Trust me, I’m an expert …. sage advice for aquatic scientists to heed

7 February 2013

Author of this post, Martyn Kelly (Source: Bowburn Consultancy website)

A few years ago, I was involved in a project financed by the UK water industry.  The project brief was to look at the benefits of phosphorus removal on British rivers. Huge sums of money had been spent on this in recent years but there has been little obvious ecological change as a result.   One of the questions we were asked to address is whether the standards for phosphorus concentrations in UK rivers were appropriate.  However, as the project went on a second agenda came to the fore: how can we (the water industry) “sell” the idea of low phosphorus concentrations to our customers?

Diatoms were at the centre of this mini-storm: they had a strong relationship with the nutrient gradient in UK rivers and were consequently used to establish the values for the standards.  But the water industry had put their finger on a key problem: the word “diatoms” meant nothing to the general public.  They could walk beside a river, look over a bridge, see water plants, even the occasional trout.  The river did not necessarily look polluted and, for the most part, no longer had the faint odour of putrefaction hanging over it as in the past.  You might draw the line at swimming in it but, equally, you could see no particular reason why you were being asked to pay £20 per year more in order that the water company could install more sophisticated wastewater treatment facilities. 

The sorry truth is that those of us who have been developing methods for using diatoms for water quality assessments have not been especially focussed on this aspect of our work.   Most of us sit hunched over expensive microscopes with piles of specialist identification guides beside us whilst we agonise over the striae density on an obscure Achnanthidium.   We write papers with tables crammed with species names and run sophisticated multivariate analyses to explore the underlying patterns in our datasets.   We’ve nodded sagely as other experts have outlined hypotheses about niche specificity of diatoms and written papers that show how closely changes in the diatom assemblage can be correlated with environmental variables.   And yet, at the end of all this, the public … the very people whose environments we have selflessly worked to protect … say “… and all I get for this extra £20 per year is …. different shaped diatoms?”   Then a slight pause followed by: “what … exactly … is a diatom?”

I don’t think that the diatom world is any worse at communicating with the lay public than other ecologists.  But I do think that we need to try harder, because the organisms we study are microscopic.   Water plants, fish, even benthic invertebrates, are more conspicuous and their relevance to ecosystems more self-evident.  The justification for healthy algal populations (as sources of oxygen to compensate instream decomposition, as the base of the aquatic food chain) and the implications of excessive algal growth (night-time deoxygenation for example) need to be part of our narrative.  This is rarely the case.  We need to link diatom assemblages back to tangible ecosystem services.  We don’t.

This will, in the end, have implications for the environment.  Briefly, the Water Framework Directive, which determines how Europe’s water is managed, has a get-out clause, called “less stringent objectives”.  This means that the high ecological standards that countries are expected to achieve can be relaxed if the costs of attaining these are excessively high relative to the benefits.  In other words, if we don’t explain the benefits, there will be little impetus for expensive remediation programmes to be introduced.  I fully expect these “less stringent objectives” to move to centre stage in debates over Europe’s water over the next few years and, unless professional and academic biologists make greater efforts to communicate with stakeholders, for these to be used as reasons for stalling on water quality improvements.   Research, by its nature, pushes us towards innovation and, indirectly, towards complexity.   Somewhere, along the way, we forgot to keep looking back over our shoulders …

This is an invited post, contributed by Dr Martyn Kelly of the Bowburn Consultancy, based in the village of Bowburn in County Durham, NE England.  Martyn Kelly is a freshwater biologist with a BSc in Environmental Science from the University of London and a PhD from the University of Durham, working with Prof Brian Whitton on heavy metal accumulation by aquatic bryophytes. He did post-doctoral research at Durham on stream ecology and on Mediterranean palaeoecology before becoming Senior Lecturer at the University of Jos (Nigeria) between 1989 and 1991. In 1992 he returned to Durham as National Rivers Authority Research Fellow which led, by a circuitous route, to development of the TDI (Trophic Diatom Index). In 1995 he left the University of Durham to become a freelance consultant, continuing the development of the TDI, advising the Environment Agency and others on the management of eutrophication in rivers and managing research projects.


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