In the face of continuing uncertainty over Brexit and UK environmental policy, Andy Suggitt  from the British Ecological Society’s Conservation Ecology Group argues that now is the time for early career ecologists to engage and get involved in the process.

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We’ve all had that feeling … now it’s time to have your say as an ecologist

We’ve all had that feeling about Brexit. It’s top of the newsfeed on our favourite social media site, it’s the first item on the evening news, and it comes up at the pub an awful lot. It’s been this way since 20th February 2016, when the Cameron Government confirmed that the EU referendum would be held later that June. That was over 1,000 days ago. To say that a spot of fatigue is setting in is perhaps an understatement.

This is a completely understandable human reaction to a level of complexity and chaos that repeatedly proves the political commentators wrong. If those that are following it closely can’t really say what will happen, why should we ecologists engage until it’s all sorted out? Especially when what little news there is about what’s to come seems to be largely negative: from EU academics choosing to leave the UK in numbers, to the potential threats to hard-won nature protections, such as the Birds and Habitats Directives. It can all be quite demoralising.

And what’s more, offering a solution to such a difficult problem certainly comes with its risks. Political and societal discourse in the UK is more polarised than it has been in most people’s lifetimes. There seems to be more ripping down of ideas going on at the moment, rather than building up. People are burning bridges, not building them.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about and discussing what our environmental policy should look like when this is all over. Because although the present uncertainty could be harmful to what policies we already have – and we should certainly be careful to emphasise the virtues of those policies wherever we can – it could also be an opportunity (a rare opportunity) to remodel our approach to the natural environment. In some ways, with so much at stake, this moment is both the best and worst time to be a conservation ecologist in the UK.

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Discuss your ideas about Brexit and ecology with Georgina Mace and others who have successfully navigated the science-policy interface

There is also a danger that, if we ecologists don’t get involved now, then others will step in – others without the expertise to safely conserve our natural environment – and they will offer their own ideas. Like it or not, we could quite possibly be living with the resulting legal framework for the rest of our lives. For those of us just starting out in ecology, this will be most of our careers.

So, what can we do about all this? Well fortunately the British Ecological Society are hosting a workshop next month (on 20th February, three years since the referendum was called) that will bravely seek to answer this question. We will hear from and discuss ideas with some of those who have successfully engaged at the science-policy interface, including Dame Georgina Mace and Prof Charlotte Burns, who will share their stories and tips for ecologists navigating the post-Brexit policy landscape. We will also look to discuss how scientific evidence will be used to inform the nascent Government bills on agriculture and on the environment. Throughout the day, there will be an emphasis on building links between ecologists of all stripes – from policymakers to practitioners, from academics to advisers.

Our aim is to help our early career attendees come up with the knowhow and the ideas that the ecological community will need to tackle Brexit and everything that comes with it head-on. Are you up for the challenge? Register now.

Brexit and Early Career Ecologists: the risks and opportunities, and what we can do about them will be held at Charles Darwin House, Central London, on 20 February 2019 (10:00-16:00). For more details on the event, including a full programme for the day, please click here.

Want to learn more about the BES’ Policy work and how you can get involved by offering your expertise and contributing the consultation responses? Follow the team on Twitter (@BESPolicy) or email Policy Officer, Sara (Sara@britishecologicalsociety.org) for more information.