Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (ENRA) research programme 2022-2027: mid-programme review report

Findings of the mid-programme review of the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture research programme 2022 to 2027.

8. Theme D: Natural Resources

The Natural Resources theme covers the topics air quality, water, soils, biodiversity and natural capital and has a combined total of 22 projects. The grant offer for Theme D projects in 2023-24 was circa £7m.

In the previous programmes we seen research demonstrate how ecosystem functions are regulated by the traits of species present, and how potential limits for the maintenance of ecosystem function can be captured in ecosystem health metrics. Dissemination of research outputs resulted in supported uptake of intercropping by a growing number of farmers and shown how research can be translated into practical use in the Scottish farming community.

8.1 Science Excellence and Reach

SAB reported that the five topics in this theme provide an essential underpinning to Scottish knowledge and policy for air, water, soils, biodiversity and natural capital.

SAB noted the evidence presented demonstrated the research is internationally competitive and innovative. Innovation was most clearly shown for projects D3 (Soils) and D4 (Biodiversity), where detailed evidence relating to outputs, stakeholder engagement and follow-on competitive funding was presented. Innovation evidence was less clearly presented for projects in D1 (Air Quality) and D2 (Water), although members commented in discussion that D1(Air Quality) was a new topic area and at an early stage. Members noted that the topic was focused on the Cleaner Air for Scotland Strategy. SAB confirmed that the topic areas being addressed within D1 (Air Quality) were the right questions for now, and replicate priorities elsewhere in the UK. SAB noted the local context differs and so it is appropriate this research is RESAS focused.

SAB members agreed there was little evidence of duplication. It was noted that D1- D4 are providing unique Scottish insights into the topic areas where there is a need for nationally-focussed understanding and policy advice.

Members noted that for D5 there may be a consideration of the role of local capability in future climate projects/downscaling vs activity elsewhere (e.g. UK Met Office), and if the optimum positioning is research, or a shift to Scotland-relevant translation to impact/policy. SAB noted that other models may predict different mean temperature/rainfalls and the need to consider variability across the ensemble.

SAB members reported some key research gaps:

  • Need greater join up between research related to drought and to flooding – members commented that we are moving to a more variable climate with drier summers on average but punctuated by very heavy localised rainfall causing floods. We can also expect increased high pressure blocking and this will cause increased water scarcity (drought) but then increased high rainfall periods following blocks (like storm Babet). Storms in general may become more slow moving and contain more rainfall and more intense rainfall.
  • Future research priorities in the air quality area are likely to include ultrafine particles and (if in scope) indoor air.
  • Natural Capital (NC) is a new developing area, with private finance investing into carbon and biodiversity. SAB recommended more research on the value of NC investment for policy targets (Peatland Code, Woodland Code). Members further noted that considering natural capital results from sector-specific perspectives including dependencies and risks (e.g. transport, energy, infrastructure) could also be a priority.
  • Discussion identified that there was scope to link the research more explicitly to health outcomes – e.g. from air and water quality, and future climate, but also including links to soils and biodiversity, and across themes, taking a OneHealth approach (including links to animal health). Member suggested stakeholders such as Public Health Scotland would usefully benefit from and value this work.

8.2 Research Impact

Members reported topics within Theme D appeared to be well integrated into their respective policy areas. Scotland’s soil information is considered top class and is a very valuable resource. However, links for the air quality work seemed to be limited to the CAFS2 process and could be broader.

Clear evidence had been provided of outputs having significance and reach; further confidence given by the follow-on funding (especially for projects D3-D4).

SAB suggested clear examples included the biodiversity topic (D4) had contributed to major reports on Scotland’s State of Nature and to Scotland’s revised biodiversity strategy. However, SAB noted the Natural Capital topic D5 had no clear policy ‘target’ but could feed into thinking in SEPA on water and pollution, and extending the reach of natural capital work.

The soils topic (D3) was noted to feed into improved national inventory estimates. The water scarcity modelling case study was a very impressive example of how research not only feeds into but explicitly informs policy choices.

The potential for differences in climate model outputs / scenarios could lead to misunderstandings in the expected changes – national projections vs those available elsewhere in the community (e.g. UK Met Office/UK Climate Projections).

8.3 Scottish Government Policy Priorities

The following highlights the policy priority categorisation and observations noted for research projects within Theme D. Other stakeholder priorities, such as industry, have not been reflected in the categorisation below but are considered key to a projects overall impact/importance.


10 projects 2023-24 spend circa £4m

Research which has been identified as critical to policy officials includes modelling water scarcity and how it could impact vulnerable land. This critical evidence will inform the development of Scotland's National Water Scarcity Plan. Also seen as critical is research into Nature Based Solutions to address water challenges, this evidence will support the development of the Flood Resilience Strategy.

Outputs feeding into live policy decisions such as peatland restoration and the Climate Change Plan have been classified as critical. This includes research into soil emission factor and Peatland Monitoring Framework.

Biodiversity research looking at novel ways of measuring and monitoring biodiversity is seen as critical to updating the Scottish Biodiversity Inventory, farm biodiversity audits for the ARP and State of Nature Reporting.

Most of the research into Natural Capital is seen as critical. The impacts of climate change will be felt across Scotland's Natural Capital Assets. Outputs of research will show where in Scotland risks may arise, how the various tools can better inform decision making and synthesise emerging knowledge on natural capital.


9 projects 2023-24 spend circa £3m

Research identified as important to policy officials includes projects that will provide evidence insights including; nitrogen deposition on biodiversity, soil health, marine and terrestrial protected areas, Natural Capital Valuation and protozoan parasites in drinking water.

Evidence in these areas importantly feeds into key policy delivery such as Cleaner Air for Scotland plan, 30x30, Land Use Transformation, Climate Change Adaptation Plan and other individual policies development.


3 projects 2023-24 spend circa £0.2m

Research in Theme D has been classified as desirable by policy officials when outputs are seen to provide limited evidence to Scotland in its entirety. For example, when research is only focused on specific to local community and has limited scalability. Research is seen as desirable when policy do not see the benefit of the evidence, for example relevance of research into private water supply in doubt.

8.4 Theme D Conclusion

Overall, research in Theme D provides an essential underpinning to Scottish knowledge and policy for air, water, soils, biodiversity and natural capital. Some specific recommendations/actions are noted below:

  • SAB Recommendation: Greater focus on climate change adaptation should be considered within the research undertaken in Theme D.
  • SAB Recommendation: The balance of research effort should shift from carbon towards reactive nitrogen, given the associated biogeochemical threats to ecosystem services in Scotland.
  • SAB Recommendation: Awareness-raising was particularly recommended for the Soils (D3) topic area, which is undervalued out with Scotland. Potentially linking research more explicitly to human health outcomes e.g. from air and water quality, and future climate, but also including links to soils and biodiversity, and across themes, by incorporating a One Health approach (including links to animal health).
  • SAB Recommendation: Biodiversity researchers should seek to ensure that they capture the next step in research (beyond identifying and quantifying) i.e. to the policy relevance and advice, beyond categorising.
  • SAB Recommendation: To enhance join up of water scarcity and drought, researchers should explore the opportunity to link up much more with work at UK Met Office, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) and SEPA.
  • SAB Recommendation: Natural capital work could link to private sector opportunities (D5). Members further noted that there was scope for a clearer strategy/change in approach to engage with these groups (at pace).
  • SAB Recommendation: More focus on the variability in climate forecasts across models should be considered to reduce the potential for differences in climate model outputs / scenarios which could lead to misunderstandings in the expected changes.


Email: SRF@gov.scot

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