This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

How can you research without knowledge?

SCIENCE is a subject for the inquisitive. It is an exploration of all avenues of human intrigue, seeking answers by experimentation to every question, from the silly, through the mundane to the mind-bending. From ‘why is the sky blue’ to ‘which crabs are the fightiest’ through, of course, to the applied sciences, looking for solutions to disease and issues that affect us and our planet, science seeks truth in the most fascinating of questions and challenges. We are enriched by the knowledge it unveils.

To achieve this, science as a subject needs a vast base of specialists working on a wide range of models. But, of course, times are tight, funds are spread thin, and inevitably science is taking a hit. Specialists are disappearing, unable to justify funding for their work from research councils, who are, in turn, under pressure to prioritise work with human applications. The diversity of projects is diminishing and the range of organisms being observed is narrowing. Our knowledge base, consequently, is taking a hit.

Recently, the University of Birmingham announced plans to close its teaching programmes in Biological Recording, including its Masters course, held at the Field Studies Council site in Preston Montford, Shropshire. The closure of these courses, I believe, is a serious blow to science in the UK.

But first, a disclaimer. I have been associated with the University of Birmingham for 8 years, studying there first for my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences. I'm now there studying for a PhD, with extracurricular interests in the wider School of Biosciences, being on student and postgraduate committees. I'm currently in talks to represent doctoral researchers of the School of Biosciences on a certain social media platform in an official, endorsed capacity. You'll understand then that I choose my words carefully here.

I'm disappointed in the university for making this decision, but I acknowledge that its hands are tied. The academic world is changing - indeed it has been for a while - and not for the better.
The courses in biological recording offer training in ecology and provide identification skills for British fauna and flora, passing on expertise that many of us wish we knew to people with a passion for the environment. Students of the course almost exclusively go on to use this knowledge to protect our countryside. The courses are attended from people from the farthest reaches of the British Isles and are heavily oversubscribed. They are very much in demand.

Taxonomy, the science of knowing what everything is and how to classify it, is unfashionable. It’s not the type of science that generates heavy-hitting research papers. I remember a series of compulsory lectures, repeated every year, that taught the classification system within the animal kingdom – the protostomes, deuterostomes, parazoa, lophotrochozoa and so on. The lectures were wildly unpopular, and it wasn't difficult to see why; it was pure classification, learning difficult names and groups. But if I had not had these lectures, I would not have the slightest clue how the animal kingdom fits together, where the different lineages break away from one another, where differences come from, and how relevant one species is to another in an evolutionary context. Subsequent research on varying model organisms — in molecular biology, bioinformatics and genetics as well as ecology — benefits from the knowledge of what everything is, how it fits together, and where similarities and differences lie in the evolutionary tree. Classification is dull for most people, but it is essential. Remove the teaching courses, and that knowledge will disappear.

Present day science is tackling some very big questions. None could be greater than those focusing on our influence on the planet. Teams from every discipline are attempting to predict the future consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, deforestation and species extinction, while simultaneously charting the impact of such events now. At a local level similar questions also need to be asked. What will be the consequences of chopping down this forest to build this service station? What will happen if I drain this marsh to build a supermarket?

The most reliable method to observe environmental changes is to look to nature, to observe the changes occurring to species and in habitats over time. Recently, for example, a hybrid shark species was discovered for the first time off the east coast of Australia, providing insights into how the Australian black tip shark and the common black tip shark might respond and adapt to the rising sea temperatures associated with global climate change.

So, two rather fundamental questions:

How can you observe the effects of, for example, global warming, on an ecosystem, if you have no idea what is there?

And how can you ever record what is there if you do not know how to identify and classify species?

Biological recording and taxonomy, however unfashionable, are crucial. Somebody needed to know how to spot the two species of black tip shark to identify the hybrids. Species and habitat conservation — from molluscs to ferns — rely solely on distribution data, collected by experts who have had formal training in species identification. If people do not know what they are looking for, how can we assess and prevent anthropogenic irreversible damage to the environment and biodiversity?

The loss, then, of the Biological Recording courses is a critical loss to science. Birmingham knows this, and is attempting to find another institution that can take on not only the programmes but also the Preston Montford centre, its staff and library. The consultation period to find a new host ends on 10th February. If no candidate is found in this short time, that’s it. The course is gone.

Birmingham is cancelling the programme not on the grounds of cost but because it does not fit its own research ‘profile’ – universities are soon to be subject to the REF system of assessment, requiring institutions to focus on their research strengths or else face substantial funding cuts. While the system is an improvement on its predecessor, the RAE system, in that research is no longer assessed by publication number but by quality (the RAE system effectively encouraged scientists to publish in low ranking journals and to force their work out into the public domain without due completion), the sole emphasis on research strengths is killing the diversity that makes scientific research so attractive, and it is punishing teaching.

How can this be a good thing?

Sign the petition here
A campaign exists to save the Biological Recording courses from extinction. It has garnered praise and support from, among others:

The Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI),
Biological Recording in Scotland (BRISC),
The British Bryological Society (BBS),
The Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM),
The Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland,
perhaps surprisingly, the official University of Birmingham Facebook profile,
and countless students, alumni and ecologists who have benefited from the course.

You can read more about the campaign on its Facebook page (click here), where you can see correspondence from the University of Birmingham and the campaign’s supporters. This also includes suggestions of how you can help, which I urge you to read.

A petition has also been started, which can be signed here.

1 comment:

  1. I think you have struck at the core of the problem. And I also have concerns about the way research is being commodified by RAE and now REF. I think all research active academics lik e research but hvaing an arbitrary value system applied to that research is something that could actually prevent the interesting ground breaking stuff. Some of the more silly stuff could argue it has reach and impact though. A fact I find deeply annoying.

    I am also concerned about the impact it has on teaching. Teaching is also a vital part of the university functioning. I'll check out the details.