AN ACADEMIC spat has been sparked by an Oxford research group which claims that environmentalists have been using scaremongering to gain greater funding.
In a paper titled "Crying Wolf on Climate Change and Extinction", four Oxford academics from the university’s Biodiversity Research Group have stated that these groups failed to use the full information available, in order to grab headlines and attract more donations.
The study focused on reports that appeared in the media during January, which claimed that research by Leeds University showed that by 2050, one million species would have gone extinct.
The Oxford researchers said, however, that the story was generated by alarmist press releases sent out by environmental bodies and scientists, in which only the worst-case scenario were publicised rather than the less apocalyptic alternatives.
The report said: "The origins of most of the crude generalisations and extrapolations can be traced back to the original press releases and agency wires. The first of these was the press release from Leeds University, which ran the headline: ‘Climate Change Threatens a Million Species with Extinction’."
The academics went on to cite other conservation bodies as issuing similar releases, but names the World Wildlife Fund UK (WWF-UK) in particular as using the research in their funding efforts.
The report said: "On 12 January it [the WWF-UK] mailed its membership with a ‘conservation emergency!’ with the opening line, ‘You’ve no doubt seen the recent press and television headlines - by 2050 global warming could wipe out one million species of animals and plants’."
The four academics who make up the research group - all of whom are involved in ecology and environmental research on an individual basis - branded such tactics as "sensationalist", and said they were potentially damaging.
"Departures from rational objectivity risks undermining public trust in natural sciences and could play into the hands of anti-environmentalists," they said.
The group also suggested that the researchers, environmental groups and the media "sex up" such figures for their own benefit, in terms of raising profiles, selling papers and funding. The report ended with a call for "honesty and clarity" in such research.
"We recognise the real and considerable threat to global diversity from multiple processes, including climate change and as environmentalists understand and empathise with the need to galvanise public and political opinion for mitigation efforts. However, this should not be at the cost of woeful misrepresentation of the underlying science.
"Scientific honesty and clarity is vital to maintaining the independence and integrity of public policy. If the public loses trust in scientists then policy risks being set by vested interests."
The WWF-UK responded to the paper with a strong denial against accusations of sensationalism.
"That’s definitely not the case," said a spokesman. "This was based upon a study by Leeds University, which was solid, reputable research. The advert itself would not stand up to meticulous scientific scrutiny, but it’s a different medium - you don’t have space to go into the detailed facts of the paper. You’ve got five seconds to make the point.
"But at the end of the day, we don’t exaggerate. We are always very careful in our advertising."
The spokesman suggested that the real motive of the Oxford researchers was to attack the Leeds research.
"If Oxford doesn’t like the results that Leeds have come up with, they should speak to the researchers who published it," he said.
"I think the WWF has been caught in an argument between two academic bodies. But Oxford have cast a stone and hit a lot of people.
"Perhaps Leeds University should have erred on the side of caution when publishing this type of information, because environmental bodies are always looking for evidence to support their concerns."