Ireland needs a ‘dedicated centre’ for climate and biodiversity

2 Feb 2022

Yvonne Buckley. Image: Viv Buckley

Prof Yvonne Buckley believes that there has been a ‘lack of funding’ for biodiversity and environmental research in Ireland.

At the end of last year, ecologist and Trinity College Dublin professor of zoology Yvonne Buckley received the Irish Research Council (IRC) Researcher of the Year award for 2021.

This annual award recognises IRC-funded researchers who have made significant contributions to innovation or society.

Future Human

Before being named Researcher of the Year, Buckley also received an IRC Laureate Award in 2017 and the British Ecological Society President’s Medal in 2021.

Buckley’s work focuses on the growth, reproduction and survival of plant and animal species. At Trinity, she leads a team of researchers exploring how biodiversity can persist through global changes such as the climate crisis.

‘Big environmental data is going to become the next big thing’
– YVONNE BUCKLEY

By examining the populations of different species, Buckley can diagnose problems if a population is declining. “I can use computer models to try and find solutions to those problems,” she told SiliconRepublic.com.

“So [I can] find new ways of conserving plant or animal species that are at risk of going extinct and find ways of managing populations of pest species, for example, that might be overabundant, causing problems in the environment or to humans.”

Buckley is currently co-chair of the All-Island Climate and Biodiversity Research Network, a recently launched initiative to bring researchers across the island of Ireland together to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.

In May this year, she will also be taking up a post as vice-president for biodiversity and climate action as part of Trinity College Dublin’s management structure. Buckley said this new role will align her research with ensuring the university leverages its influence in the areas of climate and biodiversity.

Climate crisis challenges

She said winning the Researcher of the Year award was really exciting as it “underlines the importance” of her research.

“I guess it recognises that importance and recognises that population biology in particular is something that’s incredibly useful to the world and particularly in the current biodiversity crisis,” she said.

“We’re losing species. There’s a million species that could go extinct over the next few decades and that could have huge consequences for the operation of our agricultural areas.”

Buckley said that when it comes to the climate crisis, a lot of the communication work has moved away from countering climate denial and into more of what she called “climate action obstructionism”.

This means she’s seeing less denial of the climate crisis itself and more of an apathy around what can be done.

“Those are the arguments that we’re countering now,” she said. “There’s some climate change that’s inevitable but if we can delay it as long as possible, that gives us a chance to develop other solutions. Climate action is absolutely critically important.”

Biodiversity funding

Outside of the wider inertia around tackling climate challenges, Buckley pointed to funding challenges facing environmental and biodiversity research. Having worked as a researcher in Australia for 10 years before coming home to Ireland, she found a massive difference in the funding that environmental research receives in both locations.

“I worked at the University of Queensland there and I was involved in a couple of big research centres,” she said.

“There was really significant funding there for tackling both biodiversity and environmental problems. And when I came to Ireland, I felt that there was a real lack of funding at that scale in Ireland for the same kinds of issues.”

‘We can’t rely on solutions developed in the US or the UK or Europe to work in an Irish context’
– YVONNE BUCKLEY

While she feels the country is working in the right direction, Buckley said this type of support has been absent over the past eight years that she has been in the country and she’s hoping for a major change.

“I hope that we will get these big multimillion-euro centres for research in biodiversity and climate going over the next few years because that’s the kind of level of funding that you need to make a real dent in these problems,” she said.

“We don’t have a dedicated centre for climate and biodiversity issues based on the island of Ireland. The kinds of policy interventions and the kinds of ways we need to work will differ from country to country in how the climate and biodiversity crises are tackled. We can’t necessarily rely on solutions developed in the US or the UK or Europe to work in an Irish context.”

Unlike other parts of the world, Ireland has what Buckley described as an “aseasonal, kind of mild climate”. She also said the country has a unique type of landscape and a very particular kind of biodiversity that will need solutions specific to Ireland.

“We have a really unusual and interesting kind of biodiversity that can help us answer questions that perhaps other places can’t.”

The growth of ecoinformatics

While her work is strongly based around biodiversity and zoology, Buckley’s research has a strong technological side to it, especially with the level of statistical modelling required.

“What we’re seeing now is that with cloud computing and big data, big environmental data is going to become the next big thing,” she said.

“We’re now seeing this complex environmental data driving the development of new statistical models and new ways of looking at the world. So, the biological data is now actually driving the technology development rather than the other way around, although there’s some very useful things that go back as well.”

She said this all feeds into a new field called ecoinformatics, or earth informatics, which is the growing marriage of computer science, ecology and environmental science in much the same way that bioinformatics has grown in genetics research.

“We’re going to see increasingly large numbers of ecologists and environmental scientists who work with computers and work with this huge volume of earth systems data that’s coming down.”

And while Buckley’s research and accolades are impressive, she said her work is extremely collaborative and she wouldn’t have achieved all that she did without the team she works with.

“I work with a lot of really talented early-career researchers, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers who do a lot of the work under my supervision, and without them I wouldn’t have got any of the awards that I got [last year] and wouldn’t have developed as a scientist myself,” she said.

“When you work with smart people with new ideas, it sparks off new ideas in you. And that’s a really important part of the way that I work.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com