Friday, 21 December 2012

To tweet or not to tweet, is that the question?

In which CEH Media Relations Manager Dr Barnaby Smith examines how CEH is using social media, and makes a prediction for the future.

Some years ago I was a young academic balancing the competing demands of fieldwork commitments, paper and report writing and grant applications, with the occasional carrot thrown my way in the form of a trip to a conference. At said conference I would share the results of my labours to a usually small, possibly uninterested, audience, who, if I was lucky, asked a couple of relevant questions in the few minutes at the end before everyone headed for the bar.

In 2012 things are different...a young postdoc student winds up their social media accounts, slaps their data and preprints in the institutional repository, and networks their outputs across the web with people they've never met from countries all over the world. Their research is discussed openly by a wide range of audiences and can attract media coverage and interest from policy makers prior to the peer-review publication. Once it makes its way to the pages of the journal the expectation, at least from 1 April 2013 in the UK, is that the paper will be open access for all to read for free.

In ten years we've moved from what could be described as a static, linear, 'closed' system to one that embraces dialogue, proactive and reactive engagement, and an openness to communicate all aspects of the work. There have been many ups and downs during the transition but the science community has, in the main, decided to embrace the rapid changes to how the rest of the world operates, and make the best of them.

Over the last few years CEH scientists have been playing catch up with these new ways of operation. Corporately, we launched our first twitter account just over two years ago (@CEHScienceNews) and supplemented it in 2011 with @CEHPaperAlerts, which is a dedicated feed publishing links to our peer-reviewed paper outlets. The CEHScienceNews blog was launched in January of this year, and CEH also has a presence on flickr, facebook and youtube.

Importantly, however, individual scientists from CEH have also jumped into the social media world.  @UKLadybirds, aka Dr Helen Roy, leads the way on twitter but around 20 CEH staff and students are now regularly tweeting about their activities, with many more participating on a more infrequent basis. A recent convert is Professor Alan Jenkins, Science Director of our Water Programme. Various projects involving CEH are using twitter and facebook to communicate their work. Examples include the Scottish Freshwater Group and the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme. Our scientists have participated in "live reporting" from scientific conferences (becoming the norm, whether speakers like it or not). This development is having an interesting range of impacts on long-held relationships between scientists, publishers and scientific journals, testing the ‘Ingelfinger’ rule to its limits.

The world is changing rapidly and, at CEH, we are changing with it. One could hope that life will go back to the old days, when one could present your latest work at a conference and be confident that it would go no further than the 50 people in the room, at least until you published the Nature paper two years later. This is almost certainly unrealistic. Instead we need to work out how best to use the new ways to our advantage, making sure that the science, the science community and those that pay for and use the results derive maximum benefit.

Scientists have different views on whether the new ways of doing things are good or bad but, unless the Christmas episode of Dr Who is reality rather than fiction, I'm pretty sure we won't be going back in time. Open discussion of our research, in real time, is here to stay.

This is our final blog of 2012. Thank you for reading and Happy Christmas. We'll be back early in 2013 with more news from behind the scenes at CEH.

Barnaby Smith

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Citizen scientists ensure the success of the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey

A guest blog from Dr Helen Roy with initial results from the first ever national farm pollinator survey, which took place in June 2012 as part of Open Farm Sunday
16,380 insects counted in just one day … that is an incredible number, particularly when that day (Sunday 17 June 2012) was slightly overcast and followed weeks of unprecedented torrential rain.  The magic of Open Farm Sunday coupled with the enthusiasm of hundreds of citizen scientists, in all their many guises, ensured that the first ever national pollinator survey on farms was lots of fun and a huge success.
But why do we consider the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey such a success? 
Is it simply the volume of data that was rapidly accumulated across a large geographic region? A dataset of 16,380 observations gathered from 36 farms across 23 counties in about 6 hours is impressive.  
Or the quality of the data that people gathered?  Each participant was provided with detailed information on how to carry out the survey.  We found the data contributed by people new to counting insects was extremely similar to the data gathered by experts.

Surveying for pollinators in a farm crop. Photo by Barnaby Smith/CEH.

Or is it just the memories of people coming together with a common purpose and enjoying the opportunity to get involved in “real” science? The atmosphere on the two farms I visited was simply amazing and witnessing the excitement of people of all ages in their quest to count insects visiting flowers was unbeatable.  Expert ecologists worked alongside the visitors on the farms but all did so as volunteers and with huge amounts of enthusiasm.
Or perhaps it was the opportunity to engage with people in discussing complex ecological questions?  There is no doubt that standing in a field, with insects playing out so many subtle and intricate interactions literally at your feet, provides the perfect back drop for such discussions.
What about the way in which the data might inform science, conservation or political strategy? Certainly many people were intrigued about the value of their data within a wider context and citizen science can provide datasets that have unprecedented value for research and analysis.  We hope that surveys such as this, coupled with other scientific work, will provide evidence on which effective decisions about land management can be based. 
There are clearly many ways of measuring the success of a citizen science initiative such as the Open Farm Sunday and that in itself highlights the value of citizen science. I never imagined that more than 16,000 insects would be counted on one (not so sunny) day in June by people across the country. 
Today (Tuesday 18 December)  we have the pleasure of presenting the results of the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey at the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting.  But we are also beginning to look forward.  The enthusiastic involvement of so many people in 2012 has inspired me to begin to consider how we can extend the Open Farm Sunday Pollinator Survey in future years ... to gather even more data to improve our understanding of the ecological communities which provide such valuable ecosystem services on farms ... but most importantly to have fun! 
Additional information
Dr Helen Roy is an ecological entomologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. She was a co-author on two recent publications examining citizen science projects.

More details about CEH science at the 2012 British Ecological Society Annual Meeting

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A bird's eye view of wind farms

In a new guest blog, Dr Claire McDonald, a Research Associate in Statistical Ecology, explains more about CEH's work examining the potential impacts of offshore wind farms on seabirds. Claire presented details of the work at the British Ornithologists' Union Autumn Meeting on 26 November 2012.

Last week I was given the chance to discuss my work on modelling the impacts of offshore wind developments on seabirds at a one-day meeting organised by the British Ornithologists' Union. I thought this would be a great event to write about in my first blog for CEH. The meeting had record attendance, with people from across different organisations coming together to keep up to date about studies on marine renewables and birds. There is keen interest in this area as renewable energy developments will likely increase along the shores of the UK as our energy demands continue to increase.

Until recently, the main impacts of offshore wind developments on seabirds has focused on birds colliding with the wind turbines, but a more important consequence may be that the birds avoid the wind farm, forcing them to find food elsewhere. This could make the birds fly for longer, or force them to feed in less favourable areas which in turn would have knock-on effects on the survival and breeding success of the birds.

CEH has a well established long-term monitoring project on the seabird populations on the Isle of May, Scotland. Such data is invaluable and can be used to examine the potential impacts of offshore wind farms.

Guillemot on the Isle of May, photo by Akinori Takahashi

Along with other CEH colleagues, we have created a model to look at how guillemots, the second most numerous seabird species on the Isle of May, use the surrounding sea to find food. We were able to use the large amount of information CEH has on the guillemot's behaviour to make the model as realistic as possible, with respect to the direction the birds fly in, how long they spend flying, diving, staying at the colony and looking for food. We then examined how the guillemots changed their behaviour when a wind farm was placed nearby. We found that when a wind farm was present the guillemots on average had to fly for longer, as they had to spend longer looking for food because of increased competition from other birds at that location.

I presented CEH's work at the meeting. Our talk, together with the other talks and posters, provided a good overview of the current issues surrounding marine renewables and seabirds. The results from monitoring work on currently operating offshore wind farms in Denmark and the Netherlands were also shown, in addition to a variety of modelling work. The day provided everyone with the opportunity to discuss the research questions that still need to be answered, as well as how we can use the extensive knowledge we have on seabirds to aid monitoring of both the short and long-term impacts of marine renewables.

Claire McDonald

Claire's work in this area is carried out with Dr Kate Searle, Professor Sarah Wanless and Dr Francis Daunt. All four are based at CEH's site at Penicuik, near Edinburgh.

Read more about CEH's long-term monitoring study on the Isle of May.

Marine Renewables and Birds conference abstracts