Stephanie West, Angela Marmont Centre, Natural History Museum
Back in 2011 the House of Lords discussed the ‘Taxonomic Skills Shortage’. This followed years of discussion within natural history: our natural historians are ageing, where is the next generation, who will continue this work? Historically the UK has had a wealth of amateur and professional naturalists, able to identify to an expert level insects and plants, some of which are barely discernible to the naked eye. This has built a detailed picture of the wildlife of the British Isles and beyond, and how it has changed over time, allowing us to recognise and study the impacts of environmental change. But even from a personal perspective, as I developed in my career in ecology and my interest in natural history, I could so often look around the groups I was with, whether at a conference, field meeting or workshop and be the only one without greying hair. I went to university with over a hundred other people training to be ecologists, or environmentalists, grew up with people who also watched The Really Wild Show or David Attenborough, but where were they all when it came to actually knowing what species were and how to identify them? We are now in the situation where we have an ageing population of experts, often amateurs and many well into retirement, and no one learning these skills. This obviously isn’t sustainable, we are genuinely at a point of seeing critical identification skills lost, just as with such rapid change in our environment and pressures on our habitats, we need them most.
While many visitors to the Natural History Museum in London may simply see us as a tourist attraction – ‘that place with the dinosaurs’ – we are of course the custodians of a very active research collection, and therefore have access not only to many collections, but also to the experts themselves. When the House of Lords report came out, it therefore seemed a logical opportunity to attempt to decant some of that expertise in the Museum into others.
A programme was developed and funding awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘Skills for the Future’ project for a 3 year project called ‘Identification Trainers for the Future’, which we ran in partnership with the National Biodiversity Network Trust and Field Studies Council. During this time, we took 15 trainees, in groups of 5 for a year at a time, through a work-based training programme where they would have the chance to develop identification skills for a wide range of ‘cryptic’ taxa (those that are hard to identify) or taxa where we knew there was a skills shortage, and offer them the opportunity to develop their own particular area of expertise. Crucially though, this wasn’t just about training 15 people. To maximise the impact of the project long term, our trainees also undertook a programme of training in scientific communication, backed up with a wealth of experience during their time with us, so they could share what they’d learnt with others both now and as their careers develop.
The project as a whole has proved to be an outstanding success, better than we could have imagined. Critically we proved a need for this type of training and opportunity, even in the first year we had over 400 applications for the first 5 places; with, over the course of 3 recruitments, over 700 individuals applying for the 15 traineeships. This shows that there is real demand for these skills and training opportunities, and many of the people we had to turn away were excellent. As a result, we were able to expand the programme to offer free training to declined candidates on individual workshops so they still had the opportunity to develop their identification skills with us. But it is the trainees themselves that have been the real legacy of the project. All 15 of our trainees are actively involved in conservation and ecology, using their identification and communication skills in both their employment and voluntary work. Not only do we have trainees across major conservation organisations such as the RSPB, Natural England, Plant Life and the Wildlife Trusts; they are teaching workshops, running national recording schemes, producing new and accessible identification guides, and have surpassed what we thought might be possible when we started this scheme, as it is not just our impact on the 15 trainees that has been important, but that ongoing impact of our trainees that is so vital to really addressing the sustained maintenance and development of skills.
Going forward, the Identification Trainers for the Future project taught us a lot about the place and opportunity of the Museum in natural history skills training. We have been working hard in the background since the end of that project to decide where we go next, but will shortly be releasing the start of a new programme of training opportunities, which will enable more people, from grass-roots to amateur to expert, build their identification and scientific communication skills with us, so we can continue to contribute to addressing and reversing the decline in identification skills in the UK. What we do know particularly is there are a wealth of young people out there who do want to know more about our wildlife, but can’t necessarily find an opportunity through which they can develop their skills, and we hope to be able to address this, at least in part, through our new programme.
There is a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to the future of identification skills in the UK, with new inspiring and confident young people developing their skills and knowledge, new technology to help with identification and new media to communicate through, but there is still a lot of work to do, and the Museum looks forward to very much being a part of that going forward.
Stephanie West is the UK Biodiversity Training Manager at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, based in the Natural History Museum, London. She has a particular remit around addressing the species identification skills gap in natural history in the UK.
The Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity aims to support individuals, schemes and societies that record, monitor and protect the UK’s biodiversity through providing an Identification and Advisory Service, free visitor space including microscopes, identification guide library and photostacking equipment, access to collections, meeting space and training. We also run the Museums citizen science activities and develop identification resources to help people develop their own identification knowledge.
More information: tinyurl.com/vxsm84h
This article was first published in 2020 in Vol 123of the NAEE journal which is available free to members. This edition has a biodiversity focus.