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Ecology in the UK is on a perilous trajectory


Falling share of funding weakens ability to tackle climate and biodiversity crises, says Yadvinder Malhi

This is the critical decade. The decade in which we must take real action against climate change and its lower-profile but equally devastating twin biodiversity loss. In the fight against these dual crises, the work of ecologists has never been more important—understanding the natural world is the key to protecting it.

Questions are rightly being asked about whether the research system is set up to deal with these momentous threats. Despite the importance of ecological science in tackling them, there have been suggestions that ecology is receiving a decreasing proportion of overall research funding.

To explore this, the British Ecological Society has undertaken a preliminary investigation into how the funds available to UK ecological research have changed over the past decade and a half. The results are presented in a report published today.

Lagging behind

The UK R&D funding landscape is complex, which makes it difficult to investigate how much funding is allocated to specific disciplines. In our investigation, we found that a lack of available data meant that in-depth analysis was only possible for projects funded by UK Research and Innovation, the country’s main public research funder.

We designed a method to estimate what proportion of funding for ecological research comes from the two UKRI councils most relevant to ecology: the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

We found that funding awarded to ecology projects by NERC and BBSRC between 2006 and 2021 rose from £22.7 million to £49.6m. This is a real-terms increase—spending in 2021 is equivalent to £31.7m in 2006 prices.

This sounds like good news for ecological research in the UK. But the context of wider R&D funding shows that UKRI funding for ecological research has increased at a significantly slower rate than for other subjects.

While, in real terms, NERC and BBSRC funding for ecology increased by 56 per cent over 15 years, in the same period overall UKRI funding for all other research areas increased by 180 per cent. In other words, the share of UKRI funding given to ecology has fallen. This differential funding growth is alarming.

Patchy data

We also performed a less detailed analysis, limited by data availability, of overall funding for ecology in the UK. This suggested that ecology receives only a small proportion of funding from other public and private sources and that this proportion is either holding steady or falling.

These combined trends paint a troubling picture. UKRI and other public organisations should increase funding for ecology, to give us and nature the ability to counter the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Throughout our report on funding trends, a lack of available data was a constant theme. Without better data, there is a risk that we could be in a ‘silent crisis’ in ecological research, where an unrecognised shortfall in investment undermines the field’s ability to tackle crises and bring benefits to society. The lack of data also makes it almost impossible for public research funders to be held to account for their spending.

If ecological science does start to receive more funding, how should it be spent? What should the priorities be in ecology in the face of such critical threats? To answer this, we have produced a second report, also published today, on the future of ecological research in the UK.

Pressing questions

In this, we brought together leading experts to identify the grand challenges for ecology and set out our vision for the discipline’s future. A deeper understanding of the living world can provide solutions to pressing challenges such as conservation and food security.

The report identifies priority themes to advance this understanding. These include ensuring ecological systems are resilient to a rapidly changing world; making nature-restoration projects into living laboratories to test approaches such as rewilding; and using artificial intelligence and new modelling approaches to better understand the enormous complexities of ecosystems.

We need to look at ecology at the largest scales to understand how ecological and human systems interweave, while also focusing attention on poorly understood ecological frontiers such as soils, forest canopies and the deep ocean.

Our hope is that together these reports will show to UKRI and other funding bodies both the perilous trajectory that ecological research is on and the potential for exciting future research directions. Now more than ever, ecologists need the funding and tools to help secure a future for all life on earth.

Yadvinder Malhi is president of the British Ecological Society and professor of ecosystem science at the University of Oxford

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight