How Research Models Can Help Us to Manage the Welsh Environment; Health Wales Is Highlighting the Work of Welsh Crucible Researchers - the Cream of Welsh Research Talent. Dr James Gibbons Explains How He Uses Models to Predict How Change Affects the Natural Environment

Article excerpt

Byline: James Gibbons

AS THE statistician George Box said: "All models are wrong, some are useful."

All of us rely on models but understand their lack of perfection - we know weather forecasts will not be always right but use them as a guide.

The Bank of England forecasts inflation using economic models - the forecasts are nearly always wrong but government finds them useful. The design of medicines, cars, aircraft and bridges is helped by computer models, which makes products cheaper to and safer.

The main reason models are not perfect is that they are simplifications of the system being modelled.

This simplification is necessary because scientists rarely have a complete understanding of the world. More importantly, a useful model keeps the essential while discarding the inessential.

If the model is too complicated it is difficult to use, if it is too simple it may mislead. Or as Einstein put it: a model should be "as simple as possible but no simpler".

This is hard. In many ways a good model is like a good portrait.

It is not an exact copy of the subject but is recognisable and contains the essential features.

A poor model, like a poor picture, distorts and hides features and so misleads. My research uses modelling to explain and predict how change affects our natural environment.

This is important because nature feeds us but we also gain other benefits - clean air and water, amenity value and even health benefits.

It has been estimated the environment contributes pounds 8.8bn (9% of GDP) to the Welsh economy every year.

How should we manage our environment to maintain food production while keeping or enhancing the other benefits? And what will happen to all these benefits if the climate changes or the European Union changes agricultural policy? …