Professor Steve Ormerod – An Ecologist’s Career

Steve Ormerod is Professor of Ecology in Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences and current Chairman of the RSPB Council – the biggest wildlife charity in Europe. His conservation career so far includes the following highlights: the winner of the Marsh Award for Marine and Freshwater Conservation, Chief Editor of the Journal of Applied Ecology; President of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, Council member of the Freshwater Biological Association, the Countryside Council for Wales, the Rivers’ Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology. He has served on the scientific advisory committee of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust as well as several Defra committees, including the expert panel of the National Ecosystem Assessment.


Why do you work in conservation?

I’ve been extremely interested in the environment ever since my childhood, and was lucky to be inspired by adults around me who were interested in nature.

Unusually in some respects for people who work in conservation, I grew up in very urban circumstances – in a terraced house in Burnley, Lancashire (UK). Even here, however, I was tuned in to the opportunities to enjoy nature:  like the Rooks which flew over my house every day, and on the surrounding Pennine moorlands where I would go out and see breeding Lapwing, Curlew and, in those days of the 1960s, even Redshank.

My father and his engineering apprentice David Crossley – a wildife enthusiast and amateur film maker – took me specifically in October and November each year to see salmon spawning in the River Ribble.  Here were early ecological influences that were both accessible and incredibly stimulating.  I’ve felt a huge responsibility for conservation ever since – based on evidence and understanding.

Are urban environments important for wildlife?

About 80% of the UK population is urban, and worldwide over half of us now live in towns and cities.  These environments give most people their major first contact with wildlife – in their gardens, nearby parks, or where fingers from the natural world reach into our urban lives.  Through the stunning views of the world’s wildlife brought into our living rooms by the likes of David Attenborough, Chris Packham and Miranda Krestovnikoff, we’re able to see what’s on our own doorstep as part of a bigger, natural whole. We’re realising increasingly that the conservation of species and ecosystems is not just an ethical responsibility, but it’s also imperative for keeping us alive and well.  The views of nature we have from our homes and schools prompt us into taking these wider responsibilities.    

What’s it like to be a Professor of Ecology at Cardiff University?

I first came to Cardiff in 1980 specifically through my interest in aquatic ecosystems. At that time, the rivers of south Wales were among the most polluted in the world, with about 70% of rivers grossly polluted – for example by colliery discharges and sewage. Cardiff University specialised in freshwater pollution, and ran a MSc course about understanding and solving the resulting problems.  Here was an opportunity to engage with the river environments that I loved – but also to try and tackle issues that affected the wildlife and people that relied upon them.

As I became more independent as a PhD student, my initial work on river quality and invertebrates progressed onto diffuse pollution problems such acid rain. In the 1980’s this was a very large-scale problem affecting rivers and lakes over large areas of Europe and N. America along with their insects, fish, mammals and birds. My lifelong interest in the ecology of Dippers – intricately tied to river ecosystems – grew out of this work.

Being interested in such a large-scale issue as acid rain led me into other equally large scale issues such as climate change and land-use effects on rivers.  Investigations and experiments that started on acid rain 35 years ago have now become some of the world’s longest running investigations of climate change impacts on rivers. These, in turn, have increasingly opened up research into the importance of river organisms and ‘ecosystem services’ for people.

I can’t imagine a more brilliant job, and in 35 years as an academic, I’ve never done the same days’ work twice.

Alongside the research, there is huge reward from inspiring students and enthusing people.  And beyond that, my research provides an opportunity to feed my desire to solve problems: as my career has developed I’ve become more and more involved in using research information and experience to help others. For example, I’m Council Chairman of the RSPB who, with 1.1 million members, 2000 staff and 18,000 volunteers, are the biggest wildlife charity in Europe. I’m also involved in advising water companies like Welsh Water on environmental issues, and I help the Natural Environmental Research Council’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology as Chair of their Science Development Group.

So in the end, I believe in a world where a Professor’s development and knowledge have both intrinsic worth value for solving problems. In my mind, a good professor is a good public servant: my knowledge is public knowledge and I want to use it as such.

What are the most challenging aspects of your work?

One of the characteristics of an academic’s job is that it’s open-ended: more a way of life in which there are genuine challenges around the work-life balance.

One of the requirements of being a good academic is having the self-discipline to control the boundaries of what is work. Being self-disciplined isn’t the best of my talents, so I end up doing a huge amount of stuff. For example, I try to maximise my engagement, strive to have as many research students as I can, and publish effectively – which sometimes risks spreading myself too thinly.

The nature of an academic job has also changed over the course of my career. We are now burdened by more administrative requirements than we were previously. People who come in to the field now have to be prepared for tasks – such as appraising risk, assessing student competencies, assuring the quality of our colleagues, gathering evidence about the impact of our work, detailed student progress reviews…   All are laudable, but there is a risk that the sheer pressure of administrative tasks reduces the fabulous opportunities we have to enthuse and stimulate students with spontaneity and creativity.

That said, all of these things are relatively small irritations, and being an academic is still one of the best jobs in the world.

Watch Professor Steve Ormerod of Cardiff University and the RSPB explains below why the world needs young ecologists, and expounds some principles for building a successful career. This video comes from the British Ecological Society’s Careers Conference 2013:

What key steps in your conservation career you have taken?

Looking back over 35 years, there is a beautiful logic to my career, and I can see how the things I’ve done have led to others. However looking forwards in the early stages, I couldn’t possibly have foreseen these links. One of the big lessons is about taking opportunities as they come along because you never know where they will lead.

People who mentor and inspire us can also have an absolutely huge effect on our careers. Going back into my youth, I wasn’t interested in academic work.  However, one critical event was a turning point: one day as I crossed the campus of what was then Huddersfield Polytechnic, my project supervisor at the time, Mike Morphy, stopped me and said: “If you carry on as you are, and work hard enough, there’s no reason you shouldn’t get a first class honours degree”. From that point onwards, I believed in myself, and in the possibilities of where my career could take me. This was an absolutely pivotal moment, and I try often to instil the same sense of positive self-belief with my own students and colleagues.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Genuine experience is important. I see people who treat the development of their CV as an end in itself rather than something which is an expression of their genuine interest and achievement.  People have got to do what they love, love what they do, and use opportunities to seek the right kind of experience about the things they need to do for conservation because they genuinely care:  fostering insight through experience is hugely valuable.

Learning about the environment, organisms and their ecology – either as a volunteer or just by being outside in wild places – is also key. Visit nature reserves and get involved with fabulous organisations like the RSPB, BTO, Wildlife Trusts, Rivers Trust, or one of the specialist taxonomic charities like Buglife.  Finding an organisation through which you can express your passion and turn it into skill is very important.

What’s your favourite song?

This is a very difficult choice: I have so many.  But I’m a big Bruce Springsteen fan, and I’ve gone for ‘Empty Sky’ from ‘The Rising’.  The album was largely a response to the 9/11 attacks on the New York Twin Towers, but the themes of heroism and hope from adversity are far more universal.

Empty skies – where there are no Skylarks or Hen Harriers – are anathema to anyone involved with bird conservation.

This post first appeared on Conservation Careers.

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