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 Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies

Application for funding for a follow-on project

Project team members Catharina Landstrom and Geoff Whitman, together with Visiting Fellow, Kathryn Monk, have submitted a proposal to ESRC for a follow on project, “Working with Environmental Knowledge Controversies”.

Understanding environmental knowledge controversies is increasingly important, not only because such events lead to what 'experts' claim to know about something becoming the subject of intense public interrogation, but because they have devastating impacts on people's lives. Amongst the most potent examples are those events which took hold in the public imagination in the guise of 'food-scares' - from GM to BSE. The current spectre of climate change adds increased urgency to such engagement as we move towards a future characterised by uncertainty. It is now widely acknowledged within scientific and policy communities that one of the most far-reaching legacies of such events has been to unsettle public trust in scientific expertise and its relationship to public policy-making. This in turn has given rise to an increasing repertoire of resources that enable more effective public interrogation (e.g. Extended Peer Reviews and Citizen Juries). Scientific knowledge claims, once called upon to settle disputes, are increasingly contested as a matter of routine. It is increasingly a matter of urgency to utilise innovative ways of engaging with controversies.

This proposal 'Working with Environmental Knowledge Controversies' aims at such innovation. It is a 12-month follow-on project that proposes to translate the insights and outcomes from the 'Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies: The Case of Flood Risk Management' into approaches to controversies that can be of practical use to the Environment Agency for England and Wales. The 'Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies' project created an on-line resource that enables scientists, local communities and policy makers to work constructively with the experimental competency group methodology trialled in that project. It also articulated a new approach to understanding knowledge controversies - as generative events – that makes it possible to harness their energy productively to engage local publics. The insights and outcomes from this project have been presented in writing for academic audiences as planned.

The 'Working with Environmental Knowledge Controversies' project aims to broaden the application of this knowledge into tools that Environment Agency (EA) officers can use when working with local communities in circumstances of scientific uncertainty and controversy. This project focuses on the development of guidelines for the application of on-line resources in the exploration and anticipation of both current and incipient controversies. We will work in close collaboration with staff from the Environment Agency Wales on two case studies in local communities, using the on-line resources to address one current controversy and to plan work on a controversial issue. Together with EA staff we will also write an explanatory introduction to working productively with environmental knowledge controversies that both considers the particular needs of the EA and formulates guidelines for how to identify incipient controversy using new on-line social science web mapping tools.

The project will produce a training kit for EA staff, comprising presentations of the case studies, the introduction to understanding environmental knowledge controversies and a how-to guide for mapping controversial issues to identify incipient controversy. EAW will assess the possibility of formally including this material in their existing toolkit. We will write one research paper, using the experiences of the collaborative work to theorise the knowledge transfer process as deliberate translation, for publication in an academic journal. We will also write a policy briefing, reflecting on the process of bringing theoretical academic research into the practical work of the EA, aimed at the policy-making community.