Letter to/from Forest Research

Letter to/from Forest Research

Response from Forest Research

Your open letter (below) in the RSFS Scottish Forestry Journal has queried the support for public funding of forestry in Scotland, based on the results from the Public Opinion of Forestry 2023: Scotland report, issued in July 2023 by Forest Research.

 The methodology for the survey changed from face-to-face to telephone interviews in 2021. It changed again for the 2023 survey, switching to an online format. This is referred to in the report (p45) which states: ‘The changes in survey design will have led to some inconsistencies with previous surveys, but it is not possible to quantify how [many] of the changes observed in 2023 are a result of adopting a different survey design and how much are a result of genuine change. Care should therefore be taken when comparing the results from the 2023 survey with those for previous years.’

Although there appears to be a large drop in public support for government funding of forestry between 2021 and 2023, it should be noted that 2021 figures were particularly high. Statistically, it is too early to conclude whether the higher 2021 figures and the lower 2023 figures are part of a longer-term trend or a product of change of sampling methodology. This will become clearer with the results from future surveys.

Respondents’ opinions will always be influenced by a range of factors. Views on specific issues may change over time as priorities change. For example, it is possible increasing retail prices and the resulting impact on cost of living may have had an effect of responses in 2023. It is also worth noting that, in March 2021, when interviewing took place for the 2021 survey, COVID restrictions were still in place, which may have influenced responses from the public.

Sheila Ward,
Head of Forest Information and Statistics at Forest Research

Open letter to  Forest Research

Reports in RSFS’ eNews of 21 July and 4 August highlighting the apparent collapse in support for public spending on forestry in Scotland as shown in Forest Research’s “Public Opinion of Forestry 2023: Scotland” are extremely concerning. Given the constant media focus over recent years on the climate crisis, consistent messaging from many sources about the important role which forests provide in mitigating climate change, well publicised governmental support for increasing tree planting and the sterling efforts made by organisations such as Confor (and the RSFS!) to increase public awareness of the many benefits of forestry, the results are also perhaps surprising.

The survey methodology, as reported in the August 4 eNews, has changed although according to Forest Research “it is not possible to quantify how much of the changes observed in 2023 are a result of adopting a different survey design and how much are a result of genuine change”.  In a political climate where policies often appear to be dictated by public opinion, I suggest it may be important to ascertain whether or not the 2023 results are in fact a genuine reflection of public opinion or an aberration created by the online data collection process – previous surveys were carried out face to face, then by telephone in 2021.  We may still be comparing apples with apples, but are those apples presented in neat rows in the grocer’s window, or are they hidden in crates at the wholesaler’s warehouse?

Quoted comment from a Forest Research assistant statistician that any anomaly may be in the 2021 results rather than 2023 could also be usefully drilled into and explained in greater detail. The following graph showing the averaged proportions of respondents who identified reasons to support forestry with public money over the survey years, suggests to this non-statistician at least, a trend of steadily growing support up to 2021 then a spectacular collapse in 2023.

My, admittedly biased, gut feeling is that something just doesn’t look right about the latest results.  Further comment from Forest Research would be appreciated.

Raymond Henderson