Making Brexit work for ecology and conservation science

Nathalie Pettorelli

This month, the State of Nature report was released, which provides an update on how wildlife is faring across the UK and its seas, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. News isn’t good: 60% of the 3148 species assessed have declined over the last 50 years, while 31% have declined strongly. Of more than 6,000 species that have been assessed using modern Red List criteria, more than one in ten are thought to be under threat of extinction. 

The State of Nature report has one strong message: nature in the UK isn’t doing well, and requires attention now. Yet, we don’t hear much about environmental agendas and vision for Nature in the UK right now. Brexit has certainly been making the headlines since June, but the attention is on sovereignty, trade and immigration, and not on biodiversity, environmental standards or ecosystem services.

This oversight could lead to bad decisions being made in the rush, as for example environmental considerations are intrinsically embedded with discussions on trade, yet these considerations do not seem to be taken into account. Environmental management in the face of a biodiversity crisis moreover requires excellent science to inform possible actions, yet the delivery of scientific excellence itself is being put at risk from the potential outcomes of Brexit negotiations.

With this in mind, we (that is a consortium of scientists and policy officers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the British Ecological Society, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Royal Society of Biology and the Wildlife and Countryside Link) decided to organise a high profile scientific evening to highlight the key role UK science plays in helping our society address current and upcoming environmental challenges. A typical environmental challenge we had in mind is climate change, which is one of the many critical environmental issues for science and innovation that the government will need to consider when it enters into its negotiations.

Making Brexit Work for Ecology and Conservation Science event. Left to right: Laura Bellingan (Chair); Dr Elaine King, Professor Sir John Beddington, Professor Graeme Reid and Professor Sue Hartley
Left to right: Laura Bellingan (Chair); Dr Elaine King, Professor Sir John Beddington, Professor Graeme Reid and Professor Sue Hartley

Our first speaker was Professor Sir John Beddington CMG FRS, who is a Senior Adviser at the Oxford Martin School and was previously UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (2008–2013); Sir John is also ZSL’s President. His introduction to the global environmental context was flawless, highlighting how countries such as the UK will have to contend with a pre-determined future that includes challenges associated with increased resource consumption and urbanisation as well as changes in climatic conditions. 

Prof Sue Hartley, President of the British Ecological Society, then went on to discuss challenges and opportunities of Brexit when it comes to environmental policies, with a particular reference to the Common Agricultural Policy and the challenges of designing a better alternative that delivers on biodiversity, food production and other services.

Sue’s overall message was clear: it’s time to mobilise, not to mourn; opportunities to improve on what’s been done so far exist, and this is the time to seize them and engage with the government, businesses and the public. 

Our third speaker was Dr Elaine King, Director of the Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL), a unique coalition of 45 voluntary organisations concerned with the conservation and protection of wildlife and the countryside in the UK. Elaine’s presentation provided numerous examples of what can be achieved when multiple entities stand together with one voice; her message: this is the time to join forces and think collectively about the best ways to ensure that the environment is a clear priority post-Brexit.

Professor Graeme Reid, the chairman of the Campaign for Science & Engineering, was our last speaker before opening the floor to questions and discussions. Graeme has a long history of interactions with policy makers and governmental bodies, and provided a splendid insight as to how to best convey messages to this particular audience. My favourite quote: "Always remember that making noise doesn’t systematically mean having an impact."

Other wisdoms from Graeme: act together, but think before you act, and make sure you have your messages right and supported by evidence; remember to look for the easy wins, as these are the ones that can get you a place at the negotiations table. 

Ultimately, this event was about making the point that the UK already possesses a world-class scientific community, which is capable of informing governmental decisions in the face of environmental uncertainty and is willing to help. It argued that this national asset needs to be protected and the interests of science and the environment should not be lost in the noise of the wider immigration, sovereignty and trade debates. 

This event was also about demonstrating that there are various organisations ready to work together to fight for science and the environment, and that options for any individual wanting to contribute to these efforts do exist. Admittedly, this event was only one of the many steps needed to secure the best outcomes from Brexit for UK biodiversity. Much remains to be done, but there’s certainly a lot of determination and willingness to help around. 

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