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Innovation and innovators part two – David Goulson

13 October 2010

In a series of three articles, BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2010 winners reveal the secrets behind their innovations.

In this, the second, Professor David Goulson details why he founded a conservation trust to increase the impact of his research. In the first, Professor Shankar Balasubramanian explains how he founded a spinout company that sold for £600M. In the third, Dr Michael McArthur describes how seizing commercial opportunities quickly can reap benefits.

In 2009 BBSRC established the annual Innovator of the Year competition to celebrate scientists who delivered science with high economic and social impact. Now, as in the past, innovation lies at the heart of the technological treadmill that can solve both local and global problems, drive economic growth, and make our lives longer, easier and happier (see 'The money of all invention').

Trust in conservation

Professor David Goulson collected £5,000 at the gala award ceremony at Canary Wharf, London.

Professor David Goulson collected £5,000 at the gala award ceremony at Canary Wharf, London.
Image: BBSRC

Stirling University's Professor David Goulson was the winner of Social Innovator of the Year award. His innovation was increasing the impact of his academic work by founding of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Goulson says that the Bumblebee Conservation Trust came out of frustration that scientific research, even when published in the best journals, is very often only read by other scientists, not by people who might put this knowledge into practice. "You can publish experiments in high quality journals again and again but they are only read by a few dozen scientists who work in your field. It achieves little or nothing in the real world"

"I do think there's a general problem in the UK, and perhaps elsewhere, that there is no obvious mechanism for scientists to translate applied research to get it to policy makers and the general public and so on," he says, citing three extinctions from Britain's 25 bumblebee species as a reason for immediate action. "For bumblebees, we now understand enough about them to have a pretty good idea how to conserve them, but we need to get that knowledge put into practise."

That is where the Bumblebee Conservation Trust comes in. The formal aims of the trust are to conserve bumblebee populations, prevent species extinctions, and promote conservation of bees and wider biodiversity to the public. "Bumblebees pollinate crops which we need to eat. It's really easy to explain the importance of bumblebees to people with no interest in biodiversity or polar bears or pandas," says Goulson. "Without bees food would be more expensive, and there would be less of it and less variety. For economic reasons alone it's worth doing without all the other reasons."

Crops such as broad beans, which cover 5% of arable land in Britain, are exclusively pollinated by bumblebees, as are tomatoes in glasshouses. Goulson says that other foods such as raspberries and strawberries are mostly pollinated by bumblebees. In addition, there are hundreds of flowers such as foxgloves that only long-tongued bumblebee species are adapted to reach into. "Nothing can replace them if they disappear," says Goulson.

Bombus ruderatus on a flower. Bumblebee species in the UK are under threat. Image: Claire Carvell

Bombus ruderatus on a flower. Bumblebee species in the UK are under threat.
Image: Claire Carvell

Although Goulson's research is partly funded by BBSRC, setting up the trust required innovative strategies to obtain much-needed non-grant cash. Around half the trust's income comes from membership fees (catalysed by a press release and national coverage in The Independent newspaper), then there are grants from the National Lottery, Scottish National Heritage, and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a conservation-oriented charitable trust.

The trust is not just a talking shop that sends out a few leaflets and a free badge to armchair conservationists. It aims to influence policy and engage the public. Goulson and his trust colleagues have employed social media to turn members and the general public into 'citizen scientists' through 'Bee Watch', a scheme where people e-mail digital photos of bees to the trust team who identify them and make a map of how different species are distributed across the UK.

Allying with British Trust for Ornithology's 'Garden Birdwatch', which operates on similar principles, so far they have had more than 70,000 records sent in. "It's extraordinary how many people will join in given a bit of encouragement" says Goulson.

The trust is also teaming up with more than 100 garden centres to engage with the public. "One of our aims is to get all gardeners to plant a few bumblebee friendly flowers - it could really make a difference. Domestic gardens cover roughly one million hectares across the UK, more than all nature reserves put together," says Goulson, who added that a primary school education pack has gone out gone out to 200 schools to reach the farmers and gardeners of the future.

With data from BBSRC-funded research and an army of volunteers, the trust is now trying to influence policy. In England and Wales, farmers are paid for maintaining pollen and nectar strips which help bees and the trust is pressing for the agri-environment scheme to be adopted in Scotland. Ministers and MPs have also been lobbied, questions raised in the Scottish Parliament, and Goulson's colleague Ben Darvill even convinced Sarah Brown to plant some bee-friendly flowers in the garden at Number 10 Downing Street.

The money of all invention

The UK has perhaps the richest history of scientific innovation of any country in the world, and the Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity shows that innovation and commercialisation are flourishing in Britain.

For example, from 2006-10 university spinout companies have floated on the stock market or been taken over for a combined total of £3.5Bn and employ 14,000 people in the UK. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2008, patents granted to UK universities increased by 136% and university spin outs had a turnover of £1.1Bn in 2007/08 (Ref 1).

Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

Science can be a big moneyspinner.
Image: ErickN/iStockphoto.

The perception that the UK is not successful when it comes to commercialising science, or as some have put it: "Britain invents; the world profits" is therefore clearly outdated, and that strategies to harness and increase innovation are working.

In addition to the benefits it brings, it is argued that present £7.5Bn science budget pays for itself many times over as technology is developed and then taxed as it is sold. The Medical Research Council estimates every pound it spends brings a 39p return each year (Ref 2). Moreover, independent studies have shown that for maximum market sector productivity and impact, government innovation policy should focus on direct spending on research councils (Ref 3).

Finally, the UK produces more publications and citations for the money it spends on research than any other G8 nation. Specifically, the UK produces 7.9% of the world's publications, receives 11.8% of citations, and 14.4% of citations with the highest impact, even though the UK consists of only 1% of the world's population (Ref 1).


  1. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity (external link)
  2. Medical Research: What's it worth? (PDF, external link)
  3. Public support for innovation, intangible investment and productivity growth in the UK market sector (PDF, external link)


Arran Frood

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