Monday, 21 May 2018

Is a shortage of biological records the real problem?

Having been alerted to Chris Packham’s call for a wildlife recording revolution, I put on my ‘Mr Grumpy’ hat yet again! It seems to me that there are for ever calls for more ‘citizen science’ and a mass ‘call to arms’ amongst those with limited expertise and masses of enthusiasm. We saw this with the FoE Great British Bee Count and saw its results so neatly expressed in comparative maps produced by BWARS. We have also had an ongoing chorus of effort to increase biological recording through various NBN and OPAL initiatives.

Those of us at the very sharp end of biological recording (i.e. the Recording Schemes) are fully aware that there is a general belief that there are insufficient data. As scheme organisers we ought to be extremely grateful for the raised profile and the flood of incoming records. It therefore feels ungrateful to be saying anything negative but, as is my wont, I feel I do have to say something. Unlike most people I am no ‘shrinking violet’ – I say what needs to be said and am doubtless dismissed as a ‘moaning Minnie’. I’ll bet the groan goes up ‘oh hell, Morris is at it again – I wish that b….r would just shut up and let us get on with generating records’.

Unfortunately, somebody needs to say something because there seems to be a belief that there is a magical expert tree. If the records are there the experts will crawl out just clamouring to deal with them. Well, I don’t see a great deal of evidence for this. There seem to me to be two groups within ‘expert’ circles: those who will engage and those who stick their heads down and avoid any contact with ‘citizen science’. Thus, the actual numbers of specialists who can assist in delivering reliable data are painfully small, and there is a big danger that as demand for their service increases they in turn get so worn out that they don’t want to engage.

A serious discussion is needed

Before we rush into a clamour for more biological records, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we want them and how they are going to be used? That bit of the circle does not seem to have been properly thought through.

When biological recording took off in the 1960s it was all about biogeography – mapping projects. We did not have a clue as to the distribution and abundance of wildlife and the first simple step is to map it and then to look for patterns that relate to environmental factors such as land-cover, lat/long, hard and drift geology, hydrology etc. This first step has very largely been achieved, but today we are also able to link it to climate envelopes and to chart changes that result from climate warming.

In the 1980s there was a real push to develop a way of expressing ‘rarity’. Various Red Data Books emerged. Having had a hand in some of the invertebrate projects I think the best we can say is that at the time we had limited information and at least some of the statuses attributed to species were way out! Over time, we have seen statuses revised and refined; but we have also seen how statuses can change quite dramatically over relatively short periods of time. So, one additional purpose of biological recording must be about monitoring and creation of a feedback loop.

More recently, powerful computing has facilitated a flurry of interest in modelling using a variety of Basian techniques. In theory, modern occupancy models smooth out irregularities of sampling intensity; however, Stuart and I now have robust evidence that the limited spread of most biological recording is skewing outputs. Yes, all models and all datasets show major declines, but the steepness of the decline and the breadth of the decline is affected by the depth of taxonomic coverage. Very little thought is being given to the depth and breadth of records issue.

This brings me on to the critical biological recording bottleneck. As I see it, the problem is not a lack of biological recording. This must be the golden age of biological recording, with datasets growing at unprecedented levels. For the Hoverfly Recording Scheme we have seen record volumes grow from between 20-25,000 a year between 1980 and 2010, to around 60,000 a year since 2016. But it has come at a cost – both Stuart and I spend a great deal more of our lives running the scheme, and we have had to recruit five new assistants to help meet demand. We are still operating at full capacity and if we want to step back and retire (which we do) we must find somebody to take on the central roles. That is easier said than done. I am sure other Recording Schemes find themselves in a similar boat!

So, it is all very well making a call to arms for more recording, but please remember that the whole of the biological recording process is dependent upon a miniscule group of willing technical specialists (‘experts’). That group is not expanding at the same rate as the capacity to generate data. Real ‘expertise’ only develops over many years and after careful analysis of the full range of taxa within one’s subject group. Weeks, months, years of peering down a microscope, comparing preserved specimens, thinking about better ways of identifying species are required to be capable of providing the know-how to ensure that datasets are reliable. These are not skills that can be replaced by a computer (at least yet).

So, the real debate must be about how we meet the demand for reliable data? How do we make the prospect of spending many hours a year validating datasets and providing determinations a desirable thing to do? Most people have partners and families who won’t thank them if they disappear off for hours on end running a recording scheme. Many people with a passion for a technical area won’t want to be bothered checking the umpteenth photograph of a tricky fly, bee or beetle that they know will only be given a reliable determination from a preserved specimen. Indeed, there is still outright antipathy towards ‘citizen science’ amongst a not inconsiderable part of the technically savvy.

Some ideas

We therefore need to make the science of photographic ID and ‘citizen science’ more attractive to people who are inclined to become ‘alpha taxonomists’. I have droned on for a long while that we need to be thinking about a new discipline of ‘live animal taxonomy’.

If I was freed up from the HRS, I would certainly want to put the past ten years’ experience to good use and produce a very different complete guide to Britain’s hoverflies – I have lots of ideas but no time. I think there is wider scope for a Europe-wide project that might have been led by a mixed team of German, Dutch, UK specialists. That would have been a viable European project. Sadly, Brexit has blown that one out of the water – there is no chance of UK funding for such projects and we would bring nothing to the table other than our own willingness to participate – we would be totally dependent upon European money and are soon to be on the outside.

The other big challenge is to look at the composition of Recording Scheme organisation. If record flow increases, we must generate a bigger circle of people involved in the various aspects of data management. Data management is the big drudge job in its various forms, including active data farming (from Facebook), data gathering (from independent recorders) and data verification; plus, of course actually managing the database and importing data.

There are three areas where there has, however, been real progress. Firstly, we have seen that Facebook groups are great media for mentoring basic ID skills. I have been greatly impressed with the progress of several people on the UK Hoverflies Facebook page – their participation certainly eases the pressure on the ‘resident experts’ (Ian Andrews, Joan Childs, Geoff Wilkinson and me).

Even more importantly, we have seen a substantial shift towards group members maintaining their own spreadsheets. This is a significant shift because it means that there is a growing group of recorders in whom we have confidence and who have the confidence to make their own records. It has vastly eased the burden on me – had this shift not happened I would have had to pack up for my own sanity’s sake!

Finally, there is no shortage of data analysts. Various University groups regularly make use of HRS and other opportunistic data and there are also independent analysts and PhD students to whom we have supplied data. But, for me, there is a fly in the ointment. When we took on the Recording Scheme it was my hope that we (i.e. Stuart and I) would do a lot of the analytical work and actually publish some ground-breaking work. Today, the workload is such that the best we can do is to assemble data and pass it on to someone else to do the real science. I’m not sure that is what I signed up for and I certainly have not signed up to servicing the biological record production industry!

So, some thought needs to go into making sure that the question is asked ‘what makes a Recording Scheme organiser tick and how do we make running a scheme attractive?’

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