Biodiversity matters: Here, there and everywhere

31 October 2016 - By: Caroline Wood

Science with Impact: Biodiversity matters; here, there and everywhere

Science with impact
Panel: Steve Cooke, Maureen Berg, Sandy Knapp.

By Caroline Wood

This year’s annual ‘Science with Impact’ session featured the usual excellent speaker line-up and, for the first time in its 4-year history, a public audience were invited to join the SEB delegates and participate in the discussions. Chaired by George Littlejohn (SEB+ section chair), our panel first presented their particular perspectives on biodiversity, after which the floor was opened for questions.  

Global biodiversity

As a plant hunter, Sandy Knapp (Natural History Museum, UK) knows well the joy of discovering a new species. In a world where we have already accumulated much knowledge, there is still much to be found. “It’s said that we know more about the surface of Mars than some places on Earth and an estimated 20% of all flowering plants are waiting to be described,” she explains. But the joy of finding new species is tempered with apprehension: “It’s like finding a unique copy of a book in a library as you start to smell the smoke. Species are disappearing at an unprecedented rate as we hurtle towards the sixth mass extinction.” And this is happening everywhere, not just in far-off places. According to Sandy, our challenge is to help the public know the joy of discovering species for themselves around them. Knowing that something exists is the first step towards taking action to protect it. “There isn’t an answer to the question “How many species do we need?” concludes Sandy. “Our challenge is to see the world as a whole and take conservation from the local to the global level”.

Urban biodiversity

Closer to home, over 50% of us now live in cities and this is predicted to reach 66% by 2050. But these urban sprawls fragment natural habitats and pose heavy impacts on the environment – including heating, flooding and air pollution. Whilst some species have been able to adapt to the city lifestyle, others are struggling, which raises the question: can we do anything to help biodiversity thrive in our cities? According to Maureen Berg (University of Brighton, UK), green infrastructure has the potential to create a mosaic of habitats even in the urban environment. This goes beyond parks and gardens and encompasses allotments, canals, disused railways, rivers – even rooftops. Besides fostering biodiversity, green infrastructure promotes ecosystem services that nourish our health and wellbeing, including climate regulation, air quality and water storage. There are even economic impacts: house prices rise and we even spend more in greener areas. Green spaces can also be invaluable for education and engagement, helping people to see that “biodiversity is part of their life and not just something on TV far away,” as Maureen says. “This makes them able to push for policies for a more biodiverse urban environment”.

Aquatic biodiversity

When it comes to biodiversity loss, times are particularly hard for marine species. “Freshwater is the most imperilled ecosystem on the planet, with freshwater fish second only to amphibians as the most vulnerable taxa,” says Steven Cooke (Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada). Besides the ‘classic threats’ of climate change, eutrophication and habitat destruction, new dangers are rapidly emerging: electronic waste, microplastic particles, pharmaceutical waste, noise pollution, etc.  Indeed, we have altered the planet to such an extent that scientists have described it as a completely new epoch – the Anthropocene. But despite the current state, the future is still open as to whether the Anthropocene will ultimately be good or bad for biodiversity and humanity. As Sandy and Maureen also indicated, people are the most important part of this equation. “The ultimate form of environmental education is behaviour modification – the way we purchase, vote and interact with the environment,” says Steven. But to influence this, we need to move beyond saying “The sky is falling!” and instead inspire the public with the optimism that they can make a difference. “Science is only part of the solution,” Steven concludes. “I challenge you to think about the Anthropocene you would like, then make it happen as a scientist and a citizen”. 

Q: What should we do to avoid overwhelming people in complex situations where there are multiple stressors? 

SC: Complexity makes it difficult for policy makers to act. As scientists, we need to do more experiments to investigate multiple stressors and identify thresholds, so that we can provide a clear message. 

SK: Never underestimate how analogy can help understanding. Often we as scientists try to explain things that are very specific instances but simplifying things and analogising it to everyday life can help us all to understand complexity. 

Q: What should we do when people clash over green spaces (e.g. farmers and walkers in the English Lake District)? 

MB: The public often don’t have sufficient information about how working people maintain the green spaces that they like. For instance, kayakers can have very negative views about fishers, until they realise that fishers do a lot of work to maintain the river habitat. 

SC: We need to do a better job of finding win-win-win situations that support conservation, food security and livelihoods. It’s an opportunity for social scientists. 
How can we prevent distorted science from being reported in the media?

SC: Always be an honest broker. Be clear when you are advocating and giving your opinion versus describing what the science and the data actually says. 

MB: Social media can be effective. If you put a neat, condensed package on Facebook or Twitter then you can link it to the research paper so the public get the science behind the story. 

SK: Be aware though that social media is a bubble – it selects what you see based on what you post so you think everyone thinks like you do. The only way that we are going to chance human behaviour is to talk to those who don’t agree with you. 


Category: Brighton 2016
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.