Scottish Environment Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI): analysis

Reports the findings of Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) commissioned research to analyse how the five Main Research Providers (MRPs) relate to their collective identity as Scottish Environment Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI), how they benefit from the collective identity, and how the SEFARI identity can best contribute to the next cycle of strategic research funding.

2 Mapping the Strategic Research Landscape

The first phase of the study mapped the spectrum of key actors and activities in the evolving Scottish Government, RESAS-funded research landscape. The historical contexts and emphases of successive Scottish Government research strategies are reviewed in Section 2.1.  The governance arrangements put in place in successive Strategic Research Programmes and Portfolios are summarised in Section 2.2, and their influence on the SEFARI research landscape where MRPs and other actors interact in Section 2.3.

2.1 Scottish Government Research Strategies 2005-2021

The structure of successive Strategic Research Programmes and Portfolios in the area of environment, food and agriculture is outlined in Table 1

The Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department (SEERAD) was, until 2007, responsible for advising ministers on policy relating to agriculture, rural development, food, the environment and fisheries and for ensuring the implementation of those policies in Scotland.  SEERAD's strategy for biological research for 2005-2010 signalled a departure from earlier project-based, grant-in-aid approaches by introducing commissioned programmes of work for which the Scottish Agricultural and Biological Research Institutes (SABRIs) were invited to submit proposals. The change in strategy[5] was signalled as follows:

"In the past, research funded has aligned to changing needs through changes to the remits, missions and scientific disciplines employed by the Main Research Providers (MRPs). They reflected the views of the MRPs themselves and their capability and aspirations rather than being primarily informed by the Government's overriding concerns. This approach is no longer appropriate".

The reorganisation of Scottish Government Directorates after 2010 resulted in their research strategies being assigned to cross-directorate portfolios, viz. Rural Affairs and Environment (RAE, 2011-2016) and Rural Affairs, Food and Environment (RAFE, 2016-2021). Further adjustment of Scottish Government Directorate titles resulted in the RAFE remit being split across two portfolios – Rural Economy and Connectivity (REC) and Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR), each subject to scrutiny by a Scottish Parliament committee. 

Since 2011, Scottish Government research strategies have been delivered through commissioned Strategic Research Portfolios in which MRP-delivered Strategic Research Programmes were complemented by investment in Centres of Expertise, Strategic Partnerships, Innovative Partnerships and Underpinning Capacity. 

When their pre-2011 designation as SABRIs ended, MRPs adopted the Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture (SEFA) focus for their collective SEFARI identity.  CoEs are described in their websites as Scottish Government funded Centres of Expertise in their particular domains.  

The RAE (2011-2016)[6] and RAFE (2016-2021)[7] research strategy documents placed strong emphasis on the policy and stakeholder relevance of sponsored research and knowledge exchange activities.  The focus on knowledge exchange was sharpened by the inclusion of a formal KTE plan in the RAE (2011-2016) strategy and a commissioned CKEI – subsequently named the SEFARI Gateway – in the RAFE (2016-2021) Strategic Research Portfolio. 

Our mapping of historical documents identified changes in Scottish Government's strategic emphases and their introduction of governance structures that reflect (i) a move away from grant-in-aid and towards commissioned programmes) and (ii) a desire to focus research providers not just on commissioned research but on the associated knowledge exchange and impact agenda.  We examine the Strategic Research Portfolio governance arrangements in more detail in the next section.

Table 1: Strategic Research Programmes and Portfolios, 2005-2021*


Prior to 2006 2006-2011 2011-2016 2016-2021
Government Department/ Directorate/Portfolio SEERAD SEERAD / RERAD RAE RAFE (later ECCLR, REC)
Strategy Document SEERAD Programme of Agricultural, Biological and Related Research Strategic Research for SEERAD 2005 – 2010 RAE Strategic Research Strategy 2011-2016 RAFE Research Strategy 2016-2021
Advisory unit - SSAP (2006-2008) - -
Other research providers SAC; RBGE   RBGE; Non-MRP CoE participants Non-MRP CoE participants
Portfolio descriptor - - Strategic Research Portfolio Strategic Research Portfolio
Programme descriptor Programme Programmes Strategic Research Programmes Strategic Research Programme
Commissioned Strategic Research Programme Outputs  - Required Outputs Research Deliverables Research Deliverables
Strategic Research Programme Framework Projects Work Packages focused on  programme objectives Work Packages focused on scientific  themes Work Packages focused on scientific themes
Strategic Research Programme Knowledge Exchange Framework  - Creation of KnowledgeScotland Knowledge Transfer and Exchange (KTE) Strategy Centre for Knowledge Exchange and Impact (CKEI)
Other portfolio elements     Centres of Expertise Strategic Partnerships Underpinning Capacity Centres of Expertise Innovation Partnerships Underpinning Capacity

*For acronyms, refer to glossary  at the end of the report

2.2 Governance arrangements

The need for a dedicated Strategic Research Portfolio governance structure to sit above the operational level of research providers and RESAS was addressed in both the RAE (2011-2016) and RAFE (2016-2021) research strategies.  The RAE strategy refers to the appointment of a Strategic Research Programme Board (SRPB) as the "ultimate governance authority" for the Strategic Research Portfolio. The remit[8] of the SRPB was to

  • Provide oversight and be responsible for giving direction, when required, to different elements of the research portfolio. 
  • Ensure coordination of the different elements of the research portfolio. 
  • Receive reports on performance and delivery from each of the different elements of the strategic research portfolio. 
  • Make decisions to resolve issues that impact on delivery. 

The RAE strategy made the newly-established MRP Directors Executive Committee (DEC) accountable for delivery of the Strategic Research Programme element of the Strategic Research Portfolio, in compliance with the (also newly-established) Performance Management Framework (PMF) administered by RESAS.  Centres of Expertise (CoEs) and Strategic Partnerships had their own steering groups and/or science advisory panels. Representatives of the MRPs, CoEs and Strategic Partnerships were not included in the membership of the SRPB.

The RAFE (2016-2021) strategy document did not articulate its Strategic Research Portfolio governance arrangements as clearly as its RAE predecessor, although we noted the existence the "RAFE Delivery Board" whose members included the chief executives or equivalent of the main delivery bodies and senior officials from Scottish Government.  The RAFE Delivery Board is mentioned in MRP tender documents for both the CKEI and the Natural Assets theme[9] of the Strategic Research Programme, but its governance role is not affirmed.  In contrast, proposal documentation for all three science themes and for the CKEI includes an organisation chart (Fig. 1a) that positions the SRPB as the top governance authority. It is unclear whether the SRPB governance authority extended to the entire Strategic Research Portfolio, as the MRP tenders were specific to the Strategic Research Programme element, with few references to Centres of Expertise, Innovation Partnerships or Underpinning Capacity. A later version of the Strategic Research Programme organisation chart (Fig. 1b) replaced the SRPB with a Strategic Advisory Board (SAB), and the website link to the RAE (2011-2016) SRPB[10] redirects to current SAB information.   RESAS appears to confirm the portfolio governance role of the SAB in its written response[11] to ECCLR Committee scrutiny of the 2018-2019 Scottish Government draft budget, by stating:

"A Strategic Advisory Board (SAB) chaired by the Chief Scientific Adviser for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment and involving key Scottish Government Directors has been established to have oversight and provide advice on the portfolio investment in science"

The title of the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) has since changed to that of CSA for Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture (ENRA).  The SAB[12] defined its agreed mission in May 2019, stating that it will 

  • Drive improvements in the quality, relevance, impact, visibility and leverage of the RESAS science research programmes
  • Help prioritise areas for strategic research in alignment with policy and stakeholder needs and RAFE portfolio outcomes
  • Ensure synergies and opportunities with the wider research landscape are maximised."

The governance roles of the SRPB and/or the SAB are articulated to different degrees in the foundation documents of successive knowledge transfer and exchange initiatives.  The KTE Strategy (2011-2016) document makes no reference to the governance authority of the SRPB and it is essentially a management plan for KTE aspects of the Strategic Research Programme.  The RAE Strategic Research Strategy document describes the KTE plan as being "prepared by the MRPs and agreed by RESAS", suggesting a shared management role for RESAS and the MRPs in its delivery.  The governance authority of the SRPB (2016-2021) was explicitly acknowledged in the proposal that led to the creation of the CKEI[13].  Management authority (called "internal governance" in the CKEI proposal) was assigned to the MRP Directors' Executive Committee, as illustrated in Fig. 1a. The exclusive Strategic Research Programme focus also persisted, as did the apparently shared management role of RESAS and the MRPs, in the sense that the CKEI proposal was MRP-prepared and RESAS-agreed.  The degree to which RESAS and MRPs share, or indeed contest, management roles in Strategic Research Programme knowledge exchange activities is an open question of relevance to the CKEI's successor organisation, SEFARI Gateway. 

Figure 1a Diagram setting out the Governance Structure for Strategic Research Programme 2016-2021
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(MRP tender submission

Figure 1b Diagram setting out the Governance Structure for Strategic Research Programme 2016-2021
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2.3 Mapping MRP and SEFARI identities to the evolving research landscape 

We expected MRP responses to the evolving Scottish Government research landscape to be diverse, given their different identities, histories, research missions and resources, and their varying degrees of dependence on the Strategic Research Programme as a source of funding. Drawing on the web-based study of the six MRPs, we provide an overview of that diversity in Appendix 1

MRPs responded to heightened expectations around stakeholder engagement in their tendered Strategic Research Programme proposals for both the 2011-2016 and 2016-2021 funding cycles, building a narrative of stakeholder relevance around their scientific themes, work packages and research deliverables.  The presentation of research deliverables in the SEFARI website suggests that they are treated as ongoing projects within thematic work packages rather than as tangible outputs of the Strategic Research Programme.  

The broad relevance of Strategic Research Programme scientific themes as inputs to Scottish Government policies and policy actions is illustrated in Figure 2.  The alignment of research providers (SEFARI and CoEs) and a wide range of external stakeholders with the same set of policies and policy actions is shown in Figure 3.

We were unable to find documentary evidence of the strategic decisions, agreements and briefings that led to the introduction of the SEFARI identity and branding of the CKEI as SEFARI Gateway.  By late 2017, however, SEFARI was sufficiently recognised as an organisational entity to be invited to comment on the RAFE Strategic Research Portfolio by the ECCLR and REC parliamentary committees, as part of their scrutiny of the Scottish Government draft budget 2018-2019.  The SEFARI Gateway Director's responses to the ECCLR Committee[14] described SEFARI as a collective of six Scottish Research Institutes, each with their own global capability, expertise and reputation, with a mission of delivering 'Leading Ideas for Better Lives' in eight sectors (Plant and Animal Health; Rural Economy; Agriculture; Land and Communities; Climate and the Environment; Food and Drink Innovation; Healthier Food; Science Education). The SEFARI Gateway was described in the response document as the knowledge exchange and impact hub set up to coordinate and develop the knowledge exchange and engagement activity of all the SEFARI members. 

The depiction of SEFARI as a collective of MRPs with a mission to deliver "Leading Ideas for Better Lives" eschewed the Strategic Research Programme focus of the CKEI in favour of a broader approach based on engagement across eight stakeholder-relevant categories.  Notwithstanding this shift in emphasis, SEFARI Gateway inherited the Strategic Research Programme-focused strategy and governance structures originally specified for the CKEI

Figure 2  Diagram that Maps the Strategic Research Programme 2016-2021 Science Themes to Scottish Government Policies and Policy Actions
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Figure 3  Diagram that illustrates how key stakeholders map to Scottish Government policies and policy actions
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SEFARI Gateway is currently governed by a Collaboration Agreement[15] in which SEFARI is defined as "the collective Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (aka MRPs), as defined by RESAS from time to time".  It is further noted in the Collaboration Agreement that "the Leading Ideas categories (constructs) may be subject to change as necessitated by Gateway knowledge exchange strategy and in agreement with the DEC".

The current website description of SEFARI is as "a consortium of six globally renowned research institutes"[16].  In contrast to the earlier description of the SEFARI Collective and its mission of delivering "Leading Ideas for Better Lives", the SEFARI Consortium defines its scope as delivery of "the Scottish Government funded Strategic Research Programme".  It is unclear which of the two SEAFARI missions prevails, but we note that scientific content can be searched in the SEFARI website using either (Strategic Research Programme) RDs or "Leading Ideas" filters.  

SEFARI acknowledges its position as a partner in the wider Strategic Research Portfolio, alongside CoEs and SEFARI Gateway.  SEFARI Gateway is described as an independent partner in the Strategic Research Portfolio, notwithstanding its embedded role as knowledge exchange and impact coordinator for the Strategic Research Programme.  This role addresses the original CKEI remit by presenting scientific progress in the context of Strategic Research Programme RDs and seeking to act as a "shop front" for the Strategic Research Programme.  

A RESAS-convened review[17] of SEFARI's first two years of operation, conducted in 2018, focused its attention on SEFARI Gateway.  The review panel expressed concern that SEFARI Gateway was building a brand for the MRPs, rather than for the Strategic Research Programme and the wider Strategic Research Portfolio.  The current SEFARI Gateway web page (within the SEFARI website) does little to allay that concern, stating that SEFARI Gateway "aims to enhance the existing strong brands and reputations of the Institutes by adopting a dynamic, innovative, cooperative and collaborative approach that has policy, business and public engagement at its core".  



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