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Academics and the government collaborate to tackle environmental management problems

Academics and the government collaborate to tackle environmental management problems

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A new report warns that governments and NGOs have ignored complex risks to human health, and wellbeing, due to their inability to appreciate the complexity of environmental risks.


The report, which was led by experts in environmental sciences at the University of Reading, was funded by UKRI Natural Environment Research Council. It also included collaborators from Universities of Surrey, York and Defra.

Complex risks such as food insecurity, air pollution, and animal-borne diseases are also known as’systemic risk’. These risks are environmental in nature but can be influenced by multiple economic, legal, and social factors.

These systemic risks are growing more serious in an increasingly interconnected world. This is especially true as the global environment becomes more degraded. They are often overlooked due to their complexity, and the vast expertise required to understand them.

Professor Tom Oliver, a University of Reading project leader, said that “The air we breathe, our ability to withstand diseases, and the food we eat are fundamental human necessities, but we are failing in protecting these from multiple known as well as unforeseen threats.”

“Standard risks management techniques don’t work well for showing where our resilience is to complex risk.”

In order to maximize cognitive diversity to analyze complex risks, the project brought together experts from many academic disciplines and sectors. They used participatory systems mapping to identify the key sources of data that could track risks and provide recommendations to reduce them.

Three case studies were included in the project: biosecurity, food security, and air quality.

  1. Air quality: The study of air quality focused on aspects such as the unexpected emergence of chemical pollutants, climate change and altered work patterns caused by the pandemic.

    Dr. Sarah Moller, a coinvestigator from University of York, says that “the method used in the work was a novel approach that really captured our participants’ interest. It was interesting to see how different perspectives on the issue of air pollution influenced the perceptions of the identified risk pathways. We had people from many disciplines. These conversations led to some interesting discussions about those pathways, as well as the potential interventions and watchpoints.

  2. Biosecurity: This case study examined the emergence of zoonotic diseases (animal-borne diseases). It covered aspects ranging from bioterrorism to how melting permafrosts in the face of climate change can release anthrax.

    University of Reading co-investigators were Professor Ian Jones, and Dr. Matt Greenwell. Professor Jones stated: “A pandemic index would be useful to get ahead of emerging diseases, but it has been very difficult for us to generate with any certainty. Our research suggests that we need a refocus on the network of factors that can tip the balance in our favor towards crisis.

  3. Food security: The case study on food security examined the root causes of inaccessible nutritious food. There were issues such as labor shortages, but there were deeper causes such climate change or land use conversion.

    Bob Doherty from the University of York was a co-investigator. He said that the participatory approach, which involved people working across all aspects of the food system, allowed us identify a series of interconnected threats from trade, food banks, and soil health that could impact on food security. COVID-19, for example, has highlighted the vulnerability of our growing dependence on food banks that are staffed mainly by elderly volunteers. This allowed the team identify interventions to address systemic poverty and related dietary ill-health.

All of these risks interact with each other. The COVID-19 epidemic has demonstrated that long-term air pollution can exacerbate the effects of an infectious disease. This has led to lower respiratory health and disrupted global food supply chains.

Professor Nigel Gilbert, a coinvestigator from the University of Surrey, and Director of the ESRC Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus(CECAN), said that “The pandemic showed how one threat can spread across many spheres of life and how policies need to mitigate them must consider their side effects as well as unintended consequences.”

Professor Oliver stated: “This project, which involved over 50 different experts from academia and business, government, and third sector, has produced a positive result. Interventions that can reduce multiple types risk have been identified, killing many birds with the same stone.”

The report shows how better ventilation can reduce indoor toxic chemicals and airborne pathogens such as COVID-19. Another example is how unsustainable consumption, such a dietary choice to eat less red meat can reduce emissions to the air and ecosystem degradation, improve food security, and reduce the risk of animal-borne diseases like COVID-19.

Professor Oliver stated that “These types of intervention to reduce multiple risk are often overlooked due to the siloed nature our government and university department.” “It is essential to encourage more integrated thinking between academia and government.”

One example is The Defra Systems Research Programme. It involved investigators Oliver Doherty, Moller, and Doherty. It was a 2.5-year-long investment to understand how environmental policy interacts and can deliver multiple outcomes. It was instrumental in setting targets in the Environment Bill and Defra’s agriculture strategy towards Net Zero. It is now part of a larger program, the Systems Innovation and Futures Team in Defra. Similar approaches to net zero planning are being developed by other departments like BEIS.

See Also

Professor Oliver stated that “This type of systems thinking in government could now be used to reduce our vulnerability to complex environmental risk”


New research shows climate change risks to global food trading and food security


More information:
Report: www.sysrisk.org.uk/resources/

Provided by
University of Reading

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Academics and government collaborate to address environmental risk management failures (2021, December 20).
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