Environment, natural resources and agriculture research: strategy 2022 to 2027

We fund a multi-million pound portfolio of research on the environment, natural resources and agriculture. This strategy outlines our vision, priorities and mechanisms for funding the next cycle of research which starts in 2022.

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1. Overview

The Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Research Programme is a large scale, multidisciplinary programme with a budget of around £50 million a year. Its primary purpose is to provide science and evidence to support policymakers within Scottish Government and its delivery partners. In doing so it also maintains long-term research programmes and science facilities which directly support Scotland's academic research base, and allows research institutes to leverage in additional funding from other UK and international funders.

The programme covers a wide spectrum of topics including:

  • Plant and animal health
  • Sustainable food system and supply
  • Human impacts on the environment
  • Natural resources
  • Rural futures

The Scottish Government's vision for the research programme is:

This vision places the science that we invest in at the heart of Scottish society, and looks to those engaged in the research to visibly and proactively contribute to the health, wealth and wellbeing of the nation, by applying their collective talents for the benefit of all of Scotland's people. The relationship between our research, government policies, and National Outcomes for Scotland is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Relationship between research, policy and National Outcomes for Scotland.

This Strategy sets out how we will achieve this vision. It highlights our research priorities, and the principles and processes behind the investment we will make between 2022 and 2027. It explains how we expect our research to achieve impact, the mechanisms we will use to fund research, and the operational changes to our governance and reporting mechanisms which will be made during the next cycle.

The Strategy has been informed by consultation with a broad range of stakeholders including the independent Strategic Advisory Board which oversees the research programme, universities and research institutes, as well as multiple agricultural & farming bodies, NGOs and Local Authorities. A high volume of responses was received and many of these have been incorporated into the Strategy, or will be used to inform the subsequent implementation stages of the programme.

Our research must produce excellent scientific outputs which are useful, accessible and influential for government and other end users. This requires a strong focus on engagement and knowledge exchange to ensure that research outputs fully inform the policy making process and are accessible and useable by a wide range of external stakeholders. Some examples of impact from the current research programme are given in the boxes below. To achieve this, we fund:

  • Long-term research with strategic objectives. This is currently delivered through our Strategic Research Programme and associated investment in Underpinning Capacity.
  • Short-term research on more applied problems.
  • Expert advice and opinion. This is primarily delivered through our Centres of Expertise[1] which provide specialist advice and knowledge on subjects where demand is highest.
  • Knowledge exchange with stakeholders, including co-construction of new research.

During the current funding cycle, around 88%[2] of the funding was used to support research at six Main Research Providers (MRPs)[3], a group of Scottish research organisations with specialist expertise in areas directly relevant to the research programme. The MRPs have developed a collective identity as SEFARI (Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes) in part through a joint Knowledge Exchange centre, the SEFARI Gateway.

The SEFARI institutes are not the only source from which expertise is drawn, nor does the work they do represent the full extent of our science needs. Our funding also supports research at a wide range of other Higher Education Institutes and other organisations.

Building strong partnerships is key to our approach. The SEFARI institutes through which we make much of our investment in research cannot cover the vast array of topics that are contained in the rural economy and environment portfolios, nor can they be expected to have the expertise in all areas. Therefore during this funding cycle, we will continue to broaden the supply base for our research, working with an expanding range of research providers to meet our needs. In particular we will better connect the research we support with the wider Scottish and UK public sector, businesses, Scottish Universities and the UK Research Councils and expect this collaboration throughout the whole research programme.

Research & Economic Impact:

The Scottish Government's Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture research programme plays a key role in ensuring that scientific evidence is embedded within policy development across a range of government portfolios. For example the outputs from the programme have been central to designing the Scottish Government's approach to responding to the Global Climate Emergency. It has provided the evidence to ensure that policies are focused on areas where emission reductions will be maximised and that the decisions made are based on the latest scientific evidence. However, its impact is far broader and goes well beyond the development of government policy.

A 2017 study[4] of previous research cycles estimated that the programme contributed £151.8 million GVA to the Scottish economy a year and supported nearly 1,500 jobs.

These impacts were achieved through a wide range of channels. For example, the deployment and utilisation of research funded through previous programme cycles has led to improvements in plant and animal health and genetics, which in turn have boosted agricultural productivity. A number of projects funded via the programme have also led to the creation of spinout companies and wider commercialisation activity which has had wider economic benefits.

The research programme also directly supports Scotland's academic research base. It supports hundreds of highly skilled research jobs and also provides a stable funding base that enables institutes to lever in significant additional funding from other UK and international funders into the Scottish economy. In 2018-19, external income leveraged as a result of the research programme was £28 million, equivalent to c. £0.60 returned for each £1 invested.

Research Impact – Covid-19

Covid-19 has forced governments and publics worldwide to build the capacity and the expertise to tackle the pandemic. It has shone a spotlight on the role of experts across a wide range of academic disciplines, and demonstrated the need for scientific knowledge and skills from people and organisations who can bring their expertise into policymaking and public services.

Our long-term investments in science and research capacity across Scotland have meant that our Main Research Providers and Centres of Expertise could contribute to the Scottish Government response to this crisis at short notice. Their contributions drew upon the existing expertise of the researchers within our research programmes on animal and plant disease, food and rural economics, and also upon the laboratory facilities and staff which support those programmes.

Our Centre of Expertise on Water (CREW) funded a rapid project to test for the viral RNA in waste-water (sewage) with SEPA and academic partners. This is now a nationwide programme and is being used by Local Health Boards to help target community testing.

Researchers from Scotland's Rural College, the Moredun Research Institute, our national Centre of Expertise on Animal Disease Outbreaks (EPIC), working with BioSS, have taken their knowledge of zoonotic and animal disease and worked to test samples for Covid-19 and model the outbreak in the Scottish population, forming the Scottish Covid Research Consortium.

Other parts of our research programme have contributed widely to the Covid-19 response, and shown the value of our long-term investments in science and research capacity across Scotland. For example, the PCR machines funded via the research programme, which are used to detect microscopic amounts of DNA and RNA at the Rowett Institute and James Hutton Institute, were used for diagnostic testing of Covid-19 by the NHS in patient samples.

The SEFARI-Gateway has worked with all of its partners including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to put together educational materials to support home schooling.

Research Impact – Coastal Flooding and Erosion

The Dynamic Coast project is an award-winning, pan-government partnership that has transformed Scotland's public sector's understanding of coastal change and the risks from coastal flooding and erosion under a changing climate.

Funded through the Centre of Expertise on Water (CREW) and supported by key agencies, the project has established a national evidence base of coastal change. This summarises the last 130 years of coastal change across all of Scotland's erodible shores (beaches, dunes and saltmarshes) and projects the changes forward to 2050. It has been used to identify areas which are, or may become, susceptible to erosion in the coming decades.

The identification of such susceptible areas, backed by an objective evidence base and interactive maps is now being used by government, agencies, Scottish Water, Adaptation Scotland, Local Authorities, developers, landowners and community groups to develop management policies and adaptation plans to tackle coastal erosion and flood risk.

Research Impact – Combating Raspberry Root Rot

Genetic research into raspberry root rot disease is helping to alleviate the economic damage of the disease, and improve the viability of raspberry production for Scottish soft fruit producers.

The disease, which is caused by Phytophthora fragariae var. rubi, is currently the most economically damaging of all pests and diseases that affect raspberries in the UK. The raspberry is an iconic Scottish product known worldwide for its superior taste and quality, and the industry requires new commercially acceptable varieties that are resistant to Phytophthora.

With funding from the Strategic Research Programme, researchers at the James Hutton Institute have spent over a decade developing the first genetic linkage map for raspberry and subsequently identifying molecular markers to link important traits to genetic regions. Deployed early in the breeding process, these research techniques have speeded up the development of new varieties. In August 2020 a new resistant variety, Glen Mor, was launched by James Hutton Limited.

New resistant varieties such as Glen Mor will improve the viability of raspberry production for many fruit growers, as they can return to land which carries the disease but is otherwise ideally suited to raspberry production, and away from more expensive pot-based growth systems, whilst also reducing the use and cost of fungicides.

Research Impact – Peatland Restoration

In recognition that peatland restoration is one of the most effective ways of locking in carbon, the Scottish Government has committed to restoring peatland as part of its climate change policy agenda.

Peatlands research in the programme has many elements and aims to provide an evidence base for the wider costs and benefits of Scottish peatlands restoration. This includes improving methods for calculating carbon stores and establishing the extent to which peatland restoration will help Scotland and the UK meet their emissions reduction targets.

Working in partnership with others on the RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows Reserve, SEFARI researchers have monitored the GHG fluxes at several sites and have shown how restored peatland can significantly help store more GHGs. They are also developing methods to more accurately evaluate the cost-effectiveness of peatland restoration and evaluate the condition of peatland.

This research has played an important role in helping Scotland assess progress towards the statutory GHG emission reduction targets. It has alsoinformed how to better incorporate the effects of draining and the rewetting of peatlands into calculations for UK GHG inventories.


Email: helen.m.jones@gov.scot

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