Policy makers draw up list of 'top 100' ecological questions

Environmental policy makers have come up with a list of the "top 100" ecological questions most in need of an answer. The list, published online in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology, is the result of an innovative experiment involving more than 600 environmental policy makers and academics, and includes crucial questions such as which UK habitats and species might be lost completely due to climate change, and what are the comparative biodiversity impacts of newly emerging types of renewable energy? The list should help bridge the gap between science and policy that exists in many disciplines - including ecology - and could therefore have a major impact on future ecological research and its funding.

According to the lead author, Professor Bill Sutherland of the University of East Anglia: "There is currently too little information flow between scientists and policy makers. Narrowing this gap would be very beneficial in generating policies that are based on sound science. Conversely, it is desirable that research should be more clearly directed at issues that influence policy."

The list of 100 questions is the outcome of two days of discussion between 654 environmental policy makers and academics. The academics acted as facilitators, helping the policy makers arrive at a short-list of 100 key questions from an initial long-list of more than 1,000. Policy makers came from 30 leading environmental organisations and regulators, including the Environment Agency, SEPA, English Nature, the National Trust, Butterfly Conservation, the Wildlife Trusts, the Woodland Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology, and the short-list was agreed by consensus and compromise.

Ecologists hope that the list will have a major impact on both science and policy. Lists of research questions have been highly influential in the past in other fields, such as mathematics. At the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900, David Hilbert posed 23 problems that had a major impact on mathematics throughout the twentieth century. Another mathematician, Paul Erdös, is thought to have given most of his money away by offering prizes for the mathematical problems he posed.

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