4. Our Research Priorities
The high-level drivers of global climate and nature crises, EU exit and economic growth and wellbeing outlined in Section 2, will drive the Scottish Government's needs for research and evidence during the lifetime of this strategy.
With this in mind, the following research areas have been identified for funding and are presented here under five themes. Every theme will be expected to deliver research and evidence which will help to meet the challenges posed by one or more of the high-level drivers. These themes will be used as a single conceptual structure to steer research across our entire research portfolio and all funding streams, whether that is through our Main Research Providers, our Centres of Expertise, or other contractors.
The five research themes are:
- Theme A: Plant and Animal Health
- Theme B: Sustainable Food System and Supply
- Theme C: Human Impacts on the Environment
- Theme D: Natural Resources
- Theme E: Rural Futures
The five themes, and the constituent research topics which sit within them are illustrated in Figure 2. More information on each component is set out in Annex A.Further detail on each will be provided as work is commissioned to implement this strategy.
The Scottish Government expects to support research across all of the research topics, though we will prioritise and allocate resources between them, in line with the Strategic Advisory Board's consistent challenge. Our high-level drivers require a particularly early focus on land use, the rural economy and natural capital, including biodiversity and water. In addition, we will prioritise research with other funding partners on animal and plant disease and climate change. The high-level drivers are relevant across many research areas, as are the cross-cutting themes (data science and behaviour change); hence proposals from any theme that best align with those drivers will be prioritised during evaluation. Moreover, the areas identified here present ongoing strategic research needs. The timing for project delivery will be outlined in more detailed documents, for example in the invitations to tender. Portfolio-wide prioritisation will remain an important signal to research providers and potential funding partners. The scientific strand of governance will update the prioritisation over the next funding cycle (see Section 7).
The themes and topics are helpful to give structure to the programme and are not intended to create boundaries between research areas. Co-ordination and exchange of information and ideas between themes is often necessary, and mechanisms will be needed to drive and manage such interconnections. Some linkages are best informed by researchers, for example SEFARI's broad interpretation of 'One Health' research including ecological, plant, animal and human health. Government policies such as the Regional Land Use Partnerships will also catalyse new research linkages across our themes to match their need for integrated evidence and decision support. We also continue to expect multidisciplinary approaches to bring together a fertile mix of natural science, social research and economics, which is necessary if we are to address the complexities and realities of policy challenges in the real world.
This structure reflects a number of changes in our research priorities compared to the current funding cycle. For example, climate change is now recognised in the programme as a discrete research topic rather than as an element of other topics. Whilst many of these topics reflect the continuing need for evidence in existing policy areas, following the advice of the Strategic Advisory Board and broader consultation, we will introduce four research topics which were not previously included in the programme, with a corresponding reduction in research priorities in other areas.
- Air quality. This is an important environmental issue with impacts upon life and health outcomes. Scotland's strategy to reduce air pollution in Scotland is due to be revised and is likely to increase the focus on this issue, and the corresponding need for additional research.
- Land reform. Previous research cycles have not had a specific research programme on land reform, but with ongoing changes in Scottish land policy this new element will ensure that we can cement expertise in this important policy area into the programme.
- Circular economy and waste. New funding on this area addresses previous gaps in the programme. This is a naturally cross-cutting policy challenge, working across behavioural, social, economic, and environmental issues, to drive down Scotland's overall negative environmental impacts, and we expect it will be of wide policy and industry interest in the years to come.
- Large-scale modelling. Opportunities from new data sources and modelling applications are emerging across the UK, and evidence needs are arising within a number of Scottish Government policy areas. Given the technical skills and challenges involved, we anticipate benefits from taking a strategic approach to data integration and modelling at scale. This work should contribute across policy areas, and will likely involve collaborative projects with other funders.
Two further, cross-cutting activities have emerged, in the methods of data science and in understanding behavioural change. Past and current funding has supported skills and expertise in these areas, for example providing dedicated support from BioSS for data-rich research, modelling and machine learning. Both activities seem likely to become a natural part of high-quality research delivery across our programme. We therefore expect to fund these activities throughout the research themes, remaining open to opportunities that broaden their adoption, for example informed by the science strand of governance.