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Social scientists in Politics at the University of Exeter made significant contributions to a major research programme.

Exeter social scientists play leading role in major environmental assessment

Social scientists in Politics at the University of Exeter played leading roles in a major new assessment of UK environment resources. Professor Michael Winter, Dr Robert Fish and Dr Duncan Russel made significant contributions to a major research programme that builds on the findings of the 2011 UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA). 

The NEA was the first analysis of the UK natural environment’s benefits to society and continuing economic prosperity. The analysis provides a wealth of information and advice to policy makers about how best to conserve the UK’s terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. Subsequent work led by Exeter has sought to further develop and communicate the evidence of the NEA and make it relevant to decision and policy making. 

Professor Winter was re-appointed to the Expert Panel and worked with Dr Fish on the cultural and social values people hold about UK Ecosystems. This research focused on the cultural value of ecosystems derived from the interaction between environmental spaces and cultural practices. This interaction shapes people’s identities, provides experiences that contribute benefits in terms of well-being, mental and physical health, and equip people with a range of skills and capabilities.

The research found that the provision of environmental spaces and peoples’ access to them is variable across the UK. . It also identified the important roles that domestic gardens represent as a particularly important environmental space especially in heavily urbanised areas. Dr Fish explained: “To fully appreciate the contribution of ecosystems to cultural activities and local identity in decision making, a thorough understanding of environmental spaces, cultural values, cultural practices and benefits is needed in each individual local context.”

Dr Russel led a programme of research on embedding knowledge on ecological systems within the early stages of policy making through policy appraisal. This work concludes that embedding knowledge of our ecosystems and their services into project, programme and policy appraisals is rarely considered explicitly in appraisals before 2013. This knowledge could provide many wider benefits for society if taken into account at an early stage of policy development. Currently, this is rarely achieved, partly due to a failure to use the full set of principles of the International Convention on Biological Diversity Ecosystem Approach. Barriers to, and opportunities for, embedding ecological knowledge into decision-making at the practitioner, institution, and socio-political levels are identified.  According to the research a combination of simple things like better training, integrated data sets, more accessible language and demonstration projects, stronger leadership, improved communication across actors and sectors, and mechanisms to join-up interacting policies and adequate career incentives could go a long way to enable decision makers to embed ecosystem thinking in their working practices.

Dr Russel said: “The UK is a pioneer in terms of its thinking around ecosystem protection. However, the UK Government needs to ensure enduring and strong leadership to send a very powerful signal to businesses and other social groups about its commitment to safeguarding the benefits ecosystems provide to society.”

 The involvement of social scientists from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy and Research on the NEA assessment is extremely important, according to Professor Winter. 

He said: “The NEA was a major statement on the state of the UK environment asset base, and our on-going participation in this work reinforces the University of Exeter’s reputation for social science research that helps address real world problems and concerns. We’re delighted to be influencing Government understanding in this area."

The UK NEA follow phase is launched on June the 26th 2014.

Date: 26 June 2014

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