Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
British Ecological Society award for SA climate change researcher
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 31/08/2020

​The British Ecological Society's Marsh award for climate change research has been awarded to Professor Wendy Foden, a world-leading researcher in climate change vulnerability assessments of threatened species.

According to a media release issued by the British Ecological Society (BES), Prof Foden is recognised for the global reach of her work with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Red List of Threatened Species, as well as for her interest in translating science for practical conservation use, and in fostering conservation leadership. The award, provided by the Marsh Christian Trust and administered by the British Ecological Society, will be handed over in 2021.

Prof Foden is currently based at South African National Parks' Cape Research Centre, where she leads a team carrying out applied research in and around the region's national parks. She is also associated with the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cape Town as associate professor, and has chaired the Climate Change Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Species Survival Commission since 2014.

Prof Foden says a non-linear career path, which has left her with one foot in research and the other in applied conservation, has enabled her to spot gaps and opportunities for trans-disciplinary collaboration: “Most of my research has been highly collaborative, so the award recognises the work of a community of very dedicated researchers. I'm simply fortunate to be in a position to gather key people together to create really useful products while we have a good laugh. I'm glad that such 'soft skills' are increasingly recognised in science."

From 2007 to 2013,  she led IUCN's development of a method for assessing species' vulnerability to climate change, drawing on a wide range of experts' field knowledge and research findings to produce an assessment that could be used alongside the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: “We applied the method to the world's birds, amphibians, corals and the study became the first to tackle entire species groups across the world. The approach has been widely adopted and is now used by researchers and conservationists around the world," she explains.

From 2014 to 2016 she continued this work to establish global best-practice guidelines for assessing species' vulnerability to climate change, again bringing together a diverse group of researchers and practitioners from around the globe: “Since our field is new it meant arduously wading through a great many dark and tangled uncertainties. Ultimately we managed to draw together practical guidance for conservation practitioners and we're currently working with IUCN to include these as part of IUCN Red List training."  

“The guidelines also highlight a number of important research needs and gaps. I think that the messiest and most uncertain areas of science are the most exciting and provide the greatest opportunity to do meaningful and innovative work. I may have a lot more grey hair and stronger reading glasses than when I began this work, but I've never been bored and it's very satisfying to see it being used," she adds.

For this work, she recently received the IUCN's George Rabb award for her “innovative, dynamic and thoughtful leadership of SSC's work on climate change".

Professor Jane Memmott, President of the British Ecological Society, said every year the prizes recognise and celebrate the exceptional contributions of individuals to advancing ecology and communicating its importance for society: “I am delighted to offer my congratulations to the winners of this year's BES awards for their exceptional contributions to ecology."

 Prof Foden said she was surprised by the award, but extremely proud to represent Africa's woman scientists: “I hope that the award inspires other women scientists, particularly from developing countries, to step up to conservation and climate change challenges," she concludes. 

More about the British Ecological Society 
Founded in 1913, the British Ecological Society (BES) is the oldest ecological society in the world. The BES promotes the study of ecology through its six academic journals, conferences, grants, education initiatives and policy work. The society has 6,000 members from more than 120 different countries.