Tag Archives: optimism

Focus on Brexit at BES2019: Resigned But Resolute

Image Credit: Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

I’m in Belfast this week for the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting. Whilst I’ll write a more comprehensive summary of the event next week, for now I want to talk (again) about the looming fragmentation that Brexit represents, its impact upon British ecology, and the ecological community in general.

I took a tour of the city on my first day here which focussed on Belfast’s history of violence, and I don’t believe this conference could have had a darker backdrop with regards to Brexit. Fears of a no-deal exit from the EU are sparking worries of the return of a border wall with southern Ireland, which could lead to local redeployment of the British army. Public opinion is starting to sway towards reunification with southern Ireland.

But complex local politics aside, the feelings inside the conference halls seem mixed. From my short time here, there seems to be a glimmer of possibility at the opportunity that Brexit could present, but it’s overshadowed by a layer of resignation, perhaps brought on by polls that suggest the conservative government will sweep tomorrow’s election.

Career Prospects

“It makes me not want to come back. It’s sad and frustrating, because I’d rather be back in the UK, but I don’t think the opportunities will be as good.”

Lucy Kirkpatrick currently works in Belgium as a wildlife disease ecologist. She’s been overseas long enough at this point to qualify for Belgian residency, and with the UK seemingly determined on shutting themselves off from the rest of Europe, remaining in Europe seems the better option.

Lucy’s colleague Emily Simmonds feels much the same. She and her fiancee work jointly in Britain and Norway.

“We go back and forth a lot, which means Brexit will impact my personal life quite dramatically. Even though I’m a British citizen, if I keep working across two countries I won’t be able to get the benefits of British life, like free health care.”

They’re far from alone. The frustration with a government seemingly determined to isolate themselves from the European community among younger scientists here is palpable. Many of the projects that the attendees work on are pan-European, and it’s unclear what effect a hard Brexit will have on their funding, let alone their ability to effectively work with colleagues in other nations.

Yet in light of this frustration, there does seem to be a determined mindset to maintain international partnerships. Whilst there have been rumblings that forming projects with British partners would potentially be more tiresome going forward, the attitude here seems to be that people will ensure that collaborative science doesn’t fall by the wayside.

The Loss of Independent Oversight

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop mentioned this in our recent interview, and it’s a view that’s been echoed here. Brexit means that the European Court of Justice no longer has the right to punish Britain for environmental negligence or destruction, with that responsibility falling to Britain. A new Office of Environmental Protection has been proposed, but it essentially means that one branch of the government will have to fine another branch. As Abigail put it,

“That is a dangerous road to go down. Having independent oversight of how we manage our environmental resources is important for holding the government to account.”

More Bad News for Insects

One of the more enjoyable poster presentations here was by Amy Arnott, who works with insect communities in farmland in Northern Ireland. Many smaller farmers in the region are supported by subsidies from the EU, and without them are in danger of losing their land to larger corporations.

“If the subsidies don’t come through, we lose these small farms, which support massive amounts of insect biodiversity. The landscape gets homogenised and we lose that biodiversity. People always talk about how Ireland’s green, and that’s because we have so few forests, so these smaller farms are really important.”

As with many other instances, the current government has said that the subsidies will be replaced, but it’s unclear where the funding is coming from.

Northern Ireland's farms support a wide range of insect biodiversity, which could disappear if smaller farms are forced to sell as their subsidies disappear (Image Credit: Eric Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Northern Ireland’s farms support a wide range of insect biodiversity, which could disappear if smaller farms are forced to sell as their subsidies disappear (Image Credit: Eric Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Glimmer of Optimism

This is the thing that seems to be keeping people hopeful. That this could be a real opportunity for the UK to improve on the current environmental framework, and that they could end up doing more for their ecosystems than what the EU has laid out.

Unfortunately, that glimmer of optimism is tempered by the harsh reality that Boris Johnson’s conservatives seem likely to have their position of power solidified tomorrow. Environmental interests and conservative interests often don’t align, and the UK is no exception. The feeling if that while there could have been a valuable opportunity here, it won’t be taken.

And the rest…

There are other significant losses that Brexit could entail. The UK’s Natural History Museum receives a significant amount of funding from tourist dollars, and making travel to the UK more restricted could lower resources for one of the country’s key scientific institutions. The sending of biological samples between samples could become a lot more difficult. And as we’ve spoken about before, funding from European Research Grants would no longer be a possibility, which would remove access to around 3.4 billion euros in research money.

To echo that glimmer of optimism, I hope that when Brexit goes ahead, the UK maintains their vibrant community of ecologists, and creates an improved environmental framework. I guess we’ll have a better idea of how difficult that will be by Friday morning.

Nancy Knowlton: The Importance of Earth Optimism

Whilst it might seem like little guys like this don’t have much to smile about these days, being optimistic about the state of the environment is more important than ever, according to Nancy Knowlton (Image Credit: Rosalyn Davis, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

At the very beginning of my PhD, I was in the audience at the STARMUS Festival when American reef biologist Nancy Knowlton gave a talk about Earth Optimism. It came just after the American President had withdrawn his support for the Paris climate agreement, and smiles regarding the state of the planet were hard to come by. So seeing an esteemed member of the scientific community give a reminder that there was hope for one of the earth’s most vulnerable ecosystem was inspiring.

At this year’s International Barcode of Life Conference in Trondheim, I had the chance to sit down with Nancy and talk about why optimism is so important in the face of the many ongoing problems that the planet faces.

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Dag Hessen: Advancing the Teaching of Ecology

Dag Hessen (second from right) believes that the teaching of ecology needs to move forward, better integrating our impact on the planet (Image Credit: paal @flickr, Image cropped, CC BY 2.0)

Teaching ecology has taken up a large chunk of my year. I love doing it, and I thoroughly enjoy seeing students becoming engaged in new concepts. But the way we teach ecology can often be quite static, with too little emphasis on how our ecosystems are changing, and how we can communicate this to a world thoroughly in need of more scientific understanding.

One person working to change how we teach ecology is Dag Hessen. I spoke to Dag earlier this year about communicating science to children through literature, which you can read more on here. But during the discussion we got sidetracked and went in-depth on how the teaching of ecology needs to change.

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Making Lake Superior Again: Thoughts from the International Charr Symposium

Lake Superior, the location of the 9th International Charr Symposium

Lake Superior, the location of the 9th International Charr Symposium (Image Credit: Environmental Protection Agency, Image Cropped)

This week I’ve been lucky enough to represent NTNU at the 9th International Charr Symposium in Duluth, Minnesota, a conference focussing on one of my focal species in the genus Salvelinus. Conferences are like this are great for soaking in a swathe of alternative perspectives, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts from day one of the symposium, including a sign of success, one of innovation, and another of hope.

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The Case for Environmental Optimism

Image Credit: Wibowo Djatmiko, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped

Almost a year ago, the current President of the United States pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. At that point, the scientific community, climate change activists, and anyone with a passing interest in science (and, you know, the survival of our species) could have been forgiven for thinking that we had finally forsaken our planet. Yet at the STARMUS Festival last year in Trondheim, I was particularly struck by American coral reef biologist Nancy Knowlton’s words on Earth Optimism, and why all may not be lost just yet.

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