Valuing biodiversity data
The Environment Bill provides an excellent opportunity for the UK government to make some great strides in halting the UK’s biodiversity decline, conserving our wildlife and improving our natural world. We have also had a reiteration of the government’s pledge “not only to stem the tide of loss, but to turn it around – to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” in George Eustice’s speech on environmental recovery on the 20th July.
In both the Environment Bill and in the speech, there is reference to the importance of data and information and using science, underpinned by data, to inform crucial decisions. George Eustice stated that “We want everyone to be able to access an accurate, centralised body of data on species populations so that taking nature into account is the first, speedy step to [a planning] application.” This is a laudable ambition and, as the NBN Trust provides a UK level aggregation of species occurrence data, one that we obviously support.
However, there is a large amount of time, effort and cost associated with making data accessible and ensuring that the data is of a known, high quality. The majority of biodiversity data collected in the UK is collected by volunteers. This, however, does not make that data free. Those volunteers have to be provided with training and support to enable them to accurately record species data. The records then have to be validated and species ID verified, and even though much species ID verification is also undertaken by volunteers, the infrastructure around data management, hosting the data and making it accessible online incurs significant costs and requires resources to manage. The costs of data management are mostly borne by not-for-profit organisations, and while there is a long tradition of volunteers and not-for-profits providing these data, the sector cannot bear these costs alone. If the government want data to be accessible they have to provide a greater level of funding to support biodiversity data gathering, management and the infrastructure to facilitate data sharing or, at the very least, support the mechanisms that require those who seek to use biodiversity data for activities that provide financial gain to contribute to these costs.
Furthermore, having access to biodiversity data can only ever be part of a solution. Data are only as good as the people interpreting them. Along with the data we need people capable of properly interpreting it to ensure that sound, informed decisions are made. This is especially important for those who will be assessing planning applications, Biodiversity Net Gain and Natural Capital assessments. Local authorities are already underfunded and under-resourced, with less than a third having in-house an ecologist or biodiversity officer. Natural England do not even have the resources required to carry out their current statutory duties, let alone the extra responsibilities set out in the Environment Bill.
The inclusion of data requirements in the Environment Bill is a very welcome step and the government is right to want everyone to be able to access accurate data. High quality data are essential for any decisions that affect the environment and to realise the government’s ambitions to leave the environment in a better state than they found it. We are incredibly lucky in the UK to have such a rich history of dedicated, expert, amateur naturalists who have provided us with a world leading, comprehensive collection of biodiversity data. However, we should not take this resource for granted. Without these high quality data, it will be impossible to tackle the urgent environmental problems we currently face including the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. There has never been a greater need to support and invest in the right data and environmental information infrastructure to sustain nature conservation.
Jo Judge is Chief Executive Officer of the National Biodiversity Network @jo_judge
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