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22/10/2014

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‘Give bees a chance!’

Scientists must run campaigns, asserts Ian Gibson

When I was approached by an ex-student to help the British Beekeepers’ Association in a campaign to research the causes behind the collapse of bee numbers in their hives, I was initially sceptical.  After all, there was evidence that the varroa mite, malnutrition and maybe even agrochemicals are involved. 

The leadership of the Beekeepers was determined to succeed.  I had also spoken at Rothamsted Research Centre and heard how funding for bee research had dried up.   I asked myself the question: Why does it always seem that in the UK we close research just when it is most needed?  We have found this with BSE and Foot and Mouth just when they became national issues.  I joined the campaign.

Action

We went on to have exchanges with ministers and government officials.  We had discussions with Research Councils and the Wellcome Foundation about the research.

We engaged with and received support from the Women’s Institute. A book and film were produced as the media picked up on the issues. MPs visited local apiaries with the press in tow.  People marched on Downing Street where men and women in white suits, puffing smoke, descended on the police and politicians.  Their cry was, ‘All we are saying is give bees a chance.’ 

Meetings were held in both Houses at Westminster and an All Party Group set up. And The Archers of BBC Radio 4 fame picked up on the issue and the Beekeepers Association advised on the script!

Government attitude

I went with the Beekeepers to the House of Lords to speak to a Minister, Lord Rooker.  We were told, quite sharply, that there was no money in his department (DEFRA) for this research.  This was confirmed by civil servants at other meetings.

Prince Charles took an interest and the government suddenly got the message.  Major areas of our economy, for example the fruit industry, depended on bee pollination, and this became a key argument.  At international conferences, speakers accentuated the problem was indeed worldwide.

Bees had become the environmental issue of the year. Individuals were encouraged to grow the relevant plants to produce nectar and pollen. People were encouraged to keep bees, even in cities. Courses on beekeeping became fully subscribed and continue to be so to this day.

The government capitulated in the face of this onslaught, and found money for research projects.  We followed up by making sure it was real money, ring-fenced and new.  We asked for £8 million for research and rumour has it we got more.

Individuals involved in the campaign and the beekeepers organisation have received many accolades and distinguished awards.  This was a successful campaign.  It should encourage others to develop their own campaigns and to enable Research Councils to ask for more resources, including peer reviewed research.

New strategies

Scientists have to form entirely new partnerships to engage with the political process.  It is no longer good enough to leave it to vice-chancellors, learned societies, Chief Scientific Advisers or civil servants to deliver the policies of success. 

My experience of policy-formation is that scientists are walked all over by politicians whose tactics and motivation are accurately illustrated by the TV programme, In the thick of it.  It should be compulsory viewing for every undergraduate and research scientist.

A scientist who has something to offer for the benefit of mankind needs to run a campaign and understand what that means.  It will involve many players and should tackle both positive aspects as well as negative.  There are many situations where scientists walk away from such activity by saying it’s up to the politicians now. 

No, it is not!

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Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Ian Gibson was a Labour MP 1997–2009 and Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee 2001-2995. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of East Anglia
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