Your biosphere needs you!

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Your biosphere needs you!

Predictive modelling of the biosphere is a long-term goal that could unite Prospect scientists across a range of disciplines, says microbiologist Dave Roberts, who retired from the Natural History Museum in December 2013



All aspects of life in the UK – particularly in the public sector – are under financial pressure. The Treasury has become very good at divide and conquer, so we are at risk of losing expertise by a thousand cuts.

Horizon 2020 (H2020) is the biggest European Union research and innovation programme ever with nearly £67bn (80bn euros) of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment this money will attract.

A recent conference in Rome looked for ways to form consortia to bid for H2020 funding.

The conference decided that the goal, sine qua non, was predictive modelling of the biosphere. This is arguably harder than climate modelling and we’ve been doing that for the past four decades.

Climate change is the greatest threat facing our way of life. The major drivers of climate change are anthropogenic, ie caused or produced by humans. But we seem to lack the political capacity to change direction. Population growth also adds pressure from inexorable land-use change.

So we need to know how exactly the biosphere and the ecosystem services on which we rely will respond both globally and locally.

The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown what can be achieved (‘climategate’ notwithstanding).

An Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has now been created and is going to need to develop models for biodiversity comparable to those that the IPCC refined for climate over the years.

Many areas of science carried out by Prospect members could contribute to this long-term goal – from agriculture, taxonomy and metrology to energy and pure physics. Even telecoms fits under this umbrella because data gathering and transmission are crucial to the endeavour.

I am not calling for you to change what you do, but only the context in which you describe your work. OK one change, perhaps, is to recognise the advantages of sharing data, so make your data more open.

The H2020 programme has strong support for small and medium size enterprises. For those able to apply for external funding, this framework will help with the all-important ‘impact’ section of a proposal. It allows us to present even the most fundamental infrastructure as having significant social relevance.

Institutions in the public sector, including arm’s length and some recently privatised bodies, which are subject to Treasury oversight, have comparatively little control over the terms and conditions of their staff. They may also have little control over their corporate mission.

Prospect’s role here, led by local branches and working scientists rather than full-time officers, could be to raise members’ sights to goals that are higher than those of their local management. By emphasising how a particular activity fits into the global and national framework, branches can defend themselves against localised attrition.

This is not a call to maintain the status quo, because technology will render some ways of working pointless.

But technology rarely changes major goals, only the paths by which they can be reached. It’s a golden rule in every area of political life: don’t change your goals, change the way you describe them. Don’t be divided because that way lies weakness.

This is only a sketch of a framework. If you agree and see the need for a collective, universal strategy, please share your thoughts with Sue.Ferns@prospect.org.uk who will coordinate responses.