It’s now been 11 months since the IUCN Red List announced the completion of a new conservation assessment for polar bears – but you wouldn’t know that if you visited the website of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group (PBSG).
Back in May 2016, I wrote to the folks at the IUCN Red List asking them why the PBSG had not yet added a link to their website regarding the 19 November 2015 update to the Red List polar bear assessment (submitted by PBSG members in July 2015), a shortcoming I first notice in December 2015. I also inquired why the IUCN Red List folks were not taking the PBSG to task for their failure to keep the public informed of this new development.
After a wait of more than 6 weeks (23 June), I finally received a reply. The Red List official accepted as reasonable the PBSG excuse that since a link to the IUCN Red List was present on their home page as an icon (here), a direct link to the actual Red List polar bear assessment was not necessary. He was informed by the PBSG that the website upgrade had simply taken longer than expected but that it would be completed by the end of July.
And yet, here it is – almost three months later and still no revised website – and more importantly, still no mention of the 2015 Red List assessment update, see screencap above taken 18 October 2016 (which has been up since 14 January 2016).
Note that my complaint is not that the website upgrade has taken longer than expected (doesn’t it always?) – it’s about the continued refusal to provide a simple link to the 2015 Red List assessment at the top of their “News” feature which sits prominently on their home page.
The PBSG is considered the scientific authority on polar bears and in my opinion, the fact that for 11 months their website has lacked a link to the 2015 Red List assessment (which contains many significant changes, including a larger population estimate, a revised population trend, and a prediction of future change with error bars) raises concerns about transparency, potential bias, and lack of accountability of the PBSG organization – and displays a similar kind of contempt for the public that its chairman revealed back in 2014 when he said that population size estimates were “simply a qualified guess given to satisfy public demand.”
Copies of my email exchange with the Red List associate who answered my inquiry are below – decide for yourself if I’m over-reacting.
UPDATE 22 Nov. 2016: A cursory check of the PBSG website today revealed that a few days ago (16 Nov. 2016) the PBSG Chairman finally did what I have been suggesting for almost a year: post a simple notice and link to the 2015 IUCN Red List polar bear assessment.
A simple line in the NEWS section of the home page:
They even added a short notice with links to the documents (screen cap below).
Yes, pretty much exactly what I suggested in January. I’d hazard a guess I wasn’t the only one complaining.
The response to my email from the Red List contact in June 2016:
Sent: Thursday, June 23, 2016 1:56 AM
To: Susan Crockford
Subject: RE: the silence of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group on the 2015 Red List assessment
Thank you for your email, and my apologies for the delay in responding to your email, I have been in communication with the PBSG on this matter so as to give you a full response as possible.
From my communication with the PBSG I can assure you that the PBSG are not in any way seeking to hide this information from the general public, the problems regarding the lag in delaying the update of their website is (quoted from my correspondence with the PBSG) “everything to do with lack of capacity and nothing to do with the PBSG in any way not acknowledging its own work. The new PBSG Red List Assessment for polar bears is an impressive and solid piece of work”.
As with all our specialist groups, the PBSG is a group of species experts that volunteer their time freely in order to assess the species that fall under their remit, the nature of this arrangement means that content heavy updates, such as the update of a website can take considerable amounts of time as it is being done in the experts own time. Additionally in the past six months the web development capacity of the PBSG has decreased, significantly impacting on the timeline for updating the website.
I understand your comment that the adding of a single link is unlikely to take much time, but at the time the PBSG did not think that updating the webpage would take quite as long as it has; and as the polar bear assessment features on the IUCN homepage, they felt it would be ok to complete the entire update of the website rather than update just a part of it.
That said, the group are very aware that they need to address this issue and I have been informed that the website will be finished in the next few weeks, and that the new webpage should be finalised and open to the public by the end of July.
Junior Professional Associate
Red List Unit
IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
The David Attenborough Building
Cambridge CB2 3QZ
My response, sent 23 June 2016:
Yes, I see. It’s just because they are so overworked.
“…as the polar bear assessment features on the IUCN homepage, they felt it would be ok to complete the entire update of the website rather than update just a part of it.”
That statement is logical only to someone who is looking for any pretext that might fly. However, if a person did not know that a recent IUCN/Red List assessment had been done, why on earth would they click the IUCN logo? At any rate, the statement is no longer true, and probably has not been since late December 2015: polar bears are not mentioned on the home page when I clicked on it today.
I totally understand that updating a website can be time-consuming (that’s not the point) but I find the PBSG excuse for not adding a single link to the Red List assessment in the NEWS section of their home page one of the lamest I’ve ever heard.
The assessment was completed by its PBSG authors in July 2015 and they knew the announcement would be forthcoming within several months. I find it inconceivable that no one was ready to add a single line to their “NEWS” list on the home page when it the news was released in November. That’s what a NEWS section is for.
That the PBSG web manager chose to add a “please be patient” message in mid-January 2016 but NOT a link to the Red List assessment at the same time says it all. I maintain two websites and know what this involves – it would have taken 1 extra minute to add a NEWS link. Yet, they chose not to do so.
Frankly, I’m appalled that you seem OK with this weak justification.
But thank you for getting back to me. I expect you waited most of that time (almost 7 weeks) for the PBSG to respond to you.
My original email, sent 7 May 2016:
The IUCN PBSG website is one of the first places people are directed to when they look online for official information about the conservation status of polar bears. Yet by early May 2016, no mention is found of the November 2015 Red List assessment of polar bears on the PBSG website (http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/ ).
To put this information time lag into perspective, note that the news item that now sits at the top of the prominently sited PBSG “NEWS” list on their website’s home page (“Polar bears and terrestrial food”) refers to a paper published on 1 April 2015 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1890/140202/full – the PBSG had it listed just 16 days later.
Yet, between the 18 of November 2015 and 14 January 2016, the PBSG found no time to post as “News” a simple link to the updated IUCN Red List polar bear assessment report which their members wrote! When I drew attention to this odd fact, instead of adding a simple link to the IUCN Red List assessment for polar bears to rectify the situation, they added this excuse:
“A NEW PBSG WEBSITE IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION, AND WILL BE PUBLISHED SPRING 2016.
THIS WORK HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR A FEW MONTHS AND CONSEQUENTLY SOME OF THE CONTENT HAVEN’T BEEN UPDATED FOR A WHILE.
PLEASE BE PATIENT UNTIL THE NEW SITE IS PUBLISHED.”
But here it is, almost 4 months later – “spring” in most places by anyone’s definition – and that excuse still sits on the PBSG home page with no link to the Red List assessment.
In what universe does it take more than 6 months to revamp a website – or even build one from scratch (presuming that the upgrade was underway in November 2015, explaining why there is no mention of the Red List assessment published that month)? If an excuse could be added in January 2016 to the home page, why not a link to the most critical piece of new information about polar bears as well?
Why is the PBSG trying to pretend the Red List assessment doesn’t exist? And why is the IUCN not calling them to task for it?
I am a professional zoologist with an interest in the conservation status of polar bears and I have to say that this situation is the very opposite of the kind of transparency and access to information that I expect from colleagues.
Many members of the public look to the IUCN for the most comprehensive information on the conservation status of species and as vocal as PBSG members have been in the media calling attention to potential risks from climate change, they have been oddly and damnably silent on the new Red List assessment.
The lack of a link to the IUCN update on the status of polar bears on the PBSG website is symptomatic of a general phenomenon of PBSG members pretending the 2015 Red List report is irrelevant – despite the fact that the Standards and Petitions Committee of the IUCN went out of its way to ensure this was the most comprehensive and scientifically supported assessment on the status of polar bears yet presented.
The PBSG are IUCN members – why are they refusing to inform the public about the details of the 2015 polar bear Red List assessment?
Perhaps this is a question the IUCN should be asking them.
Susan J. Crockford, Ph.D. (Zoology/Evolutionary Biology/Archaeozoology)
Adjunct Professor (Anthropology/Graduate Studies) University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada