The opportunities and challenges of open data


When people think about ‘data’, especially in its modern context, agriculture may not be the first thing that crosses their minds. Yet agricultural data are some of the oldest: megalithic stone circles mark the yearly shift of the sun – and thus, the seasons; the earliest cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia record grain yields and livestock sales; the Domesday book lists farmsteads and agricultural workers; while farmer’s almanacs, going back to the middle ages, record meteorological conditions and their effect on crops. Modern statistical science, which developed from a need to understand data, also owes a debt to agriculture – from Mendel’s rules of heredity being essentially statistical, to the great Ronald Fisher, who revolutionised statistics in the 20th century while working for Rothamsted Research, trying to help them understand the wealth of agricultural data they were generating.

Just as the knowledge-sharing in agricultural almanacs was beneficial to farmers in the middle ages, open data has much to offer farmers and communities around the world in the 21st century. I was recently one of 700 delegates from around the world at the Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) meeting, sponsored by the UN in New York. There was a lot of optimism about the potential of open data to be an important part of the solution to global problems of food poverty and poor nutrition, especially as the population increases and food production becomes more costly, due to climate change and uncertainties about energy and fertiliser production. Open data has a capacity to make a real difference in developing economies, which often leap-frog more developed economies, with some of the first telecommunication infrastructure to appear in developing countries being the mobile smartphone. Codifying data in the right formats can turn people who might not have access to some other basic infrastructures in to genuine participants in economic activity.

In developed countries, the methods of engagement may differ but the effects should be the same. This is fundamentally about allowing information to flow easily between those who have knowledge to those who need that knowledge with minimum friction, freeing up capacity to innovate. For example, the activities of CABI, an organisation which hold statistics about plant pests and diseases, can assist farmers to understand what plant diseases they are coping with and how to adapt their farming methods to reduce the impact of disease. Other forms of communication can help farmers to find markets for their produce, get paid and also find sources of the best seeds suited to their soil conditions. All of this is powered by open data.

Data is agnostic to whether the applications are in developing or developed economies. In developed economies with a technological advantage, data can support precision agriculture to get the best quality produce for market, while in developing economies it can help those who farm at small scales to understand how their yields can be improved. In the UK, for instance, 3D landscape models, originally generated by the Environment Agency to plan defences for and mitigate flood, has been made open and is being used by English sparkling wine producers to identify slopes with the best aspect and elevation for planting new vines. In emerging economies, simply sharing data on soil type, crop variety and yield can make a huge difference. Better access to data is a great leveller, a tool by which inequalities can be addressed.

The Open Data Institute suggests that open data is infrastructure for the digital economy. In an environmental context, ensuring that individuals have access to information empowers them to make decisions informed by evidence. In an agricultural context, open data has the potential to share information to allow the development of a culture of continuous improvement.

The commitment to open data at GODAN is impressive, representing a global effort. The enthusiasm there was infectious, the examples of successes were compelling, and the genuine commitment of the delegates to make a difference in the challenges facing the planet was inspirational.

The UK has been a leading light in establishing GODAN, together with the USA and Kenya. Other countries, such as Germany, are now coming on board. In the UK we are trying to lead by example by making our own government data open by default, unless there is a compelling reason not to, for example if it contains personal information. After a sustained effort, over 40% of all UK government data now comes from Defra – over 12,000 datasets, a figure still rising – and much of this is about food and farming, or is at least relevant to the environmental outcomes affected by our agriculture. Anybody can access, use and share these data, which has seen the data being used in new and unanticipated ways, as innovators use data intended for one purpose in ways that solve problems for other areas – including the LiDAR data being used by wine producers.

As I emphasised in the two presentations I gave at the GODAN conference, open data is not enough on its own. There are two additional and essential steps which have to happen. The first is making sure there are tools to allow people to ‘see’ data much more easily. People need to be led through the crowded landscape of the inner workings of websites in ways that allow them to interrogate the data to answer questions relevant to them. This needs some smart thinking, including employing machine learning, where computers themselves learn from the questions people are asking and construct the algorithms needed to access the right data.

The second step is to develop use-case studies. These are illustrations of the ways in which using data has helped farmers and those working in agriculture. These are necessary because often those people involved don’t know what questions to ask of the data. If they never ask the questions then the knowledge residing in the data will never be mined and put to use. This is a much bigger problem than many people realise. Unless practitioners are primed to ask questions of data they will never know what they are missing.

Despite all the euphoria around the power of data, I was surprised by how little caution there was in the rhetoric emerging from the conference. For some, it was a case of open data at any cost. Implicit in their argument is that any restrictions or limits on use – whatever they might be – will greatly reduce the benefits of the data. In my talks I challenged this. Too many great technologies, especially many of those associated with synthetic biology, which should be revolutionising farming and food production across the globe, are sitting on the shelf unused. This is largely because the early gung-ho messaging when these technologies appeared sensitised people to potential (but largely spurious) disadvantages. Although we are more used to knowledge and information flowing to and from us that we perhaps are to having synthetic biology embedded in our lives, there are dangers from giving out the wrong messages.

Everybody leaves behind their digital smoke and our own signatures sit within the clouds of data, which power digital economies. For those who wish to, there are ways of using this to find out more about us than perhaps some people might wish. I am a great supporter of open data, but we need to make sure that people know where data about them are, how it is being used and by whom. At Defra, data practitioners go to great lengths to remove any personal data from agricultural datasets, but this remains a challenge for some datasets, such as data on movement of animals. There is risk involved just as in any activity, and it is important that those risks be acknowledged and managed. It is important to be open about open data.


Tackling the food waste problem


Defensive cooking is a term I learned when deep ocean sailing and working on Antarctic research stations. When there is no shop just down the road, every item of fresh food is precious and one’s diet is often dominated by food that is just about to go mouldy.  This experience has made me much more sensitive to wasting good food but, sadly, I am still guilty of letting the odd tomato slip into a fuzzy state. While I’m less fussy than some other people about actually eating a mouldy tomato some of them do head for the bin.

The UK throws away at least 10 million tonnes of food every year, 60% of which is avoidable. This wasted food has a retail value of £17 billion representing about £265 of wasted money for every person in the UK.  For an average family of four people this would mean it’s like throwing away about £1,500 of their annual earnings, roughly enough to pay for a short holiday. Remarkably, most people when asked deny that they do this.

Apart from the direct impact this has on people, according to the Waste Resources Action Programme, the UK’s avoidable food waste gives rise to at least 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide which is equivalents to about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced from domestic fuel used for cooking and heating. To make matters even worse some of the waste food ends up in landfill sites where it often ends up as methane. If this escapes to the atmosphere, as much of it does, then it is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This should indicate that cutting food waste will save more than just the pennies in our pockets.

But there are ways of fixing this problem. I recently visited Swadlincote, in the heart of the midlands. Swadlincote has committed to slashing the food waste produced by its residents and businesses by 50% by the end of the year. The programme is run in association with Sainsbury’s Waste Less, Save More campaign. Almost 200 local councils applied for a £1 million investment from Sainsbury’s to trial a number of initiatives and technologies.

The Swadlincote project is currently in its early stages: an initial analysis of the contents of the bins of 800 people was conducted in January of this year. The past few months have been devoted to rolling out the various initiatives and creating awareness including smart fridges and ensuring that people measure how much they are chucking away. Participants are also being advised about zero-waste meal plans.

The Winnow scales used to weigh and record details about their waste are connected the home owner’s mobile phone and the fridge sends a picture of its contents to the phone whenever it is opened. The scale keeps a continuous log of the weight of food being wasted and an estimate of its cost and the pictures mean that when shoppers are in the store thinking about what to buy they can see what is in their fridge helping to stop them from over-buying perishable items. Participants are given a simple system for checking the temperature of their fridge and there is a healthy competition among the Winnow-users to save the most money.

Winnow scale

Six families have been chosen to trial the smart technologies and I visited a family to see this for myself. They had two children under five and were selected by the Waste Less, Save More team to trial the zero-waste meal plans, a smart fridge and the Winnow scale. They said that these changes have helped them to adjust their shopping and cooking habits to be less wasteful and the smart fridge has helped their salad items last for longer. They estimate that they have saved £10 per week on their food bill as a result and one of them has even shifted to vegetarian food.

This project is as much about education as it is about high tech solutions.  Sainsbury’s are providing primary schools with educational materials that ensure children understand food waste and how to prevent it, and these messages can be taken back to their homes to allow “pester power” to work its magic.

Gillian Coates, the Waste and Recycling Manager for South Derbyshire district council, runs the “Food Saver Champions” which is a network of volunteers on hand to provide recipes and advice. Swadlincote is also rolling out a refitted vintage van for their champions to use. It will be brought to special events within the town to act as a rallying point, serve low-waste food, and help to distribute the programme’s messages.

Waste less Save more 01

The impact of Swadlincote’s initiatives and efforts will not be seen until early 2017 when the second analysis of the town’s waste is conducted. Any true success, however, must be measured by a lasting impact and sustained behavioural changes. Sainsbury’s has recruited other local authorities in to their campaign mainly because they see how much sense it makes. Just disposing of all that food waste is a real headache for local authorities.

I hope that any successes made by Swadlincote and the Waste Less, Save More campaign will be carried forward into the future by their participants, rather than forgotten just as quickly as the defensive cooking practices of the disembarked crews of scientific research vessels.

Tough choices around the costs and benefits of nanotechnology

A new report on a public dialogue on nanotechnologies has been published today, 26 May.

Technological innovation depends on science, both to provide the innovation itself and assurance that its benefits outweigh its costs. But when does an innovation become a risk? For most of the long pathway from an innovation emerging to its mainstream adoption in our lives, we tend to focus on the benefits. Only at the eleventh hour can some of the costs become apparent. But does it have to be that way? In my view, greater investment in understanding the basic science of risk and its communication is much needed in advance and to head-off this problem.

Nanotechnology is grounded in an understanding of how materials behave at very small sizes, and has had a long lead time. In 1857, Michael Faraday investigated the action of light on very thin films of gold and noticed that the fluid used to wash these films became ruby red, deducing that this was suspended gold. The particles were about 50 nanometres in diameter – about 1/2000th the width of a human hair. The fact that they were red, rather than gold-coloured, shows how nanomaterials can behave differently to larger pieces of the same material.

Compared with larger particles, nanoparticles can interact differently with light, have different electrical properties, or different chemical reactivities. Their surface area is huge compared to their volume, and most of their mass interacts directly with the outside world. This is what makes them so reactive. The small size of these particles also offers the opportunity for them to get to places where other particles simply could not reach, such as inside individual cells of organisms.

Nanoparticles derive from of a range of metals, alloys and compounds. They have application in everything from medicine to helping integrated circuit designers increase memory storage capacity on computer chips. Nanotechnology is becoming an integral part of our lives and we hardly know it.

The potential of nanotechnology is enormous, but what are the risks? If nanoparticles are capable of entering cells or disappear in to the environment never to be recovered, how can we be sure all the benefits that using them can bring will not rebound on us with some negative impact? It’s also one thing to produce nanoparticles intentionally and to control their release but it’s quite another to produce them unintentionally, as a by-product of some other process.

There is a clear need to understand what people think about these issues and where challenges exist. It is the combined role of government, industry, researchers, and NGOs to not only communicate science to a broad audience, but to engage citizens in a dialogue and capture what we understand to be the potential benefits and the costs of these technologies. People are often content to pay for initial research into technologies like ‘nano’ because they understand where the benefits might lie. It is much harder to persuade people to fund research to understand what the downsides of the technology might be even when the uncertainties can be truly daunting.

A new, qualitative public dialogue commissioned by Defra and carried out in conjunction with (and co-funded by) the organisation Sciencewise, as well as industry, seeks to find out how comfortable people are with specific applications of nanotechnology. By focusing on nano-based products, such as sunscreens and paints, the deliberation process sought to explore the motivation behind people’s views and perceptions.

The report, released today (26 May) highlights the importance of communicating to the consumer what is in a product. People like to know what they’re buying, and don’t like to be forced to consume ‘by stealth’. Nanoparticles have been used in sunscreens for many years but these are one of the applications that consumers are wary of. Citing a lack of clarity over what the product contains, there were concerns that something used on the skin, especially of young children by their parents, could be taken up by the body. It was also thought that nanoparticles from sunscreens could enter watercourses and behave in unknown ways.

This negative opinion of nanoparticles in sunscreens, stemmed largely from the fact negatives were not sufficiently balanced out by positives (prevention of skin cancers). Consumers couldn’t reason why nanoparticles were more efficacious in blocking UV rays. This revealed a deficit of understanding about why nanoparticles are effective in such a product.

Nanoparticles can also be used for remediating contaminated land and this raised the perception of risk. While participants agreed the purposes of removing contamination were worthwhile, there was a concern that they would remove one deleterious substance while replacing it with another, even if there is nothing to validate their concerns in this case. It was felt the future impact was difficult to predict. Lesson learned from the use of CFCs was important in people’s view. CFCs were once ubiquitous in refrigeration and used as aerosol propellants, but subsequently discovered to be the main cause of stratospheric ozone breakdown.

Participants were much more positive and accepting about the use of nanoparticles in paints and coatings, especially if new properties, such as being antimicrobial or more durable could be introduced. Their perceptions over disposal were no greater than they would have for other non-nanoparticle-containing paints, which often require careful disposal. The onus was seen as being on the consumer to read product labels and advice and dispose of waste paints properly. Likewise, nanoparticles used as a fuel additive to reduce emissions were welcomed. In this case pollution from cars was perceived as such a large problem that any risks of reduction using nanotechnology were, in the view of the participants, compensated by the benefits.

The judgement of participants identified the responsibility for dealing safely with nanotechnologies, like any technology, as being shared between government, industry and the individual. Outside this triangle, NGOs provide scrutiny. Crucial to any dialogue, however, are robust and clear channels of communication that serve not only to educate audiences, but also seek their voice when formulating matters of policy and regulation.

One issue that does concern me, however, is the extent to which we have the capacity to control the uptake of new technologies such as nano-based paints and sunscreens. The Montreal Protocol showed for CFCs that it is possible for global concerted action to be taken when presented with overwhelming evidence of negative impact. But in cases where evidence of potential damage is lacking, or where there are significant asymmetries between the winners and losers concerned with a new technology, the power of profit motivations could overwhelm any wish to be precautionary. If only we invested as much in environmental science as we do in developing new technologies we might be in a better position to judge where the costs and benefits of those technologies lie, and to design the use of new technologies in ways that maximise their pay-off.

These kinds of open dialogues provide rich and nuanced insights for scientists, industrialists and regulators around how much more work they need to do to communicate what is known and what is not about the risks and benefits of emerging technologies. Honesty in this communication is vital. Ideally, we need to be able to communicate information to people in ways that can allow them to make informed decisions and choices. When the costs and benefits are too difficult to express in these ways, government needs to adopt precaution and regulate based upon information derived from similar dialogues.


What is the role of a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Some people think the role of a Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in government is ‘to kick the door down’. No it isn’t; it’s to keep the door open to science. If a CSA finds themself locked out then they’ve failed. Muscular public shows of independence from big-hitting ‘advisers’ are singularly ineffective.

I want to see science given the consideration it deserves in the formation and delivery of government policy. As a CSA for a major area of government policy and function, I have an important role to play in ensuring that this happens. The key to being successful in securing this outcome is to build trust.

The sort of trust I’m talking about is entirely conditional on the existence of mutual respect. Policy makers have some fiendishly difficult problems to grapple with, and in dealing with these they need the help and respect of scientists. This includes the appreciation that scientific evidence sits alongside other social, economic and political considerations. Politics is the process by which contested decisions are made about policies, and I have to be careful to play the role of the scientist as an honest broker, and the provider of information within the wider social game. My role and the role of other CSAs in government is to be a trustworthy and intelligible proponent of the ‘scientific lens’; to input into the policy making process, but also to avoid the automatic politicisation that comes with advocacy. Similarly, I will not be the mouthpiece for government policy unless it is to explain why a decision has been made, or to increase wider understanding of a particular problem.

Creating a lot of noise and publicity is not the best option in the vast majority of instances where one wants to have impact. This may be a difficult message for some who seek a story that promotes conflict (often disingenuously cloaked as debate) and who want to recruit CSAs to their cause. When one CSA famously said to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee that ‘part of the job of a CSA is to make sure they kick the door down,’ he had clearly lost the confidence of his ministers and department – such an attitude was in no way conducive to maximising the consideration of science in government. The realisation that this approach does not work may mean that CSAs do not always have the visibility in the press that some may call for. But it’s essential to recognise that our ultimate aim should always be to make sure conflicts are resolved, not created.

The argument has been levelled against me, from time-to-time, that because I don’t regularly engage with the press I am somehow being gagged by the Department I mainly work within, or that somehow the government is seeking to spin what I have to say. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a CSA I am free to say what I want, when I want. I wouldn’t do this job if that were not the case; anybody who hears me talk in public will know that I do not speak from a script. I am passionate about what science can do to support and improve government; and I am happy to talk openly about what goes on in Defra, as in this blog. Furthermore I am accountable through the Defra Science Advisory Council, an independent non-departmental public body, to the wider scientific community, for translating scientific evidence into a policy environment. Through them and other routes, I speak to scientists, I read their papers, listen to them and help them get their messages heard too.

Any scientist who works in government has the same freedoms, with the exception of a very few who work on national security, and if there are any who think otherwise then they are mistaken. We live in a world of free speech and this applies just as much to government scientists as anybody else. However, most scientists in government understand the importance working with the system and, if necessary, changing and influencing from within rather than trying to manipulate it through the media.

If my approach to being a CSA doesn’t raise my personal profile, or suggests to some in the media or elsewhere that I am not a ‘heavy-hitting adviser’, then so be it. My job is to represent science in government as best I can, not to be a public personality.

UK’s Cutting-edge science informs government response to ash dieback

The government often has to deal with difficult problems, and ash dieback disease has been no exception. Ash Dieback is a fungal disease likely to have arrived in the UK from a mixture of infected planting material and spores blown over from infected trees in continental Europe.

The pathogen causing this disease, Hymenscyphus fraxineus, was not formally identified until after it began seriously affecting trees in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Even then little was known about the pathogen that might help develop management strategies. Meanwhile, the disease continued to spread across Europe before being identified in East Anglia in 2012. Its arrival and the subsequent public interest demonstrates that trees, woodlands and forests hold a special place in our nation’s hearts.

There are an estimated 126 million ash trees in British woodlands over half a hectare in size, and many more in our parklands, hedgerows and cities. Ash is the 3rd most prevalent broadleaved species in GB woodlands, at 9%, and the fifth most prevalent of all trees at 4%. The economic benefit of forests is estimated to be £1bn to the UK economy, with even greater environmental and social benefits. As one of our native trees, ash is an important part of the forest ecosystem, supporting a huge range of biodiversity from lichens and mosses to invertebrates and birds. Forty-six species are only found on ash trees. So protecting ash trees is about more than just protecting a single species.

After the disease was discovered, Defra worked with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to establish two research projects to improve our understanding of it. The experience in Europe showed that some trees were more susceptible to the disease, developing symptoms and dying more quickly, while others were less affected. This gave hope that some of the trees in the UK might be tolerant to the disease and their identification became one of Defra’s commitments in response to the disease.

The Nornex project, which published its final report last Friday (22 April) used molecular approaches to improve not only our understanding of the disease, but of the ash tree itself. The research has meant we have been able to develop genetic markers that signal tolerance to the disease, just as quality of plumage can signal biological fitness in birds. The tolerance was assessed using a selection of 182 Danish ash trees, scored for visual signs of disease which was then assessed against the extent to which specific genes were active. Three genetic characteristics appear to be important signals of resistance. Variability in susceptibility may be caused by how two genes interact.

This new knowledge is a great step forward and illustrates the benefits that cutting-edge science can bring to real-life problems, made all the more impressive considering the project ran for only about two years. One of the huge advances that has made this possible is the reduced time needed to sequence a genome, from years to hours and at a fraction of the cost; and the open and collaborative approach taken by the research team.

The project also made use of a Facebook game, Fraxinus, designed to use human pattern recognition skills to identify DNA sequence variations. The game was played more than 63,000 times and resulted in many reliable new sequence variants.

The research, led by Professor Allan Downie from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, was delivered by a consortium including: the University of York; the Genome Analysis Centre at the University of Exeter; Fera Science Ltd; the University of Copenhagen; Forest Research; the Sainsbury Laboratory; East Malling Research; the Forest and Landscape Institute Norway; and the University of Edinburgh.

The Nornex project’s research report can be found here:

Form or function?

It is a question for all ages; one that today continues to pervade much decision-making within wider government in general and Defra in particular. It may hold the key to the policies we make and implement to ensure ecosystem survival.

As the environmental historian, Chris Smout, has pointed out in his book Nature Contested, it is an ancient question that can be traced back to classical poets such as Horace. Form or function – which is more important?

Signalling is a useful barometer of fitness - so long as that signal is honest

Signalling is a useful barometer of fitness – so long as that signal is honest

We all struggle with this question to greater or lesser extents. When we buy a car, what is most important to us? – Racy lines; a striking colour; the promise of adventure via 4-wheel drive (even if such a function is never actually used)? When we reduce a car down to its basics, it is a metal box with a wheel at four corners, and an engine to drive it along. Its function, at least to me, is to get people from one place to another in reasonable comfort, safety and speed. I’ve never bought into the idea of cars being objects of aesthetic desire. To me, when it comes to cars, function is much more important than form.

There are so many other kinds of consumer products that favour form over function. I suspect that it could be argued that one can have both. Product functionality embodied within a form that is also aesthetically attractive must be the ideal combination for the marketing executive. The question left in my mind, and why I doubt the motives of those who focus on form alone, is that such a focus can blind people to the deficiencies of function. A car can look wonderful but under the surface it can be old technology that is environmentally damaging. One can become beguiled by form, and end up compromising on function. I suspect this happens a lot.

My father also struggled with this function-form problem. When I was quite young he took me to Bettyhill in Strathnaver close to north tip of mainland Scotland to seeking out the Scottish primrose, an endemic species to the area. He was a conservationist who was embroiled in the process of embedding the principles of conservation in to the public service during the decades following the Second World War. The pilgrimage to Bettyhill was mainly to remind him why he was making himself unpopular an era when the “white heat of technology” was driving decision-making and, as it happened, was responsible for constructing a fast-breeder nuclear reactor not far along the coast at Dounreay. These were the days before powerful NGOs held decision-makers to account, making my father part of the thin line of defence against the overpowering march of function over form. When constructing the principles under which new developments might be approved and governed, he would privately ask himself the question whether those principles would help to save Primula scotica.

The Scottish primrose is still very much to the fore today. Human expansionism has not yet wiped out this delicate little flower although many other parts of the biodiversity of our planet are at risk, or have disappeared. My father was, of course, using the Scottish primrose as an allegory for biodiversity as a whole. It was his way of staying focused on the functional outcome of his efforts rather than the form of the primrose in particular. It was how he brought his own humanity to bear on a very utilitarian problem, although he lacked the scientific evidence about the environmental damage that could be done by unregulated industrial development. In this case the depiction of function through the medium of form was a way of exploring the trade-offs between very different functional issues – the use of natural resources versus the degradation this caused to the environment that sustains us.

The signalling of function through form is all around us in the natural world. A peacock’s tail is a signal of his fitness. The brightness of plumage colour of a blue tit signals fitness to resist parasites. Throughout the natural world we see adornments like this as forms that have been adopted because they signal a particular fitness for function. Dishonesty in this signalling of fitness for function through form is generally rooted out by natural selection.

This function versus form allegory came to the fore again at the end of February this year because of the work of the International Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem function (IPBES), a UN-led effort to put the scientific assessment of global biodiversity on the same footing as has been achieved by the work of the IPCC.

The IPBES chose to focus its first global biodiversity assessment on the state of pollinators, a group of organisms – mainly composed of insects including our much-loved bees – that is essential for the fertilization of plants including many types that are important foods. The messages from the assessment are loud and clear: that there is a problem. In this case, pollinators are the allegory for all biodiversity, but because they are something that we see having direct value, or function, it is more likely that we will do something to correct their decline. That action alone could do much to protect biodiversity as a whole, by protecting species that could be functionally important in ways we are not yet aware of.

IPBES itself embodies this function-form debate even within its own name. They focus on trying to describe the relationship between biodiversity and the functioning of ecological systems in terms of the goods they produce. Like the cars we drive, we need to know how much loss of form can be sustained before the function declines. For cars, I suspect that colour has very little impact on function, whereas the streamlining of the body work might have a greater impact. Like the peacock’s tail there is a signalling component in the cars we choose to drive, but how much is this really functional and how much of the signalling is dishonest?

Research is making rapid progress towards helping us understand what species in ecological systems are more or less critical to healthy function. While our knowledge is improving continuously we still need icons of form to fall back on to help guide us towards the functional outcome. That is why I spent most of my research career study marine mammals. Like the Scottish primrose and other visible manifestations of ecosystem health like birds, elephants, fish stocks or bees they provide indicators of ecosystem health that help us stay on track. Research is allowing us to better understand whether those signals are honest depictions of their critical function in ecosystems.

I remain convinced that function trumps form any day, but as a pragmatist I am happy to see the use of these indicators of biodiversity to guide our understanding on whether ecosystems are functioning as they should be.

A forensic approach to the environment

Nearly one quarter of the UK’s net worth is accounted for by the environment and so understanding how we assess it, understanding its benefits as well as the risks, is vital to preserving it.  This process – which we call ‘environmental forensics’ – was the subject of my recent contribution to the Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport’s annual report on forensics.

In my chapter I summarised the recent work under the National Ecosystem Assessment and the Natural Capital Committee in improving how we evaluate the environment. We all carry the costs of the environmental decisions of those around us – for example we eat, drink and breathe other people’s pollution on a daily basis. At the same time we rarely think when driving our cars or firing up the wood burning stove that our actions could lead to premature deaths. We take the benefits without thinking of the costs. That is why regulation is important. Without it there would be large asymmetry between the private benefits gained from the environment and the public costs. It has become the responsibility of governments to sustain an appropriate balance between these public and private costs and benefits. But as government are often reluctant to place cost burdens on those who cast votes, we need a mechanism that transfers responsibility for paying the costs to the individuals who benefit.

The rationale for setting environmental standards and measuring compliance is strongly driven by the concept of equity. Around half of air pollutants in the UK come from other parts of Europe – and, of course, the UK contributes to the air quality problems of other European countries. Water contaminated by sewage washed out to sea has the potential to contaminate seafood which could be distributed widely through the food chain. The choices people make about how to dispose of waste can have widespread effects, sometimes with long time lags between the release of pollutants and the ultimate effect, and this has become an issue driving global politics when it comes to different national responses to the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Government regulation to prevent the misallocation of environmental resources is therefore a very blunt instrument. Regulation has spawned an industry in environmental data measurement. The UK is mandated to measure an immense amount of information about everything from the chemistry of rivers to the number of birds on farmland and the noise emitted by human activity in the ocean. Efforts to focus attention on only measuring those features of the environment which matter has been hampered by a lack of underlying knowledge of how these relate to the benefits gained from the environment. The rationale for actions like this hinges on the risk-avoidance approach commonly used today. This approach suggests that changes caused by human presence need to be avoided even if the changes lie within the normal range of natural variability.

Seen in this context, the direction of travel in environmental forensics towards measuring and controlling more and more – at finer and finer levels of detail just in case this might be important in future – is clearly untenable.

The need for the measurement or monitoring of environmental indicators was initially driven by a sincere search for those surrogate indicators within the environment which most effectively represented societal valuation. But this has gradually mutated in to a process of measurement and reporting of data as an end in itself.

In future, the balance needs to shift towards risk and market based methods. New technology has the capacity to drive this change because it puts the power of information in the hands of individuals so they can make informed decisions.

There will always be a need for regulation and statute in this field and a strong role for government, but the nature of environmental forensics needs to change. The current system is arguably unaffordable in the future.  Technological innovation will come to the rescue to some extent by delivering more precise data at the point it affects behavioural choices.

The down side associated with the interpretative nature of decision making needs to be addressed through sophisticated information delivery processes. Micro-innovation at the source of environmental variables needs to be matched by macro-economic innovation to build market-based solutions. Internalising the economic costs of alternative actions for the environment and accounting for these, including the provision of the forensic evidence to support this method, is most likely to be the way forward.