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Environment, natural resources and agriculture - strategic research 2022-2027: overview

We are investing around £50 million a year into a portfolio of strategic research to ensure that Scotland maintains its position at the very cutting edge of advances in agriculture, natural resources and the environment.

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Strategic Research Programme 2022 to 2027

Our vision for the Strategic Research Programme 2022 to 2027 is: “to support research that is relevant, respected and responsive to Scotland’s environment, communities, its people and to the rural economy”.

This vision places the science that we invest in at the heart of Scottish society. The scientific needs of the environment, natural resources and agriculture portfolio are motivated by three overarching drivers: global climate and nature crises, EU exit and economic growth and wellbeing. The programme covers a wide range of topics and are presented under five themes. Every theme is expected to deliver research and evidence which will help to meet the challenges posed by one or more of the high-level drivers. The five themes are:

Most of this research is carried out through our Main Research Providers (MRPs), operating under the title of the Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI). Research in these institutes differs from universities in being both directed and long-term. Both of these attributes are becoming increasingly important as governments respond to the complex challenges facing them. Scottish Government funding of science at the MRPs forms an important part of Scotland's science base, enhancing Scotland's reputation for excellence and relevance in natural resources, environmental and agricultural research.

Theme A: plant and animal health

High quality agricultural crops and livestock underpin Scotland’s growing food sector and our ambition to be a Good Food Nation, with products consumed in Scotland, the UK and exported that are known for their provenance and quality, including high animal welfare. Research and development are required to provide confidence against a background of uncertainty generated by climate change, shifting world trade patterns and the spread of diseases and pests.

Diseases of plants and animals cause direct production losses which reduce the quality of products, the viability of businesses and increase environmental burden through increased resource use. Our policies, policy delivery partners and producers need evidence, tools and resources to detect, prevent and control diseases and pests. Our objective is to protect our primary production systems and ensure that they are as economically and environmentally efficient as possible. 

The threats of diseases and pests come from a range of sources: some are endemic in Scotland and currently constrain production, others may arrive with products that are traded internationally. They include pests and diseases that move between hosts such as between wildlife and livestock, between imported products and the natural environment, or between livestock, the environment and people. Maintaining the skills, expertise and capability to detect and deal with both the endemic diseases, the ‘exotic’ threats and zoonotic infections is a core function of our research.

This theme consists of three topic lines:

  • plant disease
  • animal disease
  • animal welfare

Theme B: sustainable food system and supply

This theme brings together research on sustainable food production from domestic agriculture through to sustainable and secure supplies of food, as well as supporting a safe and healthy diet. It will provide elements of research relevant right through from farm to fork in order to contribute to the economy, people’s livelihoods and the health of the nation.

One of the primary focuses of the research is in developing resilient, high-quality crop, livestock and food and drink industries that capture market value and contribute to Scotland’s economy. There is also a focus on improving agricultural practices to develop a resilient, productive sector that is abreast of transformative opportunities. In order for the research to have impact, ultimately it must all be positioned in a way to benefit the industry.

This theme consists of six topic lines:

  • crop improvement
  • livestock improvement
  • improving agricultural practice
  • food supply and security
  • food and drink improvement
  • diet and food safety
  • human nutrition legacy

Theme C: human impacts on the environment

Research activities that have a direct environmental impact including on climate, land use and resource use are brought together in this theme. Research on agricultural greenhouse gases, circular economy, land use and climate change, are all needed to inform the transition to net zero by 2045 and the range of policies that will be required to get us there. Large-scale, co-ordinated changes to our economy, agricultural and land use practices are required to reduce our impact on the environment and to make the most of the economic and social opportunities of this transition.

As well as looking at the high-level, long-term strategic direction, this research theme looks at the individual and community level to understand how people, families, organisations and businesses can each best be supported to reduce their environmental impact. There is a focus on understanding individual behaviours and consumption practices and encouraging more sustainable business models, land uses and behaviours. It is anticipated that these behavioural changes will both reduce environmental impact but could also improve individual wellbeing. This is particularly the case in the research into use of outdoors and greenspace which aims to get more people visiting and benefiting from nature.

This theme consists of five topic lines:

  • agriculture, climate and carbon
  • land use (including mapping)
  • circular economy (including waste)
  • large scale modelling
  • use of outdoors and greenspace

Theme D: natural resources

Scotland’s natural resources (air, soil, water, biodiversity) supply many essential ecosystem services which benefit human health, safety and wellbeing. They are also key to addressing climate change and biodiversity decline and in promoting sustainable land use and a green economy. To protect, enhance and optimise the benefits we receive from our natural resources, we need better information about their status and quality, how and why they are changing and how best to manage and protect them. 

We already have much information about our natural resources, but there are still gaps, and we need to improve the way in which we use data to inform decisions about the use and management, particularly where there are trade-offs to be made to achieve multiple benefits. We need robust ways to value natural resources and the services which they provide, so that investors, decision makers and planners can fully take these values (both market and non–market) into account, and deliver policy commitments like the “four capitals” approach to economic recovery and the commitment to nature-based solutions within the Climate Change Plan update.

This theme consists of five topic lines:

  • air quality
  • water (including flooding)
  • soils
  • biodiversity
  • natural capital

Theme E: rural futures

Rural Scotland comprises 98% of Scotland’s land mass and is home to 17% of Scotland’s people. In 2018, the gross value added (GVA) of the rural economy was reported to be £37.6 billion, which represents 26% of Scotland’s total. 

Key longstanding issues for Scotland’s rural and island areas are depopulation, limited or seasonal opportunities for employment, constraints on services (education, housing, childcare, broadband access and fuel poverty) and community empowerment. Considerable attention is currently being given to economic recovery in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and it is recognised that the economic consequences of EU exit are expected to be strongly felt in rural communities. A focus on green recovery may offer considerable opportunities for rural areas.

This theme consists of three topic lines:

  • rural economy
  • rural communities
  • land reform

Theme F: horizon scanning

The research strategy set out a clear need for horizon scanning across the programme. More than ever in the age of EU exit, COVID-19 and future uncertainty around climate change, we recognise the need for our research to identify emergent systemic risks and opportunities. These could be the so-called ‘black swan’ events (rare but with outsize consequences), or new evidence, technologies and innovations concerning well-established but still challenging problems such as climate change.

By definition horizon scanning means it is not possible to put together a detailed research programme in advance, but we can be clear about the methods – we expect the horizon scanning will cut across all disciplines, and all parts of the research portfolio. Similar to KE, skills and methodologies are being developed for horizon scanning that are distinct from research skills. We expect this activity to be adaptive and proactive in identifying new issues, and to lead into solutions, or ways to enhance the benefits.

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