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 Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies

Work packages

The project is divided into a four distinct work packages, each dealing with different aspects of flood risk management. The final phase of the project will involve integrative analysis if the outcomes of the separate packages.

Environmental Knowledge Production and Controversy

Using in-depth interviews, ethnography and document analysis, researchers set out to understand three aspects of the relationship between flood science and policy;

  • (i) how the knowledge claims of flood science are produced, analysing the working practices of modellers;
  • (ii) how these modelling practices become standardised through particular technologies and contractual arrangements with key policy agencies and hard-wired into flood risk management;
  • (iii) how this complex mesh of flood science/policy ‘expertise’ sometimes becomes the subject of public controversy, and with what consequences.

Flood risk management relies on the scientific practice of computer modelling. As modellers acknowledge, the knowledge claims advanced are uncertain and provisional. However, these provisos are dulled as software packages facilitate the standardisation of modelling practices amongst the engineering consultancies on which government agencies rely for their flood risk estimations. The public face of this expertise is the Environment Agency and anyone motivated by personal experience to dispute it is likely to encounter scientific knowledge presented in final form, divested of any uncertainty.

Two key themes emerged: (i) what ‘modelling’ involves varies significantly in different contexts, notably between commercial and academic cultures; (ii) the contractual terms set by government agencies are a major influence on the standardisation of modelling practice.

MIR Science and Modelling

This Work Package has developed an alternative approach to modelling that we term ‘knowledge-theoretic’ that captures the much richer sources of knowledge available to us. The models that we developed were co-produced through the collective ways of working of our Competency Groups. These groups reformulated the expertise of scientists and local members of our groups to produce models specific to flood risk management in the two locations. These models were spatially-explicit, time-dependent flood risk models that allowed active exploration of possible interventions to reduce flood risk by all group members. Although the models were coded by one of the university members, the content of the models and their use in practice was grounded in the wider, collective practices of the Groups.

The models produced through our Competency Group work combine the general with the particular, such that they are ‘bespoke’ models that are not transferable. However, we conclude that, all models have to be made to perform for particular places and times. Our approach was distinctive in the point in the practice of flood risk science that the performance was made to happen. In the case of Ryedale, our ‘performance’ was sufficient to define a new flood risk reduction strategy that has been taken up by the regional Environment Agency and won funding as a DEFRA demonstration project and is now in the process of being trialled and delivered.

New Forms of Interdisciplinary Working in Environmental Science

The Competency Group experiment is a conscious attempt to translate the ‘generative capacity’ of knowledge controversies into a research methodology. CGs involve scientists in the project team collaborating with volunteers in localities in which flood risk management is already a matter of public controversy. This methodology has three goals: - (i) to trace existing flood management policies back through to the scientific knowledge claims that inform them; (ii) to enable those affected by flooding to try out alternative ways of ameliorating the local flooding problem; and (iii) to produce a collective model of local flooding to enable the Group’s work to travel and, potentially, to make a difference.

Group activities centred on bi-monthly meetings in which hands-on modelling became the key practice through which knowledge claims about the local flood problem could be tried out. Meetings were supplemented by other activities (field visits, video recording, and interviews with local figures).

The collective ethos of this way of working required group members to participate as individuals rather than as representatives of any constituency; and to be open to, and respectful of, different points of view. Disagreements were expected and considered to be generative.

In Ryedale (first case study area), the group collectively decided to go public with a report and exhibition. In Uckfield, the group presented their findings to a meeting of local stakeholders.

Transferring Lessons and Skills to Other Diffuse Land Management Issues

This Work Package aims provide a web-based ‘civic resource’ that draws upon the project’s wider findings and to broaden the empirical focus from flooding to areas of environmental science. The web-based resource has the following objectives

  • (1) To explore the nature of Knowledge Controversies.
  • (2) To demonstrate the possibility of science as a means of redistributing expertise to allow new forms of political intervention.
  • (3) To document Competency Group methodology and use innovative forms of communication, whilst providing a long-term project archive.

The tool chosen for this purpose is a visualisation system called prezi, an interactive digital resource that can contain text, imagery, sound recordings, video-recordings and even models. This system allows us to map component parts into a coherent whole, and to undertake this mapping in different ways to produce different ‘wholes’.

This resource was tested on two other areas of environmental science – (i) The position of ecological knowledge in public policy, spurred by a tension between the ‘science’ of ecology and the ‘art’ of conservation. (ii) A means of engaging diverse communities of people in climate model science. Central to our approach here is bridging the separation of anthropological understandings of climate with those predicted by climate models