Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the British Ecological Society

  1.  The British Ecological Society (BES) welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Committee and notes that a two-month period has been provided for the consultation, in line with government guidelines.

  2.  The BES is the oldest ecological society in the world having been established in 1913. Since 1980 it has been a charitable company limited by guarantee. Membership is open to all those who are genuinely interested in ecology, whether in the British Isles or abroad, and membership currently stands at 4,200, about half of whom are from overseas. The members are employed in a wide variety of professional capacities including academics, environmental scientists in government and industry, biology and geography teachers as well as environmental consultants and planners.

  3.  The Society's income is entirely derived from membership subscriptions, the sale of its learned journals and investment income. The Officers of the Society are elected by the membership, and unpaid except for small honoraria for editors. The Society maintains a London office with five staff headed by an Executive Secretary to administer the Society's many activities. Around 25 per cent of the income is spent on administration.

  4.  The BES receives no government funding in any form. Besides publishing scientific journals it runs educational projects, supports ecological expeditions overseas and provides small grants for ecological studies world-wide. In recent years the Society has also been publishing a range of educational booklets for the public and policy makers on topical ecological problems such genetically modified organisms, fisheries management, land management and the CAP, the destruction of coral and water quality.

  5.  The Public Affairs Committee of the BES is responsible for organising and providing independent scientific comment on government green papers and departmental policy documents. It undertakes such activity where the subject matter is of sufficient interest from an ecological viewpoint and when adequate time is allowed for consultation—sadly Departments often abuse this latter point. In many recent cases the BES has chosen to make a joint reply with other interested learned societies through the Institute of Biology.

  6.  The Society has recently established a web site ( through which it intends to increase its communication with the public interested in ecology and its application, and establish a more vibrant internal discussion between its members on areas of topical concern.

  7.  The Society is a member of the Parliamentary and Science Committee and attends those meetings with an ecological component. The Society is also represented at the Environmental Audit Committee.

  8.  The BES considers that good policy making requires informed judgements and in respect of science it seems unfortunate that so few members of Parliament have an adequate scientific background in a society that is science and technology based. Looking to the future the BES is concerned that government has so far made inadequate efforts to place sustainability as a core requirement of all policymaking in all Departments. Despite some positive indications, such as enthusiastic support for the Kyoto agreement and the Darwin Initiative, there is little evidence of adequate understanding of the need for hard choices if the environment and the quality of life are to be protected for future generations.

  9.  A more effective interaction between the scientific community and the public would benefit both and provide Government with a more informed electorate. However, MORI polls show that government scientists are believed to be less trustworthy than NGO scientists, who frequently lack both the data and the qualifications to speak with authority. Yet the government's manipulation of the scientific findings of those employed in the Civil Service and the Agencies has been a major element in spreading distrust of science and its findings. Many learned societies, who could be providing an independent voice in these affairs, have also considered that they should not become involved in scientific discussions that develop overt political or ethical overtones, thus depriving the public of independent and reliable information and leaving the field open to misinformation provided by overtly political groups. The Royal Society, as the premier scientific society in the UK, has been attempting to provide leadership here, but unfortunately (as with other learned societies) too often in recent years its input has been too late, and too inaccessible for the public to understand.

  10.  The BES would contend that improvements in communicating science to the public are not simply linked to the provision of finance. The publication of "Open Channels" by POST in March 2001 provided a good summary of the forms of dialogue and experiences up to that point with using them. The latest OST initiative, moving the focus away from talking at the public to discussing the options with the public, is a clear lead in the right direction but will not be simple or cheap to implement. A more scientifically literate electorate, both inside and outside Parliament, is what is required but it will take some time to achieve. In the mean time government should actively promote policy discussion, avoid suppressing ecological and environmental information produced by government labs and instead take the opportunity to explain publicly what it means. Continuing encouragement for learned societies to provide input to policy making through consultations and workshops is also welcome.

  11.  One continuing problem is the expectation of certainty in advice. By its very nature science can only provide advice based on the most probable conclusions from the existing data. Despite the comments from some politicians, it is clear that the public can understand uncertainty in a particular framework, as the record receipts in the betting industry show, but the concept seems to be difficult for the public and government to grasp in the context of science. Ministers in particular should be active in developing the recognition that scientific uncertainty must be accepted as a normal part of decision and policy making, and that it is in many respects much more reliable than the economic forecasting with which government can apparently deal.

  12.  There is a long way to go to achieve the goals outlined above. The BES recognises that science is only one element in policy making but in a complex technological society such as ours it merits special attention. The BES hopes that the outcome of this investigation will provide some new incentives and suggestions that will help reduce public disquiet at science, increase the level and quality of public debate and recognise the importance of good environmental management in ensuring an adequate quality of life for future generations.

April 2002

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