People power – Preserving biological diversity through citizen science

Dr Liam Lysaght is Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, an Irish organisation that collates and manages data on Ireland’s wildlife. He started his career as a park ranger at the Burren National Park, later moving to work at the Heritage Council before taking up his current role at the data centre.

In this interview, Liam shares what drew him to work in conservation, and how he got to where he is today.

Can you tell me about your journey to get where you are today?

I’ve always been interested in nature even though I grew up in inner city Limerick, Ireland, where we lived on the banks of the River Shannon. Back then it was a haven for wildlife. I remember the river full of eels, salmon and trout, all of which have since declined in numbers.

In college I studied Geography. Then, more by chance than design, I fell into postgraduate work specialising in biogeography. My PHD concentrated on breeding birds on farmland. There was no real career plan, other than taking opportunities as they arose.

A pivotal moment in my career arose in 1996 when I became one of the first staff members to be employed by the Heritage Council, just newly-established in Ireland. There were six of us on a team that was instrumental in launching the organisation. As Wildlife Officer, I managed the natural heritage work programme. It was an exciting, dynamic time to be involved in a new venture and to have played a part in its inception was wonderful.

Later, in 2006, I became director of The National Biodiversity Data Centre. Only recently has the Irish government decided to establish the centre as a new entity within the public sector. To gain that kind of status takes years of hard work so when it actually happens it will be a proud moment for us all.

Dr Liam Lysaght, Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Ireland

Dr Liam Lysaght, Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre, Ireland.

You also studied Sociology in College. Did you find that it was a good foundation for your current role?

The college course I took was a joint geography and sociology degree, so I initially came to conservation from an arts background. I work with a lot of scientists and my lack of specific  knowledge is often apparent. My colleagues sometimes throw their eyes to heaven and tease me “well, he should have known that”!

We try to provide a national platform at the Data Centre and encourage organisations to pool resources. It’s been surprisingly difficult to forge partnerships. Understanding the psychology behind this is a challenge. My own feeling is that if you do good work as a team, everyone can benefit and bask in the glory of a successful project.

I guess more of a collective mindset is needed to accelerate change. Your citizen science projects are a fine example of community collaboration. Can you talk a bit about that?

Our citizen science projects have been very successful. We provide a framework that people from any background can easily slot into, where they feel they are making a contribution. It’s all about building engagement with biodiversity, which can be an abstract term for some people. By recording butterflies in your garden, for example, and uploading your sightings on our website, you become aware of the trends in your own locality. It makes it real and you become invested in its overall significance. It’s the first stage in developing concern for biodiversity.

There is a misconception that citizen science is of little value, but countryside monitoring is important no matter who does it, as long as there is a quality control element attached to it.

Government policy focuses on a narrow selection of protected species and habitats and so the specialist reporting on these becomes the default, whereas our organisation encourages everyone to look at biodiversity in the wider countryside.

Workshop on countryside monitoring, National Biodiversity Data Centre, Ireland

Workshop on countryside monitoring, National Biodiversity Data Centre, Ireland.

What do your your daily activities look like?

To keep everything flowing in the right direction takes a lot of administration. Planning is crucial and that can mean looking two years down the line. I regularly liaise with colleagues and strive to create a unity of purpose across staff.

It’s not all office work though – fieldwork keeps me grounded. I participate as much as I can in monitoring programmes. It’s important to be on the same level as the recorders so that I can identify any issues first-hand. It’s a pleasure to engage with volunteers who are passionate about what they do.

To present evidence that improves decision-making around conservation is gratifying but one of the best parts of my job is engagement with people. I enjoy dealing with colleagues, volunteers and recorders alike. In saying that, the scientific approach is very dear to me. Tracking change and providing advice is our ultimate goal, but you can still do that in the background.

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly on a flower

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly. The Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme is delivered by a network of volunteer recorders who walk a fixed route (transect) on a weekly basis, from April to September each year, generating detailed information on butterfly populations.

Have you any advice for those starting out in their conservation career?

Be prepared to question the norm. Learn to critique your work and don’t take conventional wisdom at face value. Be open to compromise, but know where to draw the line and don’t lose sight of your integrity. It can be a tricky path to walk as it’s easier to just go with the flow.

I’d always challenge things intellectually. It’s good to step back and consider how something could have gone better or even understand why something went so well.

Trust your instincts. There was pressure on me to do a professional business management course. But my conscious decision not to do an MBA has not held me back. I rely on the experience I have built up from various jobs throughout my career.

No matter what job you end up with, be dependable and reliable. Do the best you can and you’ll go a long way. If you are committed to your work, that rubs off on everything.

To learn more about Ireland’s National Biodiversity Data Centre, take a look at this video:

Author Profile | Karen Nolan

Karen Nolan is an award-winning blogger, illustrator and graphic designer based in south east Ireland. She likes nothing better than getting outdoors for a walk with her 4-legged companion to inspect the wild verges and listen to birdsong. With a long held fascination for flora and fauna she prefers to work on projects that advocate universal respect for all who reside on our planet.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Land Manager