The challenges for the Rural Affairs, Food and Environment Portfolio and the role of research
The challenges both now and for the future of the Rural Affairs, Food and Environment portfolio take place in the 'real world' of societal challenges that are, inevitably, heavily inter-related with a range of influences and also multi-faceted in nature. Our science base therefore needs to have two very different characteristics:
- a core of science skills and research facilities that can build upon investment over the years in the key areas of land based sciences, helping us to understand how the social and natural environment of rural Scotland functions and changes over time; and
- capacity to work in a more rapid and solution-focussed way, so that the longer term research from across a range of disciplines is brought together and translated in ways that help solve more immediate issues which the portfolio faces.
For example, there is increasing recognition that, on their own, the weight of facts and evidence are often insufficient to persuade individuals and communities to make changes in their behaviour which can have wider benefits for example around diet, health, energy, climate change, animal welfare and the economy. Therefore, effective advice requires both the identification of steps that may be beneficial to policy aims (e.g. help develop new methods to reduce emissions from agriculture), and also the conditions required in order for those benefits to be realised (e.g. the proposed reduction methods need to also be cost effective).
When seeking support from research in policy development, simple 'cause and effect' questions are rare, instead, the questions are more complex; for example:
- How do we realise the multiple benefits of land use, balance competing demands placed on those resources, get land managers engaged in these issues and at the same time adapt to climate change, reduce emissions, and maintain biodiversity and other ecosystem services?
- How do we use our knowledge of current and emerging strategic risks from animal and plant disease to help reduce and manage the risks to agricultural and forest productivity and the wider environment?
- What opportunities are there to increase the long-term health prospects of the individual by adopting diets that are healthy, nutritious and affordable and at the same time reduce the load on our health services and support Scotland's food producers?
Taking on these questions raises significant challenges to our understanding of the ways in which the environment, economy and society of rural Scotland functions. Through the research investment made in Scotland over many years, we have unique resources and experience within our research base to apply to questions that are raised in developing policy, both for today and the future.
A major opportunity from the investment in science that the Scottish Government makes is that the research required straddles physical, biological, social and economic science disciplines, in a single Strategic Research Programme. This is a unique proposition within UK science, with the capability to deliver interdisciplinary research at a national scale, and one that can deliver genuine science-driven impact.
Therefore, in order to fully realise the benefit of this longer-term multi-stranded investment, and get the best from the knowledge accumulated over time, the research we invest has to connect with other disciplines, unconstrained by subject boundaries.
Email: Liam Kelly