Last month came the news that more than two decades of research into the intelligence of rooks and jays was set to close as a fall-out from the row over the Northern Ireland protocol.
The Comparative Cognition Laboratory is part of Cambridge University and under the leadership of Professor Nicola Clayton FRS (fellow of the Royal Society). Their research has caused a serious rethink about the abilities of these corvids (birds of the crow family).
Theory of mind
The birds who live at the laboratory, in rural Cambridgeshire, have surprised even their observers with their abilities. Conventional thinking is that only human beings have a theory of mind – the ability to take into account what another individual is probably thinking.
Prof Clayton and her colleagues have shown that jays that have stolen food from others, re-hide their own food once the potential thieves have left the scene, something their innocent counterparts do not do.
Clayton and her colleagues have argued this is because experienced thieves can use their past experience of being a thief to anticipate the possibility of another bird stealing from them.
These corvids cope with problems they wouldn’t come across in the wild, even being able to play the cup-and-ball game, watching three cups being shuffled and correctly spotting which has the ball under it – or rather, the waxworm, their favourite treat.
This is just one of the insights into non-human intelligence observed at the lab. Other examples include dropping pebbles into a cup of water to raise the level to drinking height and fashioning tools to gain access to treats.
Lab funding from EU
The lab has been funded by grants from the European Research Council. In principle this funding did not need to end with Brexit: during the 2020 negotiations a framework was worked out to enable the UK to continue to take part in this and Horizon Europe, the key EU research funding programme.
Everything was ready to go but the agreement has not been formally signed off and now everything has changed because of the government’s intention to unilaterally change the Northern Ireland protocol. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the EU is now very wary of including UK-led research in its funding programmes.
One of the casualties is set to be the corvid lab, scheduled to close at the end of next month. Or perhaps not.
The announcement of the imminent closure galvanised the scientific community. An open letter to Cambridge University led by Jonathan Birch was signed by 358 leading figures in the field, including Noam Chomsky and Steve Pinker, and there have been other individual objections.
Philip Ball, a science writer whose new book is on the variety of minds, says:
“Nicola Clayton’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory has provided some of the most important insights into bird cognition in the past several decades, expanding both our understanding and appreciation of nonhuman minds.
“The lab’s closure would be a huge loss to cognitive science as well as to the university. It’s hard to understand how it could be contemplated, let alone enacted.”
Prof. Clayton is now in discussion with the university to explore ways forward. It isn’t possible to scale back the work by reducing the number of birds. That would just increase the cost per bird because the key financial cost is running the facility independent of the number of subjects. But offers of funding are coming in and these are crucial to the future of the birds.
Such pledges need to be vetted by the university but as she says: “fingers crossed thanks to such generous support there is a glimmer of hope”.
Other projects will also lose funding
While the corvid lab could yet be saved, other projects are likely to suffer. With the UK government determined to press ahead with its changes to the protocol – the second reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is expected to take place at Westminster on Monday – it’s hard to see how access to European funding could be maintained.
Dr Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, points out that if the UK could associate to Horizon Europe it would allow researchers to continue with world leading research and collaborations.
If not, Dr Rathbone says the government needs: “a robust ‘Plan B’. As well as a long term vision for the future of international collaboration, this must include short term measures to allow universities and businesses to adapt to a large and sudden change to the research funding landscape.”