Thursday, 4 February 2016

Funding and Local Environmental Records Centres

It was made public today that Natural England have decided to terminate service level agreements with Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCs). In their announcement they state:

'We no longer believe that continued investment in a large number of independent organisations managing data locally, and placing considerable constraints upon its use, is the right strategy. Generic tools and standards for data mobilisation, quality control & sharing, and using up-to-date technology, could substitute much of the need for local independent biodiversity data management and does not require the same level of ongoing investment from us. In our view, investment in helping to deliver the new NBN Strategy and associated Action Plan therefore offers a cost-effective approach. We’re looking at where we best target our spending and resources so we get the best possible value for money, and the LERC agreements do not deliver the changes towards more Open Data that Natural England and Defra wish to see.'

Some of this comes as no surprise. Natural England's budget has been substantially reduced, and with it their ability to continue to fund everything that they once did. Also, I am not totally surprsied that emphasis is placed on the issue of data access. Some LERCs are quite protective about data access and as such this runs counter to many of the principles applied to publicly funded data management. I can understand why some LERCS are so protective andI know of individuals who are equally concerned about data being made widely available, so it is not a simple issue. But, there was always the danger that lack of data accessibility would become a significant issue for funding bodies such as NE.

For me, the bigger issue is the degree to which the role of LERCs in promoting biological recording is understood. Last weekend we ran a course on hoverfly identification for 9 people at Brecon LERC. Last June we did the same for the LERC at Kirkwall in Orkney. Next month we are doing the same for the LERC in Sussex – there is a pattern developing …. Yes we do run courses at other centres such as museums, but they too are closing!

Over the years there have been a number of initiatives to improve biological recording skills – the HRS has benefitted from two OPAL grants and one from Natural England that have made it possible to take training to the regions. Some 400+ people later we are still making use of the equipment funded by these grants. But, we cannot operate without local organisers, a venue and somebody to administer the costs of running a course. Even if a course is cost neutral to the host, there still need to be a booking system and a payments system. If it starts to fall to local volunteers to organise venues and courses they probably won't happen – there is a need for insurance, somebody has to finance room hire, and somebody has to take a financial risk that the costs will be covered by sufficient people enrolling. And, we don't swallow the costs - our T&S has to be covered, which for a two day course many miles from home is not cheap; even if we only charge fuel costs, accommodation and basic subsistence. Organisations such as LERCs, Museums and Wildlife Trusts have this capacity. Less so, local societies where a loss on a course could have a big impact on their budget; and it is the brave individual that grasps this nettle.

So, whilst a strategy based on the NBN clearly offers a cost-effective option for a cash-starved Natural England, there are knock-on effects resulting from a contraction away from LERCs. Loss of local venues for training is possibly the least of the worries. If LERCs close, then jobs go too. Often these are early career options for relatively young graduates and provide a stimulus for people to gain skills and to be exposed to a wide variety of recording skills. LERC staff often participate in the data collection process and gain field skills. They also start to get involved in the long-term commitment to recording. Without this opportunity, the numbers of skilled recorders may well diminish. We forget that many Recording Scheme organisers have at some stage had career links with biology and if those links are cut the chances of developing a replacement generation are more remote.

So, whilst I fully understand why NE has taken the decision to cut LERC support, I fear that this might be another nail in the coffin of some aspects of biological recording.

In my own case, I doubt I would have become so interested and committed had it not been that I developed skills in order to get work as a field entomologist. My time with the ISR gave me a depth of knowledge, experience and contacts that I would not otherwise have had. And, I was sufficiently committed to take on a national recording scheme. I have to confess that in part I did so because I thought it might help my career chances (I was on short term contracts at the time and it took a further 3 years before I got a 'permanent' job). In the end, taking on that voluntary role has had very little impact on my real career as entomology jobs in conservation were largely scrapped in 1991 and I had to move on and do something else. But, without that initial impetus would there now be a highly active Recording Scheme, a WILDGuide, a well-respected Facebook group of over 2000 participants and around 60-80 new trainees every year? Probably not! I would have become an estate agent or something of that ilk.

It remains to be seen how NE's decision will affect LERC viability. What must be in little doubt is that any loss of capacity to organise and to motivate biological recording could have profound implications long into the future.

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