Bridging the science-policy gap, one conference at a time

Amanda Trask, a research ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, is our guest blogger today. Here she reflects on a great experience attending the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference (SEECC) at the University of Aberdeen in 2017.

A key part of being a successful scientist is being able to effectively communicate and discuss your research findings with fellow scientists and policy advisers.

For researchers working in the ecological, environmental or conservation sciences, the latter group is a ‘must reach’ one to infleunce. Scientific conferences provide an ideal venue for such communication. For researchers at the start of their scientific career, conferences like the SEECC, held at the University of Aberdeen in April 2017, are ideal.

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Networking over coffee at the SEECC 2017. Photo by Svenja Kroeger.

What makes the SEECC different from other conferences?

The SEECC is that rare type of conference that manages to be small and highly social and yet packs a punch with an impressive scientific programme of plenary speakers, a panel discussion session and a diverse array of high-quality student talks and posters.  It is aimed in particular at PhD and Masters students in ecology, conservation and environmental science,  and provides a great opportunity for students from across Scotland to meet, and present and discuss their research findings. Here the small size of the conference is a strength, because the lack of parallel talk sessions means everyone attends the talks, and there are instant conversation-starters available!

The conference is jointly run by a Scottish university (in 2016 it was the University Of Edinburgh, at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and this time it was the University of Aberdeen) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and a variety of representatives from other organisations attend (e.g. RSPB. SWT).  This means that the SEECC is a great networking opportunity as delegates get to meet both academic and non-academic senior researchers and policy makers.

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The poster session at the SEECC 2017. Photo by Francesca Mancini.

A few of the (many) highlights from the SEECC 2017

The SEECC 2017 included a fantastic plenary talk by Professor (and Dame)  Georgina Mace FRS (Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at University College London) on the changing perceptions of nature conservation in an increasingly human-dominated world. The talk guided us through the ‘nature for itself’ viewpoint of the 1960’s, through the more utilitarian ‘nature for people’ focus in the early 2000’s, where the emphasis was on natural capital and ecosystem services, to the more nuanced present-day ‘nature and people’ perspective, where the dynamic two-way relationship between people and nature is acknowledged.

However, these changing perceptions make it difficult to measure conservation success and design effective management strategies, as what may benefit people may not always benefit nature conservation and vice versa. More on Professor Georgina Mace’s work on how we should value nature can be found in the link at the end of this blog.

The second excellent talk by Professor Des Thompson (Principal Advisor on Biodiversity at SNH) brought a more Scotland-orientated view of nature conservation. Des highlighted the work that still needs to be done to support Scotland’s biodiversity. This talk also included the first mention of Brexit at the conference, and the need to balance potential opportunity to improve on current environmental policies with the risk of attrition of protected areas.

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The panel discussion on ‘Applying ecological science to conservation policy’, featuring (from L-R) Andrew Bachell, Georgina Mace, Ruth Mitchell and Anne Glover. Photo by Jane Reid.

The discussion on the balancing of risk and opportunity in the future of nature conservation was further followed up during the fantastic panel discussion on ‘Applying ecological science to conservation policy’, featuring Georgina,  Professor Anne Glover FRS (former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Scottish Government and to the European Commission), Andrew Bachell (Director of Policy and Advice, SNH) and Dr Ruth Mitchell (Chair of the British Ecological Society Scottish Policy Group). A key theme of the panel discussion was the need for scientists to effectively communicate their research findings, to ensure that their research informs conservation and environmental policy, or as  Anne phrased it “you can’t generate knowledge and not find a home for it”.

Tundra teabag experiment

It was therefore particularly striking to see the high quality of both the science and the presentations throughout the student talks and posters at the SEECC 2017 – it seems that the early career researchers at this conferences are well on their way to becoming great communicators and scientists! The student talks ranged in topic from a ‘tundra teabag experiment’, exploring litter decomposition patterns across the tundra biome by Haydn Thomas of the University of Edinburgh (more on his research can be found here), to foraging decisions of rufous hummingbirds by Georgina Glaser of the University of St Andrews (more on her research can be found here). Winners of the first and second prize for the best talk went to John Godlee of the University of Edinburgh and Richard Whittet of the University of Edinburgh, while the winner of the best poster went to Robin Whytock of the University of Stirling (more on his research can be found here).

The SEECC is hosted by a different Scottish University each year and is a fantastic opportunity for researchers at the start of their science careers to present their work, hear about the great research coming out of other Scottish universities, and network with senior researchers and policymakers.  In particular, for PhD and Masters students who want their current or future research to have impact on environmental policy, the SEECC is a great place to start!  The 2018 conference shall be at the University of St Andrews.


Mace, G. (2014) Whose Conservation? Science, 345, 1558-1560.


Recently finishing her PhD at the University of Aberdeen on the conservation genetics and demographics of red-billed chough in Scotland, Amanda Trask is continuing her research in biodiversity conservation as a Research Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology.

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