It's often good to sit back, pause and contemplate what you know that you don't know...a higher order thinking excercise for sure !
Last week, environmental policy makers came 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 Erd?s, is thought to have given most of his money away by offering prizes for the mathematical problems he posed.
The 100 questions are divided into the following sections:
1. What are the benefits of protected habitats in terms of water resources, carbon sequestration and other goods and services, relative to non-protected land?
2. What is the role of biodiversity in maintaining specific ecosystem functions (e.g. biogeochemical cycles)?
3. What are the roles of soil biodiversity (and specifically little-known groups such as mites or nematodes) in ecosystem function, resilience and recovery?
4. How does soil biodiversity both influence and respond to above-ground biodiversity?
5. What is the role of marine biota and benthopelagic coupling in ocean–atmosphere carbon cycling and primary production?
6. How can we measure natural capital (renewable and non-renewable resources) and integrate such a measure into gross domestic product (GDP)?
7. How will CAP reform affect biodiversity at the landscape scale?
8. What are the environmental consequences of farming patterns ranging between the extremes of widespread extensification vs. complete segregation of agricultural production and conservation areas?
9. How do farming systems such as conventional, integrated farm management and organic compare in terms of their effects on biodiversity and other environmental impacts?
10. How do current agricultural practices affect the conservation value and extent of non-agricultural habitats such as woodland edges, hedgerows and ponds, and how can detrimental impacts be mitigated?
11. What are the impacts of agricultural activities and practices (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides and physical disturbance) on soil biodiversity and soil functions?
12. What are the ecological consequences of changes in upland grazing regimes for biodiversity and soil ecology?
13. What are the impacts on soil and surface-active invertebrates of poaching (trampling of flooded soil by livestock) and soil compaction at different stocking levels?
14. What are the impacts on biodiversity of prophylactic treatment of farm livestock with antibiotics, anti-fungal and anti-helminthic compounds?
15. What lessons can be learnt from agri-environment schemes to optimize their biodiversity gain and ecological benefit?
16. How does the ecological impact of UK farming compare internationally?
17. What are the environmental benefits of large-scale woodland planting schemes such as community forests and the new national forests?
18. Where should new woodlands be located?
19. What overall number, age structure and spatial distribution of trees are necessary for the long-term survival of species dependent on ancient/veteran trees?
20. What are the relative benefits for biodiversity of the re-introduction of management to ancient semi-natural woodlands vs. the continuation of an absence of active management?
21. Why have many woodland birds declined?
22. Which approach to the removal of plantations on ancient woodland sites (e.g. clear-felling and sequential removal) yields the greatest biodiversity benefit?
Fisheries, aquaculture and marine conservation
23. What is the biodiversity impact of the harvest of forage fish for the production of aquaculture foodstuffs?
24. What are the ecological impacts of faecal matter, pesticides and undigested food flows from aquaculture?
25. How important are caged fishes as reservoirs of parasites and pathogens that have detrimental effects on wild populations?
26. What are the direct (catch) and indirect (food supplementation by discards, prey depletion) impacts of commercial fishing on cetaceans and seabirds?
27. How large should marine protected areas be, and where should they be located to protect biodiversity and enhance surrounding fisheries?
28. What will be the impact of marine protected areas on wide ranging migratory species such as cod Gadus morhua L. and haddock Melanogrammus aeglefinus L.
29. How important are coastal, estuarine and fluvial habitats for endangered migratory fish populations (e.g. lampreys, shad, eel and sturgeon)?
30. What is the range of minimum viable population sizes for broadcast spawning marine species?
31. How long does the seabed take to recover from disturbance such as dredging, wind-farm construction and oil and gas extraction?
Recreation and field sports
32. What are the impacts of recreational activities on biodiversity?
33. Which ecological principles should guide the choice of the list of UK species appropriate for game exploitation?
34. What overall impacts do introductions of game species for field sports (including recreational fishing) have on biodiversity?
35. What are the ecological impacts (both direct and indirect, through shifts in habitat management) of a ban on hunting with dogs?
36. How can provision for wildlife be maximized in existing and new urban development, urban greenspace and brownfield sites?
37. What are the consequences for biodiversity of fragmentation by development and infrastructure?
38. What are the ecological impacts on semi-natural habitats and ecosystems of adjacent large developments (e.g. housing and airports)?
39. How can sustainable urban drainage systems be optimally designed to maximize biodiversity in the urban environment?
Aliens and invasive species
40. What criteria should be used to determine when to intervene to deal with invasive species?
41. How can we manage microbial ecology to control invasive plant pathogens?
42. How can we understand better the epidemiology of existing and emergent diseases within wildlife reservoirs to better protect humans and livestock?
43. What are the genetic threats to UK biodiversity posed by introgression from genetically modified organisms and what measures are available to reduce these threats?
44. What is the optimal method of managing bracken-dominated habitats for the benefit of associated biodiversity action plan priority species?
45. What are the effects of domestic cats on vertebrate populations in rural and urban environments?
46. What impact does plastic-derived litter have on the marine environment?
47. How can one ameliorate the effects of aerially deposited nitrogen on habitats and species?
48. What are the critical thresholds for nitrogen and phosphorus inputs into waterbodies of high conservation value?
49. Of those chemicals currently or potentially released into the environment, which (individually or in combination) are now, or are likely to become, significant environmental problems, and what will these problems be?
50. What are the long-term impacts of depositing sewage sludge and other organic wastes on to agro-ecosystems?
51. How can catchment management be used to reduce diffuse pollution?
52. How will acidification of surface water from rising CO2 concentrations affect planktonic productivity and other marine organisms?
53. What are the effects of light pollution from built development and road lights on wildlife behaviour, mortality and demography?
54. Which species are likely to be the best indicators of the effects of climate change on natural communities?
55. Which habitats and species might we lose completely in the UK because of climate change?
56. What will be the ecological impacts of changing agricultural patterns in response to climate change?
57. What time lags can be expected between climate change and ecological change?
58. What is the likely relationship between the extent of climate change and the pattern of species extinction?
59. How does climate change interact with other ecological pressures (e.g. invasive species and habitat fragmentation) to create synergistic effects?
60. How can we increase the resilience of habitats and species to cope with climate change?
61. How well suited is the current UK protected area system for conserving biodiversity in the face of climate change, and how can it be enhanced in light of this?
62. How will changes to oceanographic conditions as a result of climate change affect marine ecosystems?
63. What actions are required to recreate the full range of coastal landscapes, habitats and species distributions to compensate for their loss, for example as a result of sea-level rise?
Energy generation and carbon management
64. What are the consequences of biofuel production for biodiversity at field, landscape and regional levels?
65. What are the potential impacts of (a) terrestrial and (b) marine wind farms on biodiversity?
66. What are the comparative biodiversity impacts of newly emerging types of renewable energy, such as wave energy?
67. How can soil carbon be retained and further carbon sequestered in the soil?
68. How can biodiversity action plans be designed to take account of larger scale population processes?
69. How can we best measure favourable conservation status for each of the species and habitats listed within the EU's Habitat Directive?
70. How effective is the current UK protected area network for protecting wildlife under current conditions?
71. With what precision can we predict the ecological impact of different policy options and the ecological effects of management action?
72. At an international scale, what are the ecological implications of conservation actions and policies adopted within the UK?
73. How effective as indicators of overall biodiversity are current indicators (especially birds)?
74. Why are common moths declining and are their declines driving declines in other taxa (e.g. bats)?
75. What scale and type of land-use change is required to halt the decline of biodiversity by 2010 (EU heads of state committed to this in the 2001 EU summit in Göteborg)?
76. Are there reliable ways to predict the long-term sustainability of populations of poorly known species (e.g. most invertebrates) using a knowledge of life history and other ecological characteristics?
Habitat management and restoration
77. What are the costs and benefits of concentrating conservation work on designated sites in comparison with spreading efforts across the wider countryside?
78. What are the ecological consequences of 'wilding' (that is, conservation of sites using only, or very largely, natural processes) as a long-term conservation strategy?
79. What are the consequences of different moorland management techniques (especially burning, cutting and grazing) for the upland economy, carbon storage, water quality and biodiversity?
80. What measures of habitat condition should we use to measure habitat change in protected areas?
81. How should ditches, dry and wet, be managed for the greatest benefit for biodiversity?
82. What hedgerow structure and what type of hedge management produce the greatest wildlife benefits?
83. How do recreated habitats differ from their semi-natural analogues?
84. How can we effectively prioritize the most important large-scale ecological restoration projects that could be undertaken in the UK?
85. What is the most appropriate and ecologically sustainable way of dealing with excess nutrients during terrestrial and freshwater habitat restoration?
86. What are the implications of changing deer densities for agriculture, forestry and biodiversity in different landscape types?
87. In reintroductions, does local provenance matter? Will the use of non-local stock cause loss of local genetic variation, outbreeding depression or genetic rescue of depauperate gene pools?
Connectivity and landscape structure
88. What are the lag times between habitat fragmentation and the loss of species of different taxonomic and functional groups?
89. Is it better to extend existing habitat patches or create further patches within the landscape?
90. How should we manage landscape mosaics for the conservation of diverse taxa that operate on different spatial scales?
91. What are the relative merits of different indices of habitat connectivity? Which of them best predict conservation value?
92. What is the value of linear habitats, such as hedgerows, railways, road verges and riparian strips, as corridors for dispersal between fragmented habitat patches?
93. For species where the concept is applicable, how can 'source' and 'sink' populations (Pulliam 1988) be identified and how should their status affect conservation management?
94. How important are core vs. peripheral areas in the conservation strategy of a species?
95. How reliant are animal and plant populations in small nature reserves on the maintenance of habitat in surrounding non-protected areas?
Making space for water
96. What have been the consequences of past and present riparian engineering works, such as weirs, culverts, gravel removal, habitat fragmentation and damming, on biodiversity within and alongside rivers?
97. What would be the ecological implications of large-scale river and floodplain restoration schemes in the UK, and would they be more cost-effective than traditional hard flood defences?
98. What are the likely consequences for biodiversity of changes in water quality and sedimentation in rivers?
99. What methods most accurately measure 'ecological status' in the EU Water Framework Directive?
100. How can flood control be assisted by appropriate habitat management and restoration, and what are the impacts on biodiversity?
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