Peter Marren: Wildlife doesn't live in a laboratory

Ecology needs experienced field workers and these, it seems, are about to be squandered

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Are universities the only places where worthwhile scientific research can be successfully carried out? Such a proposition might come as a surprise to, say, the scientists of the world-renowned Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, attached to the UK Met Office, who are at the forefront of studies of global warming. Yet such seems to be the reasoning that ultimately lies behind the remarkable and controversial decision to close down Britain's three leading wildlife research centres at Monks Wood in Cambridgeshire, Winfrith in Dorset and Banchory near Aberdeen.

All three centres, which are part of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), have done wonderful work on advancing our understanding of the natural world. Wildlife and environmental bodies such as Friends of the Earth and the RSPB can scarcely credit why the centres are being closed at the very time when government has committed itself to halting losses in biodiversity by the year 2010. As revealed today in The Independent, the Government's own wildlife watchdog, English Nature, has voiced "major concerns" over the proposals and has appealed to CEH to think again.

The reason appears to lie in a particular view of how scientific research ought to be funded - and perhaps more importantly, what scientific research ought to be funded. The best public indication of this came in a highly significant exchange last month between Lord Sainsbury, the "science and innovation" minister responsible for NERC, and the Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology.

His Lordship praised NERC, the parent body of CEH, for grasping the nettle. "CEH has seen a fall in contract research in recent years," he claimed. It was becoming "too specialised". He went on: "In today's multi-disciplinary world, basic research increasingly should be done in a multi-disciplinary environment like universities."

So Monks Wood, Winfrith and Banchory shouldn't really be doing what they're doing at all. Universities should be doing it instead. Why? Let us tease out the reasons. One is about money. Environmental research, being often long-term and field-based, is expensive. Lord Sainsbury says that the CEH centres are not making enough money from letting private research contracts. This means they are more dependent than they might otherwise be on the Government's limited science budget, which the NERC helps to distribute.

They are thus taking up funding which the universities, prominent science budget customers themselves, would very much like to get their hands on. That is a view which undoubtedly finds sympathy on the NERC governing council: of its 18 members, no fewer than 11 are university professors or holders of senior university posts.

The other issue is less obvious. What does Lord Sainsbury mean by saying the centres are "too specialised" and need to go somewhere "multi-disciplinary"? In essence, he is referring to the fact that the centres focus on one discipline in particular: ecology. So he wants the work to be transferred to places where they do many things besides ecology. So he is questioning, even if implicitly, the value of ecology, or at least its centrality.

In reality, the CEH centres are far from being ivory towers isolated from the world. Each is embedded in its local academic environment with strong ties, built up over many years, with universities and other research institutions. Their work, among the most accessible of any research body, includes the long-term effect of pesticides, the study of natural processes in natural habitats; the sustainable management of important species like grouse and red deer; and the assiduous monitoring of seabirds, butterflies and other environmentally sensitive wildlife, all of which are likely to be affected by climate change. The three threatened centres can fairly claim to have the best record long-term research record of any country in Europe, if not the world.

Yet there remains a view among some scientists that all this doesn't really count, doesn't really cut it, in the scientific stakes. Ecology, the study of the way organisms react with one another and with their environment, is a field-based discipline with its roots in natural history. Ecologists ask questions like how animal populations regulate their numbers. How do birds synchronise their breeding to coincide with food availability?

The universities are not the ideal bodies for this kind of research. For a start, there are very few ecologists. The big growth areas are in molecular biology and applied biology, such as food technology. Universities are a kind of academic free market: people go where the cash is and the opportunities lie. Where is the guarantee that they will suddenly be able to take over from Monks Wood, Winfrith and Banchory?

What we are witnessing is a clash of cultures between sexy, lab-based, cutting-edge science and slow, patient, plodding field-work. But our wildlife doesn't live in a lab. Ecology needs experienced field workers and, it seems, these are about to be squandered.

Unless the Government intervenes that is what will happen. Somebody very senior in Government must realise very soon what these cuts will mean, and intervene to stop them.

The writer is the author of 'Nature Conservation: a Review of The Conservation of Wildlife in Britain' (Collins)

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