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Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021: Leading University of Cambridge conservation scientist Prof William Sutherland made CBE

One of the world’s leading conservation scientists, Prof William Sutherland, has been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Professor William Sutherland. Picture: Keith Heppell
Professor William Sutherland. Picture: Keith Heppell

The University of Cambridge professor applies ecological data and models to understand conservation problems.

Based in the Department of Zoology, and a professorial fellow of St Catharine’s College, he predicts the impact of environmental change, uses horizon scanning to identify forthcoming issues and has developed processes for integrating science and policy.

He told the Cambridge Independent it was a great surprise, and added: “There is a team of us trying to change conservation practice - over 1,000 of us globally - and I view this as an award for all of us and the teamwork. It is a way of encouraging us to search the boards.

“The idea is to transform conservation in the same way medicine has been transformed.

“In the 1970s, you would go to your doctor and they would use their experience, training and things they had read in a journal. But it was shown they were missing an awful lot of the research, and lots of people were dying as a result. That is being transformed. Now they use their experience, their experience of you, and global research.

“We want to do the same thing. We want the global evidence to be immediately accessible people. So if people want to do some agricultural work, restore some habitat or protect a species, they can look up to see what works or what doesn’t and reflect on it and decide what to do.

Professor William James Sutherland is the Miriam Rothschild professor of conservation biology at the University of Cambridge
Professor William James Sutherland is the Miriam Rothschild professor of conservation biology at the University of Cambridge

“What we’ve shown is searching the data on an industrial scale, it becomes much more cost-effective. With a team of people, we read more than one and half million paper titles, in 17 languages, and then put them all into databases so you can pull all that together at one.

“It makes it quite cheap per test of an action. We’ve done effectively 3,000 reviews of different actions.”

Post-docs help perform this work, while machine learning is also being brought to bear on the task.

“In a parallel project, we used machine learning to identify possible references and then used crowd-sourcing of volunteers to say whether these are suitable, which improves the machine learning algorithm,” said Prof Sutherland, who is the Miriam Rothschild professor of conservation biology at the university and lives in Bury St Edmunds.

An example of the impact is showing that bat bridges over roads, such as the A11 to Norwich, are not actually effective at preventing bats striking lorries.

“It went from being a sensible thought to being best practice without being tested, and it’s still being adopted.. When it was tested, it turns out it doesn’t work.

Professor William Sutherland, known as Bill, with David Attenborough
Professor William Sutherland, known as Bill, with David Attenborough

“It’s great to have ideas, but you want to test them and learn from them. You want to do more of things that work, and less of the things that don’t work.”

Prof Sutherland, who will be celebrating with a family meal, is particularly interested in the ecology of bird populations and the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity. In April 2020, he led a study that proposed 275 ways to reduce the spread of Covid-19 once lockdown measures are eased.

He regularly advises the government and conservation organisations such as Natural England and The National Trust. He was president of the British Ecological Society and part of a team that created the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, which identified and researches global environmental problems, to find solutions and deliver on-the-ground improvements for species and habitats worldwide.

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