The SNH PhD student conference – a view from the bus

Professor Colin Bean was wowed by the energy and quality of presentations at the PhD conference that SNH and the Royal Society of Edinburgh held jointly recently. As he reveals below it was a conference that excelled from a scientific viewpoint, whilst being highly interesting, challenging and innovative.

What could be better than a busman’s holiday to the opulent surroundings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh to listen to the recent findings of early career scientists who are currently working in the fields of conservation science and species management? The easy answer to that is ‘nothing’. It is for this reason that I boarded the train from an unseasonably sunny Clydebank last week to an even sunnier Edinburgh.

This meeting, organised by SNH to specifically to allow PhD research students, at varying stages of their work, to display and discuss their most recent findings was informative, vibrant and highly enjoyable. The energy, which exuded from what was a relatively younger age class than my own, was palpable from the outset. The noisy throng of people queuing for name badges wouldn’t have been out of place in a concert arena, and the main topic of conversation wasn’t about hip-hop or the Kardashians (am I out of date?), but science. The omens were good.

Three of my own students Calum Campbell (Glasgow) Rupert Houghton (Aberdeen) and Rob Brackley (Glasgow) Copyright Prof Colin Bean

Three of my own students Calum Campbell (Glasgow) Rupert Houghton (Aberdeen) and Rob Brackley (Glasgow) Copyright Prof Colin Bean

Following an introduction from Josephine Pemberton of the University of Edinburgh, the reins were handed over to Chris Spray of the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee to chair the first session. First up was the keynote speaker, Trent Garner of the Zoology who delivered an excellent synthesis of our current state of knowledge of amphibian declines and their causes. Quite apart from the fantastic scientific, and sometimes ecologically scary, content, the keynote was also an exemplar of how the output of successive PhD student projects can combine to provide components of a larger study.

The main event

We then moved to the main event, the students themselves. The pre-lunch presentation sessions focussed on three topic areas: conservation management; species-habitat interactions and strategic conservation. What was immediately noticeable about these sessions was their sheer breadth of scope. Talks, from students based in four universities (Glasgow, Aberdeen, Stirling and UHI) and the James Hutton Institute, covered issues relating to terrestrial, aquatic and marine taxa, as well as their supporting habitats. An impressive range of scientific disciplines was also on show during the morning session, but more on that below.

Broadly speaking, these presentations could be separated into those which carried out detailed studies on individual species, and those which seek to develop new modelling/theoretical approaches to habitat or population assessment.

Talks which fell into the first category were those of Amanda Trask from the University of Aberdeen, who spoke about the impact of a recessive mutation which leads to blindness in red-billed chough, and Caroline Millins of the University of Glasgow who showed how invasive animals, like grey squirrel can be, in addition to some native mammals, important vertebrate hosts of Lyme borreliosis.

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) by the River Kelvin, Glasgow. ©Lorne Gill

Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) by the River Kelvin, Glasgow.
©Lorne Gill

Staying with invasives, Janet McLean provided details of her work into assessing the recovery of Atlantic oak woods after Rhododenron removal. This research showed significant differences in the recovery rates of epiphytic bryophytes and native understory communities post-removal. Expensive tracking technology is never far away in modern ecological studies, but Jenny Sturgeon of the University of Aberdeen took us back to basics with an impressive database of >6000 bird ring sightings for European shags. Using data from ~2500 birds, Jenny demonstrated that individual wintering strategies are determined for each bird soon after fledging.

Atlantic oak woodland at Barnluasgan, Argyll.

Atlantic oak woodland at Barnluasgan, Argyll.

Roman Susdorf of the University of Aberdeen breached the biology-modelling divide by explaining, using established fish population modelling approaches, how even small decreases in fish condition can result in substantial stock declines in some Atlantic salmon life-history types. For species with high levels of marine mortality, and the potential for greater losses due to climate change, this may have significant biological and economic consequences.

Talks from Robin Whytock, Chris Pollard (both University of Stirling) and Ewan McHenry (University of Aberdeen), presented a trio of interesting talks on Ecological Network Theory; Game Theory to resolve conservation conflict; and statistical approaches to combining spatial autocorrelation and misclassification occupancy models to quantify the detectability of European pine marten. James Fitton from the University of Glasgow and Julian Inglis of UHI kept us up-to-date with developments on the marine front. James’s description of the National Coastal Erosion Assessment for Scotland was well presented and provided a useful context for considering the vulnerability of not only coastal habitats, but the human communities that live near them. Julian’s talk on Integrated Coastal Zone Management added to our knowledge of the subject and pointed towards areas where stakeholders (and regulators in particular) could be better aligned.

Slick presentations and quality posters

As ever at such gatherings attention tends to focus on the oral presentations. True to form, in these days of electronic media, these presentations were all slick, well-constructed, and the spectre of ‘death by PowerPoint’ was nowhere to be seen.

But the conference also presented a wealth of additional material though, a slightly lower tech, but still carefully constructed posters. So after a suitably sumptuous lunch, it was time to traverse down to the space set aside for them and this didn’t disappoint. Two ante rooms festooned with very high quality posters were on show and these were accompanied by authors who were eager to share their work. The promise of a prize for best poster was an added incentive, and it is clear that just as much effort went into the development of posters as went into the oral presentations. Lessons on brevity and clarity had clearly been learned.

The afternoon session was skilfully chaired by Kirsty Park of the University of Stirling, as the conference theme shifted towards a series of research programmes that will help inform how a variety of species respond to environmental pressures. Again, a wide range of institutions were represented, including the universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, St Andrews, Stirling, Bangor and Aberdeen as well as the JHI and CEH.

Calum Campbell of the University of Glasgow did his best to kick us out of our post prandial slumber and told us about climate change and evolvability in fish. In a colourful and well-organised presentation Calum communicated how his work will help us to understand the role that elevated temperatures may play in embryo development and bone ossification in Arctic charr. The rise of renewable energy developments, as a response to climate change can, paradoxically, lead to negative interactions with wildlife. Whilst obligate freshwater fish have few opportunities to avoid the impact of environmental change, birds can venture more widely in their attempt to find alternative habitats.

Richard Howells (based at CEH, but registered at the University of Sheffield), linked the movement of European shags to food, principally lesser sandeel, availability. This study made interesting use of historical and contemporary data to highlight the foraging plasticity in this species, and the demographic consequences of enforced change. Cerian Tatchley from the University of Stirling continued the environmental change theme and showed how her work on the effect of small scale windfarms on bats can be used to better inform our advice on the size and placement of wildlife buffers around such developments. As our climate changes, it is predicted that Scotland will see more extreme hydrological events in future years.

Anwen Bill and Zarah Pattison from the University of Stirling explored these issues, but in different ways. Anwen provided insights into how water level fluctuations in standing waters can impact littoral flora, particularly Littorella uniflora, in systems where water level extremes may occur. Of particular interest was the mechanisms used by this widespread plant to adapt to this pressure. Zarah, by contrast, looked at the impact of flood disturbance, and the impact of non-native plant species on riparian zone vegetation. Of particular interest here was the temporal lag, or legacy effect, and the role that the propagules of invasive plant species play delaying in recovery of native riparian plant communities.

Rupert Houghton from the University of Aberdeen carried on the invasives theme, with a great presentation on the use of field studies and modelling approaches to tackle the issue of invasive North American signal crayfish. This work, which aims to identify key demographic intervention points for crayfish control, and using multiple methodologies, is essential in an area where other management options are limited.

American Signal Crayfish

American Signal Crayfish

Looking at other pressures, William Paterson of St. Andrews University gave a very polished, and technically innovative, presentation on the effect of human disturbance on Harbour seal haulouts. Perhaps of potential value to the ecotourism industry, William’s work found no significant evidence that repeated disturbance, of the type used in this study, caused seals to switch haulout sites. Water quality pressures, and in particular the role of septic tanks as pollution sources, was the topic of Samia Richards’ talk. Samia, who is based at JHI but registered at Bangor University, showed how tank condition and the way that they are maintained and managed, can pose a risk to water quality in receptor streams.

With the student talks at an end, it was time to bring in a big gun. Bob Furness of the University of Glasgow and Chair of the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee spoke about the value of science to SNH. Importantly, he spoke about how science can be used in a ‘real world’ context and how it might be used to inform both the advice that SNH provides, and relevant policies which drive that advice.

As someone involved in both the provision of science and the development of policy it is easy to see both sides of the argument. It is clear that Government and its agencies increasingly stress the need for evidence-based policy. In fact, during his time as Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, Sir John Beddington said that: “A key element of my role as the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser is to work across government to embed an evidence-based approach to policy-making”. These were not hollow words, and this commitment was fully enshrined in the 2010 document: The Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making. This sets out the principles of scientific advice to Government.

One of the key skills for all scientists, and early career scientists in particular, is the ability to recognise the relevance of their science to policymakers. Increasingly, our science funding is directed towards those areas which will inform better policy. Within NERC for example, ‘pathways to impact’, where applicants must demonstrate the wider implications of their research, is becoming an increasingly important element of the assessment process rather than just a box-ticking exercise.

The need to breach the science-policy interface is also enshrined in the 2012 NERC publication: Science into policy: Taking part in the process, which encourages scientists, at all career stages, to engage with science-to-policy activities from the outset. It also encourages them to identify opportunities, routes and best practice to inform policy-making. Equally important is the need to communicate their science in an appropriate and accessible way, to the right policy-makers, and show how it fits their needs. At an EU level the publication, in 2012 of the document: Assessing and Strengthening the Science and EU Environment Policy Interface, identifies exactly the same issues, and a growing literature on this subject provides proof of similar concerns elsewhere.

For me, the conference gives confidence that we are supporting the right kinds of science for SNH. The topics are, from a scientific viewpoint, highly interesting, challenging and innovative. From a policy perspective, outputs from each of the projects described, either in oral presentation or in poster form, had a ‘policy home’. That is, one could readily see how the information gathered could be used to underpin or inform environmental policy. The next trick is to ensure that this science is presented in a way that allows it to be readily used by policymakers and to a wider audience. From what I’ve seen today, I don’t think that this will be too much of a stretch.

The conference ended on a high when two individuals, Janet Mclean of JHI and Svenja Kroeger of the University of Aberdeen, won the prizes for best talk and poster respectively. Both awards, determined by an august group of judges (Trent Garner, Dan Hadon, Josephine Pemberton and Charles Warren) were richly deserved. These were popular choices which were met with howls of delight from their colleagues.

All in all, a day well spent.

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