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 Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies

The Project

This project was conceived in order to address the public controversies generated by the risk management strategies and forecasting technologies associated with diffuse environmental problems such as flooding and pollution.

Environmental issues play an ever-increasing role in all of our daily lives. However, controversies surrounding many of these issues, and confusion surrounding the way in which they are reported, mean that sectors of the public risk becoming increasingly disengaged. To try to reverse this trend, and to regain public trust and engagement, we are aiming to establish a new way of doing science.

We are undertaking a three-year research project, funded by RELU (the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme), to look at the relationship between science and policy, and in particular how to engage the public with scientific research findings. We aim to develop a new approach to interdisciplinary environmental science, involving non-scientists throughout the process. We have chosen to focus on a major diffuse environmental management issue associated with rural land management - namely flooding.

The key to our approach is interdisciplinarity, which involves natural and social scientists working closely together and, throughout the life of the project, re-evaluating our respective practices and assumptions.

We have chosen two areas prone to flooding for our fieldwork - in Ryedale in Yorkshire, centred on Malton and Pickering, and the Ouse system in Sussex, centred on Uckfield. In each of these areas we will be recruiting non-scientists to join us in forming Competency Groups, which will be an experiment in democratising science. The Competency Groups will be composed of researchers and laypeople for whom flooding is a matter of particular concern. The groups will work together to share different perspectives - on why flooding is a problem, on the role of science in addressing the problem, and on new ways of doing science together.

We are aiming to achieve four substantive contributions to knowledge.

  1. To analyse how the knowledge claims and modelling technologies of hydrological science are developed and put into practice by policy makers and commercial organisations (such as insurance companies) in flood risk management.
  2. To develop an integrated model for forecasting the in-river and floodplain effects of rural land management practices.
  3. To experiment with a new approach to public engagement in the production of interdisciplinary environmental science, involving the use of Competency Groups.
  4. To evaluate this new approach to doing public science differently and to identify lessons learnt that can be exported beyond this particular project to other fields of knowledge controversy.