One of the largest completely aquatic frogs in the world, the Lake Titicaca water frog grows to the size of a salad plate in its home over 3,800 metres above sea level and avoids the harshest elements of a high-altitude life by spending all its time under the water. Rejoicing in the Latin name of Telmatobius culeus – “aquatic scrotum,” the frog has a bizarre set of adaptations to deal with its lifestyle.
People have been fascinated with the frog since ancient times, when it was believed to have the power to call rain, with more recent admirers including the Victorian explorers who christened it and Jacques Cousteau. But the frog is now suffering from its popularity – it suffers from over-collection (though the reason might surprise you!) as well as pollution and loss of habitat, invasive predators, and fishing of its favorite prey, the ipsi, may also be playing a role, while the chytrid fungus remains a looming threat. The population has fallen by about 80% in fifteen years. Plans to save the critically endangered frog include captive breeding programs in Peru, Bolivia and abroad, and potentially large-scale frog farming.
To find out more about this amazing animal – recently ranked as one of the ugliest creatures on the planet – check out it and the other weird and wonderful species in the BioFresh Cabinet of Freshwater Curiosities!
Among the goals of the strategic dialogue workshop in which BioFresh participated last week, one of the most fundamental was to find out how EU-funded research could maximise its contribution to policy. Such contributions come within the structure of current European policies, with three initiatives being particularly relevant: the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, the 7th Environment Action Programme, and Horizon 2020 (the funding arm of the Innovation Union). So how do these frameworks set up the European science-policy interface? A brief look at the context:
The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, called “Our Life Insurance, Our Natural Capital,” followed from a recognition that the EU had missed its target to halt biodiversity decline by 2010. The strategy is the EU’s framework to fulfill its commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the new policy includes a headline target to stop biodiversity loss by 2020, as well as stopping the degradation of ecosystems. A vision for 2050 says that by that date, biodiversity and ecosystem services will be protected, valued and appropriately restored. The strategy has six targets, indicating the main causes of biodiversity loss that relate to EU policy:
-Improving the status of species and habitats covered by EU nature legislation
-Enhancing ecosystems and their services through restoration and green infrastructure
-Practising biodiversity-conscious agriculture and forestry
-Managing fisheries sustainably
-Controlling invasive species
-Addressing the EU’s role in the global biodiversity crisis
To tackle these targets, the Biodiversity Strategy calls for the EU to coordinate its efforts with those of member states. It should propose new initiatives to fulfill gaps in policy, as well as mobilising funding and fostering research and private-sector collaboration.
The 7th Environmental Action Programme (7EAP) is the latest step in 40 years of European environmental policy. Proposed by the European Commission in November 2012 and adopted by the European Parliament last month, it is titled “Living Well, within the Planet’s Limits.” Th e framework draws on recent policy developments such as the Biodiversity Strategy above, as well as making use of lessons learned under its predecessor, the 6th EAP. Like the Biodiversity Strategy, it takes the form of strategic goals for the short- to medium-term coupled with a long-term vision, and identifies a suite of objectives, with nine in this case. But while the Biodiversity Strategy sets out goals by environmental sectors such as fisheries management and invasive species, 7EAP is broader in defining its objectives:
- Protecting nature and environmental resilience
-Supporting sustainable, low-carbon development
-Tackling environmental health hazards
-Implementing EU environmental law more effectively
-Ensuring policy-making uses state-of-the-art science
-Obtaining the investment necessary to support policy on the environment and climate change
-Ensuring other EU policy takes environmental needs and issues into account
-Improving sustainability in European cities
-Improving the EU’s effectiveness in addressing regional and global challenges related to the environment and climate change
Horizon 2020, on the other hand, is a funding instrument, developed to implement the EU’s Innovation Union, which seeks to keep the EU competitive by fostering research and innovation. Starting early next year, Horizon 2020 will run until 2020 and will combine all of the research and innovation funding currently under the Framework Programmes for Research and Technical Development, the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP) and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). It will provide a dedicated budget to address shared European concerns such as climate change, sustainability and renewable energy. Horizon 2020 will take a market-driven approach, partnering with the private sector as well as member states to provide resources, and it will make international cooperation a priority. It will also be complemented by the development of the European Research Area by 2014, which aims to create a “genuine single market for knowledge, research and innovation.”
In this context, last week’s strategic dialogue is a step towards coordinating between these different policy objectives, pointing research funded by the Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7) towards areas where where policymakers have identified needs. It also aims to provide guidance on better communication between existing projects and related policy – an explicit goal under 7EAP, for example – as well as promoting collaboration among projects, particularly those on biodiversity and ecosystem services.
With the UNFCCC conference in its second week in Warsaw, carbon is in the limelight. While high-profile market-based initiatives such as REDD-plus focus on forest carbon, freshwater ecosystems with significant stocks – such as peatlands – are comparatively overlooked in carbon finance. But Lydia Cole argues these unique wetlands are a critical piece of the emissions puzzle. Cole’s work focuses on tropical peat swamp forests, which hold the most dense terrestrial carbon stocks on the planet - about 500 Gt in 4 million square kilometers, just 3% of the terrestrial surface. Cole, who recently completed her DPhil at Oxford’s Biodiversity Institute, is the first subject of BioFresh’s “Young Thinkers” series, showcasing the work that early-career researchers are doing at BioFresh-linked universities.
An ecologist by training, Cole became interested in tropical peat swamp forests during her master’s studies at Oxford, as she studied the issues surrounding palm oil production. Initially focusing on the role of Imperata grasses in taking over degraded areas, she transferred her energies to peat swamp forests after traveling to Sarawak for fieldwork and seeing the rapid rate at which extensive tracts are being drained for agriculture. Through counting fossil pollen preserved in peat cores dating back up to 5,000 years ago, she studied the role of fire and human land conversion and concluded that while fire had always been a part of peat swamp forest ecosystems, it had rapidly increased in the last two hundred years, coinciding with significant human land-use change and a likely loss of resilience in the ecosystem. Once peat swamp forests are drained for agriculture, the stored organic carbon, normally protected in the water-logged environment of an intact peatland, becomes exposed to the air and oxidizes and produces carbon dioxide. The areas also become much more susceptible to fires, which release even greater amounts of carbon dioxide – globally, equivalent to at least 6% of fossil fuel emissions every year. “It’s really a disaster that they’re being converted,” says Cole.
After finishing her degree, Cole is spending several months testing the waters of the business world, working with Rezatec to develop a means to quantify carbon stocks held within peat. If this is successful, peatland conservation projects may be able to join in global carbon markets. “Not being able to quantify the carbon is slowing down the potential to conserve peat swamp forests,” says Cole. “Big businesses are becoming more comfortable with forest carbon, but very few people know about peat carbon.” Cole will be working with Rezatec for 8 months, trying to find a way to simplify the complex process of calculating how much carbon is stored in peat. “I’ve always wanted to be very applied, to feed research into very practical conservation issues,” Cole says. “The next 8 months I see as a way of assessing one aspect of potential [peatland] conservation.”
Although currently peatlands aren’t a popular carbon-trading option because of uncertainty in how to measure the carbon being stored, Cole says that there are several reasons why they match well with carbon markets. For one thing, in Sarawak she found that in general the peatlands have fewer land rights issues than other forested areas, because there are fewer people living or extracting resources from them. There are also co-benefits – for example, they supply water to several of the major cities, because in their intact state they remain wet all year round. In some areas there is also the potential for eco-tourism, as species such as orangutans may retreat into intact peat swamp forest refuges. But perhaps the best incentive is the urgency of the issue – peat swamp forests are some of the most vulnerable areas to conversion, particularly in nations such as Malaysia which are aggressively pursuing oil palm agriculture.
Why peatlands? Cole says that she often gets that question from friends and colleagues. “They just couldn’t understand why I was interested in this muddy, swampy, mosquito-ridden ecosystem, coming from the UK,” says Cole. But aside from being fascinated with the peat swamp forests themselves, the fact that not many people are interested – in Malaysia or elsewhere – means that there’s the potential to make a difference. Peat forests are a particularly important carbon sink, and a particularly vulnerable one, but for Cole they highlight the threats facing many ecosystems. “To be someone who does care, I feel it’s important that I keep caring, keep working towards a positive change,” she says.
Prior to the EU strategic dialogue workshop on the science-policy interface being held this week, participants (including BioFresh) were asked to supply responses and proposals addressing key research needs identified by policy-makers. This will provide the focus for discussion as BioFresh and other participating organisations meet in Brussels for the workshop. Researchers and policy-makers will work together to identify ways to achieve better collaboration between EU-funded research projects and to direct research activities towards concrete policy needs, as well as helping communication at the science-policy interface. BioFresh is publishing its set of three policy briefs (Numbers 3, 4, and 5) on research and policy priorities for protecting freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity. These briefs present BioFresh’s contribution to the workshop and draw attention to the need for long-term, large-scale research into the full range of services that freshwater ecosystems provide. Freshwater ecosystems are under threat in the EU and freshwater biodiversity continues to decline, failing to meet the objectives of the Habitats and Water Framework Directives. This is in part because current policy focuses on provisioning services and basic, immediate human needs, such as energy production through hydropower, at the expense of freshwater habitats and species. Instead, the EU needs integrated policymaking with a long-term, holistic outlook to tackle the continuing loss of biodiversity and the conflict between resource development and biodiversity directives. The key points of the briefs are summarised below.
Issue No. 3: Is biodiversity being left behind? Freshwater ecosystems hold unparalleled species diversity, but are amongst the most threatened in Europe. Prioritizing short-term, often localized benefits in ecosystem provisioning services (such as hydropower) is degrading habitats and damaging cultural and regulatory services such as carbon storage, making it impossible for Europe to meet policy goals under the Habitats and Water Framework Directives. The brief calls for ‘biodiversity-conscious priority setting,’ considering the full range of services that freshwater ecosystems provide, as well as improving the knowledge of ecosystems’ status and threats, to use EU funding resources to the greatest advantage.
Issue No. 4: Alleviating stress on freshwater biodiversity. Freshwater ecosystems in Europe need stronger protection, having been neglected in recent conservation activity. Major stressors are the continuing modification of rivers for hydropower installations, as well as massive abstraction of water in the Mediterranean and the uncontrolled spread of invasive species, which to some extent result from misled or incoherent policy. Aligning policy on agriculture, water, energy, biodiversity, and other related issues can help ease the pressure on freshwater systems, and will require wider participation from regional and local stakeholders.
Issue No. 5: The water-food-energy security nexus: Where do freshwater ecosystems fit in? Water has a ‘hybrid identity’ as both a medium for all life and a resource for humanity. Policy-makers need to look beyond the current focus on providing basic human needs, such as food and security, to considering all human needs, including cultural, aesthetic and cognitive needs. This requires large-scale design experiments and research on water-dependent sectors as well as communication and engagement to reframe public perceptions of water.
This month, BioFresh will take part together with several other FP7-funded projects in a science-policy interface workshop organised by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research and Innovation (DG-RTD). The workshop, “Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services: A Strategic Dialogue between Science and Policy,” will try to develop ways in which the EU can promote effective communication between EU research projects and policy, as well as encouraging “science-science dialogue” between different FP7-funded projects on biodiversity and ecosystem services.
The workshop will address a number of goals:
* Achieving better communication between research and EU policy,
* Helping EU-funded projects to maximize their contribution to developing and implementing policy, in the context of current instruments such as the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 and other policy needs
* Identifying areas in which research projects can collaborate – on scientific and technical issues, but also communication and science-policy strategies
* Looking ahead to future EU research priorities – especially in the areas of ecosystem services and natural capital, with a focus on innovation under the nascent Horizon 2020.In particular, the organizers have been targeting policy-relevant research by reaching out to EC policymakers before the workshop, asking them to identify current, specific needs in the form of research questions. The information has then been sent to project managers, who are asked to choose among the submitted questions and prepare briefs on how their projects could address the policy needs.
Such “co-production” of questions is a critical step in developing policy-relevant research, and this pre-workshop activity in itself is a valuable move to aid science-policy dialogue. During the workshop, participants will take part in interactive sessions such as plenary talks and round table discussions, to make the most of the wide range of expertise present, and to work on obtaining concrete results.
In fact, it is hoped that the workshop will provide the groundwork to promote ongoing exchanges not only between policymakers and project coordinators, but also amongst project coordinators themselves. Particularly in light of increasing global interest in ecosystem services, the workshop sets an important objective in exploring how best to integrate research on biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Effective science-policy communication is a perennial challenge, but DG RTD is well-placed to showcase the benefits of such a strategic dialogue. Its broad reach into various arenas of research and policy means that effective integration has both a greater urgency and a potentially higher payoff. Having both the science and the policy concerned within the same European frameworks also lowers some of the barriers to successful collaboration. The workshop can point to models for the wider science-policy interface and can encourage more efficient use of scientific research to answer the questions that need to be asked for effective policy.
Describing his newest subject, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky comes right to the point. “Water is not optional,” says Burtynsky on his website. “It is the ultimate thing that provides for life, and if humans don’t have it, they have to leave the area, it’s as simple as that.” A fairly self-evident statement, it seems. But the truth is, that we forget water’s presence almost completely, on a daily basis. Western infrastructure pushes water out of sight, to the background, below-ground – often so effectively we don’t even notice how it permeates our lives, never mind think about not having enough water for the asking.
Burtynsky’s five-year odyssey, the “Water Project,” aims to change that. Burtynsky takes as his subject not only water – in all its forms – but also its lack, inscribed on the physical landscape. “Water is intermittently introduced as a victim, a partner, a protagonist, a lure, a source, an end, a threat and a pleasure,” writes Russell Lord, curator at NOMA. “Water is also often completely absent from the pictures. Burtynsky instead focuses on the visual and physical effects of the lack of water, giving its absence an even more powerful presence.”
The project divorces us from our normal viewpoint – peering over a dam wall, gazing across a field – to sweep us up and deposit us in the skies, looking down sometimes thousands of feet to the world below. Whether this celestial perspective is godlike or humbling depends on the viewer, but it certainly allows us to appreciate the weird, unsettling beauty in our footprint as a species. Burtynsky’s austere geometry and very subtle use of color strips away any comforting insulation we might have, but equally makes no overt claims as we see the results of our handywork – pivot irrigation in the deserts of the Southwest United States or winter dryland farming in Spain, the fragile grid of abalone aquaculture or titanic dam projects in China, the soft mosaic of oil on the waves in the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Alongside the photography, the Water Project includes the film Watermark, and a book, Burtynsky – Water. The film, a feature documentary from Burtynsky, Jennifer Paichwal and Nick de Pencier, is their second collaboration after Manufactured Landscapes in 2006, and was selected for the Toronto Film Festival. To achieve the sweeping aerial shots that are the hallmark of his style, Burtynsky uses all the tools at his disposal, from a 50-foot pneumatic pole to fixed-wing planes and remote-controlled helicopters.
Some of his subjects celebrate beauty without apology – the impressionist swathe of a pristine Icelandic river, a kaleidoscope of colors as 30 million people gather in Allahabad to bathe during the Kumbh Mela. But there are turns where art blossoms in unexpected, unsettling subjects – such as “Stepwell #4” in Rajasthan, India, or the desert delta of the Colorado River, cut off from the sea. Burtynsky’s view from his perch is detached, austere – almost clinical. Yet there is an uncomfortable beauty here that raises equally uncomfortable questions. Does aesthetic appreciation of the almost extinct Colorado River make us newly complicit in its demise? Or does it merely draw attention to the fact that we have been complicit all along? Whatever the answer, the Water Project invites questions on a grand scale, revealing how our dance with our most fundamental resource sculpts the landscapes around us. The link between art and activism can be fraught, and Burtynsky states on his website that his goal is simply to provoke thought: “My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival; something we often take for granted—until it’s gone.”
Biodiversity and conservation have long borrowed concepts and approaches from public health: consider the term ecosystem health or evidence-based conservation which applies systematic review methods pioneered in the medical sciences. One consequence of the failure to achieve targets associated with international environmental treaties is new investments in strengthening science-policy interfaces. The IPBES is a key development at the international level and two EU F7 projects SPIRAL and Biodiversity Knowledge initiative are developing structures and principles in an effort to improve the interaction of science with policy makers in DG RI and DG Environment.
Twitter, launched in 2006, is transforming information flows in society. In this video post, Dr Ruth Jepson of the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research & Policy, Edinburg University shares her experiences of creating a successful twitter feed: a knowledge brokering service building community among public health researchers, policy makers, politicians and members of interested publics.