and Research Institutes so that their expertise was recognised and rewarded we would also have a mechanism for distributing such funds as are available to the area where they will deliver the maximum return.
    In writing this I do have in mind the legacy of 19th century taxonomy, with countless clergymen collecting and cataloguing beetles. We now see their work as the essential foundation of modern taxonomy, but what we tend to forget is that many of them were serious workers who just happened to have a parish to support their ork

  4. I'm afraid I don't do Environmental Statements Gustav - I trade as a coastal geomorphologist dealing in the impacts of dredging, port development and coastal defences. BUT there is no work at the moment.