Visualising Complexity

Complex, multidimensional, interconnected data can be extremely difficult to communicate effectively even using classic visualisation tools. Gone are the days when we can just draw a straight line through a 2D scatter graph. Take a look our visualization of the network of researchers in the Scottish Government’s Strategic Research Programme (SRP) as an illustration of just how complicated things can get! The image shows the complex connections between the researchers involved in the SRP (the bigger the node or circle – the bigger the level of interaction and lines represent linkages).

Directory or Expertise

The SRP is a vast programme of research involving the work of hundreds of researchers across a variety of topics such as Natural Assets, Productive and Sustainable Land Management and Rural Economies, and Food, Health and Wellbeing. Recognising the complexity involved we began developing a directory of expertise where we hope to make the linkages between the science and scientists much easier to navigate for us all. Hopefully this kind of information will become more readily accessible via the SEFARI web-site next year, but until then a little more information can also be found in the project’s blog.

The Directory of Expertise is only one example of visualising complex data we and our colleagues regularly deal with though. There are actually many teams working across SEFARI on ways to communicate a variety of complex data, and we recognized we all could benefit by sharing our knowledge and practice more widely. Therefore, we decided to apply to the SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Fund to create a collaborative community in this important area, and we were delighted that our idea to develop a workshop on ‘Imaginative Tools for Visualizing Complexity’ was awarded funding in September 2017.

The Responsive Opportunity Fund is designed to support new and collaborative knowledge exchange ideas which enhance impact and add value. Projects need to be inter-disciplinary, cross-institutional, show creativity and demonstrate how they will improve the communication of our work.

The workshop has the goals of:

  • establishing a network – enabling people from across SEFARI to get to know each other’s work better,
  • exposing participants to new approaches and tools to visualizing data,
  • providing an opportunity to have a go at using the approaches and tools,
  • and increasing awareness of diversity and accessibility issues when preparing visualizations.

Whether the data are challenging to visualize and communicate, or whether there are methods and approaches to visualization in a particular area of research that could be used more widely, then this network is designed to help and our ideas are already gaining interest both within and external to SEFARI.

The workshop is planned for 6th February 2018 with guest speakers Sophie Warnes (Office for National Statistics) and Prof Jessie Kennedy (Edinburgh Napier University) and we’ll be sure to blog again later to let you know how the event went, but in the meantime and for more specific information about this activity please follow our project blog.

Dr Gary Polhill & Dr Paul Shaw (The James Hutton Institute), Dr Mike Spencer & Joshua Bird (Scotland’s Rural College), Bram Boskamp (Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland).


Game of Cones

Enlisting people’s help to keep our trees healthy was the task of a team representing SEFARI at the recent science showcase event UnEarthed, held at Dynamic Earth Edinburgh. The event was put on by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to engage the public with environmental science through hands-on activities, and was the largest NERC showcase to date with over 7,000 people visiting between 17 – 20 November.


The showcase was targeted at families and school groups. Two of the four days were advertised to schools in areas of deprivation, and grants were available for transport costs in order to remove the main barrier to attendance.

As well as communicating the science UnEarthed was very much about showcasing best practice in public engagement. All proposals went through a selection process and the support provided by NERC at all stages was exceptional.

So why do we need the public to care about and act on tree health? In short we need more people to be on the lookout for pests and diseases and reporting them so that the authorities can take appropriate action. The UK plant health risk register has around 1,000 threats listed, but the worrying statistic is the rate of growth at between 5 – 10 new pest threats per month. This onslaught of pests and diseases is a product of the modern world where goods and people move ever more freely around the planet.

This threat is particularly relevant to Scotland. We have a strong forestry sector and in recent years around three quarters of all the trees planted in the UK have been planted in Scotland. The Scottish Government also has ambitious targets to increase tree cover for a variety of reasons including economic and wildlife benefits as well as the capture of carbon from the atmosphere. To get people thinking about these issues, a group of seven research institutes including three from SEFARI – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, SRUC and The James Hutton Institute – came together to develop the forest management computer game CALEDON which is free and available to download at home.

Bringing CALEDON to UnEarthed, along with other hands-on activities, was the latest public engagement event for the PROTREE project, a part of the UK’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative, which developed the game working with games designers at Dundee-based Hyper Luminal Games. The game puts the player in charge of a virtual forest and they have to make decisions and develop strategy to keep their forest healthy. Planting and felling to maintain a viable business is the basis of the game, but it is how you decide to deal with the inevitable pests and diseases that will determine your success or failure. The game provides tips on strategy and has an encyclopaedia you can explore for more information.

The game was very popular with children and some fierce competition to record high scores suggests that the game does succeed by being fun to play. The game also provides an excellent stimulus to discussion of the issues, as even just getting across the message that trees do get sick is a step in the right direction. UnEarthed was a great opportunity to speak to teachers about using the game in the classroom and for those who wanted to get more involved there was also information available on citizen science initiatives including the Observatree monitoring project, the reporting tool Tree Alert and the OPAL Tree Health Survey.

Dr Max Coleman, Science Communicator, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Food Matters go Live!

This week SEFARI is heading down south to London to take part in the UK’s only food and drink cross-sector event, called Food Matters Live, which is taking place from 21st-23rd November 2017 at London’s ExCeL. The free to attend event involves around 800 organisations and brings together a wide range of people and companies: food producers and retailers from small and medium enterprises to multi-nationals, UK and international-agencies; non-governmental organizations, research funders, scientists, nutritionists, students, politicians, food campaigners and chefs. Essentially, if you have even a remote interest in food there will be something there for you!


Food and Drink is a hugely important sector for Scotland and the UK economy, generating a turnover of £14.4 billion and £5.3 billion of GVA (gross value added) for the Scottish economy in 2014 alone. This sector not only has an impact on Scotland’s economy but food production can also has a significant influence on our environment, health and society and these are all areas that SEFARI research aims to a make a difference.

SEFARI represents a unique, long term sustained and globally distinctive multi and inter-disciplinary research collaboration and which delivers the Scottish Government Strategic Research Programme (SRP, 2016-2021) for food, agriculture, environment, land use and rural communities; for 2016 -2017 alone this is a £34.2million investment in strategic research.

At SEFARI, through the SRP and research underpinned by it, we link research on primary agriculture and the environment to the food we eat through new approaches for agricultural production, investigating food supply chains, new foods and re-formulation, nutrition at all ages and on to the issues faced in achieving food accessibility and affordability within a population severely challenged by diets linked with ill health. A recent economic impact assessment of our previous SRP research has shown that even over a short period of time our work is delivering benefits along the whole food chain.

Economically, environmentally sustainable agriculture is critical to a thriving food and drink sector and is vital for securing access to sufficient safe and nutritious food. Examples of where we have and continue to make a difference through our research include:

  • Long term sustained crop research working to improve yield, disease resistance and reduce the environmental impact of production, e.g. our barley and potato research.
  • Improved livestock genetic selection e.g. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance welfare.
  • Helped to develop Scotland’s Beef Efficiency Scheme, by working with ClimateXChange.
  • Major breakthroughs in livestock disease; including the first vaccine in the world for a worm parasite of sheep and, working with EPIC (the Centre of Expertise on Animal Disease Outbreaks), our work has been central on delivering to the industry-led scheme to eradicate Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) in Scotland.

Moving from the farm towards the consumer, our research is establishing how diets and food influence our health at an individual and societal level. Pioneering work involving our scientists includes discovering how the type of food we consume can help weight management and improve health as a key approach to tackling the health burden of obesity. Dietary fibre is now acknowledged as a key factor in this approach and our ground-breaking research has shown that the microbes in the gut respond differently to the type of fibre eaten, opening up new opportunities to provide health benefits to the public.

We are also identifying natural bioactivities (chemicals that have a biological effect) within plants and their extracts, including using fruit and vegetable extracts (applicable to vegetable waste use) that could help in shelf-life preservation (antioxidants) and, by developing a unique understanding of how bioactives are available and used by the body, for delivering potential health benefits (e.g. in regulating inflammation or management of type 2 diabetes).

Critically, nutritional requirements vary and our research is examining how nutrition at all ages plays an important role in shaping health, e.g. by looking at the impact of diet during pregnancy and supporting the development of food products that are more appropriate for an older population.

Such understanding offers a huge potential for better food produce and new food ranges e.g. the “Fuller Longer” food range as developed by Marks & Spencer with expert input from our scientists and based on understanding gained from their long term strategic research and work underpinned by it. Also a detailed understanding of the nutritional and wider chemical content of plants linked to how our bodies use these is providing unique opportunities to inform crop breeding approaches e.g. in our research on learning from wild and underutilised plants.

In seeking to effect better relationships with food and the adoption of healthier lifestyles, understanding food-choice behaviours are complex but also offer opportunities to effect dietary change. Our latest socioeconomic analysis is working to better understand influences on food choice, consumer attitudes and beliefs; preferences regarding food authenticity and origin; assessing how consumers consider, balance and trade-off different preference criteria when purchasing foods; developing ways to measure and communicate healthy and environmentally sustainable diets to consumers; and examining household attitudes and behaviour on food waste.

In addition, by understanding the structure and effectiveness of short food supply networks, which connect Scottish manufacturers and consumers, we can aid in promoting rural development and sustainable, resilient communities.

Finally, here at SEFARI we also have access to an array of resources, facilities and collections which are extensive and nationally important e.g. the National Soils Archive, crop collections, research farms, livestock facilities and a state of the art Human Nutrition Unit to name only a few.

Ultimately we are working to ensure our research reaches those whom can benefit from it and our close long term partnerships with policy, farming, the food and drink sector, education and the public is vital to informing our work, enabling us to provide advice and putting our research in to practice, and this is why we go to events like Food Matters Live.

Therefore if you’d like to learn more and are interested in food and drink (and well who isn’t!) do come and visit us at stand 681. As well as discussing our latest research with you we are also excited to be piloting an innovative new project, called ‘My Food Our World’, which is a series of short films showcasing how our research is contributing to Scotland’s Good Food Nation bill and you will also find our scientists presenting at talks throughout the whole event too.

Dr Charles Bestwick & Dr Michelle Wilson-Chalmers.


Representing SEFARI at UK Parliament

Leaving the European Union could have major repercussions on a wide range of environmental and land use concerns within Scotland, and across the whole of the UK. Whilst some of these issues may seem complex, it is increasingly recognised that SEFARI contains a wealth of expertise which can contribute to such discussions. Of course our place is not to delve into the politics, but to use our research and expertise to provide an evidence-led platform for discussion.

To this end, I was recently invited to represent SEFARI at an event in the UK Parliament, organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST).

Davy's Blog

The meeting brought together a small number of recognised scientific experts to discuss such issues with the Houses of Commons and House of Lords committee’s subject advisers.  Representatives from the Environmental Audit; Environment, Food & Rural  Affairs; EU, Energy &Environment (Lords); European Scrutiny; Exiting the EU; Public Administration & Constitutional Affairs; Scottish Affairs; Welsh Affairs; and Women & Equalities committees were all present on the day, reflecting how integral environmental issues are to a wide range of parliamentary interests.

There are clearly a range of environmental concerns (such as addressing farmland biodiversity declines and tackling diffuse pollution at a catchment scale) which are common across the UK. But, my remit on the day was to highlight some of the additional environmental issues which were likely to be much a higher priority in Scotland, when compared to the rest of the UK.

I began by stressing that land managers have a huge role to play in helping to tackle environmental issues on behalf of wider society, and consequently it is essential that future mechanisms can appropriately support the different types of agriculture practised in Scotland. Leaving the European Union could present a real risk to the more vulnerable livestock systems in Scotland’s mountains and islands, especially those High Nature Value farming systems which cover over 40% of Scotland’s agricultural land and where the continuation of agricultural management is considered to be of high nature conservation importance. Any abandonment of farming in those areas could have a detrimental impact on the rural communities, habitats and wildlife species associated with them.

I also highlighted ambitious climate change targets as a major driver of Scotland’s environmental focus, with the Scottish Government proposing further ambitious revisions to our existing targets. Key targets include: obtaining 50% of heating, transport and electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030; to restore 250,000 ha of degraded peatlands by 2032; and a desire to markedly increase woodland cover in Scotland beyond the current 18% land cover. All these targets are aimed at reducing Scotland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions to 90% of 1990 levels by 2050 and (in recent revisions) to 56% of 1990 levels by 2020.

I was able to make the point that all these environmental issues cannot be seen in isolation from each other, and that actions to mitigate for one issue have the potential to be beneficial or have adverse impacts for other issues. That’s why there is a pressing need to understand the systems underpinning, and trade-offs associated with, any land management practice or land use change. This means landscape scale policies and practices must be designed and implemented accordingly.

The meeting was also attended by:

Sasha Leigh, Head of Policy Partnerships, who provided an overview of NERC’s new Environmental Evidence for the Future initiative which will seek to define, prioritise and address the medium- to long-term knowledge gaps in the environmental science evidence base post-Brexit;

Andy Jordan, working on political aspects of Brexit at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, who outlined a number of legislative and logistical challenges to dealing with environmental issues in the run-up to Brexit; and

Nick Wells, Centre of Ecology & Hydrology, who outlined the challenges and gaps in understanding associated with a range of cross-UK environmental issues, such as support for environmental management by farmers, achieving good ecological condition of waterbodies, addressing air pollution, ensuring biosecurity associated with plant and animal imports and maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in protected sites.

I have engaged quite a bit with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament in recent years and provided evidence a number of times to what is now the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee.  It was very interesting to be able to highlight where the Scottish environmental perspective can be quite distinctive when viewed through a UK parliamentary lens.  It was therefore very pleasing to see that SEFARI was able to bring something different to the discussions.

The meeting was a great opportunity for SEFARI, one we hope to build on as we contribute where we can to discussions around Leaving the European Union.

Davy McCracken

Professor of Agricultural Ecology and Head of Hill & Mountain Research Centre Future Farming Systems

Harnessing Data

There is no doubt we live in an ever evolving and developing world. That brings huge challenges, and only by understanding our world better can we make the best informed decisions across policy and commercial spheres, and in our own lives. Data sets, comprising the ultimate sources of the facts on which to base analyses, are fundamental to how we understand the world around us.

Never before has data been so important, whether in our daily lives, or in tackling the big issues of the day –food security, energy sources, population growth. However data can be difficult to manage, both in the sheer quantity now available, and how it is used.

Across SEFARI we are working on how we can better interpret and use data to improve science and help society, and this inspired how we styled our 2017 SEFARI Science for Life lecture. This series of annual lectures has been running for around ten years, with an aim to inspire current and future scientists to tackle key challenges.

This year’s lecture, hosted by Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland (BioSS), was titled ‘Harnessing All Available Data to Inform Agricultural Policy and Industry’. The lecture was given, to an audience of over 100 guests, colleagues and students, by Dr Linda Young on Tuesday 13th June 2017 at the Royal Society for Edinburgh.

Dr Young is the Chief Mathematical Statistician and Director of Research and Development, National Agricultural Statistics Service, US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dr Young said

“I’m delighted to have been given this opportunity to talk about our work in the USDA and to learn about how Scottish Government funded strategic research and translational activities are structured and delivered by the SEFARI collective.”

In her lecture Dr Linda Young described how techniques in the USA are integrating privately owned data with publicly available data (often collected by the USDA). Dr Young outlined how advanced statistical methodologies are used to consider the nature and complexities of the data sets themselves – and so improve their interpretation.


At the heart of Dr Young’s work is a recognition that the data sets used will be incomplete and so will bring with them a degree of uncertainty (for example they may contain a particular bias one way or another). Although the challenges of collating, improving and analysing such data sets are substantial, addressing these challenges is enabling staff in the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to better inform government for policy development, as well as delivering great value to the farming community, and in guiding production and investment decisions.

In response to Linda’s presentation, BioSS’s Director, David Elston said “the approach Linda takes to her work is similar to the one we promote within BioSS. We aim to identify the quantitative issues at the heart of important problems then apply and if necessary adapt or sometimes even create rigorous methods of analysis that address these key issues.”

The lecture is linked to an annual event where representatives from the 300+ PhD students supervised across SEFARI describe their work, which collectively makes a very substantial contribution to the research capabilities and achievements of SEFARI.

Presentations delivered by twelve students showcased the breadth and depth of environment, food and agriculture research being undertaken within SEFARI.  The students described some of the vital scientific work being undertaken to address important issues including: reducing the incidence of obesity; protecting farm animals against diseases; and increasing the productivity of crop plants.  The student’s presentations and their responses to audience questions were graded, and prizes were awarded.

David Elston

A Capital Venture

On 27 November 2017, Scotland’s First Minister opened the World Forum on Natural Capital – this two day event sees delegates from around the world explore how our shared geology, soil, air, water and all living things should be properly accounted for – in how we live our lives, and how we spend and invest our money.

Scots Pine SEFARI Natural Capital

The work carried out by SEFARI which relates to natural capital is varied and detailed, and encompasses soil, fresh water and biodiversity, together with the ecosystem services (including cultural services such as recreation, heritage, spiritual, amenity, and health) which they support. The vision for this work, and those carrying it out, is for recognition worldwide as leading authorities in the understanding and management of natural resources, and in the sustainable use of these resources in a manner that is resilient to future pressures.

The benefits of achieving this vision are to enable the sustainable growth of the Scottish and wider economy, our sense of place, and our overall health and quality of life. This work is therefore crucial, and is used in policy development and in practical application in areas such as climate change, land use for multiple benefits, and food security. More specifically:

For soils, we are working on research to increase the area of Scotland which is either under sustainable soil management practices, or is under restoration. This work underpins the idea of managing soil for multiple functions, a principle already set out in Scottish Government policy.

For water resources and flood risk management, research is consolidating our understanding of how to improve water quality and manage water flows, and developing measures to improve both of these. This includes predicting ways to ensure that current good water management practice remains robust and fit for purpose. This underpins the idea that ecosystem-based approaches which hit targets for water, soil and habitats, as well as developers, become the norm, rather than the traditional infrastructure approach. Such an approach can help increase Scotland’s international reputation in water and natural resources management, and ensure water resources enhance, not limit, sustainable economic growth.

For biodiversity and ecosystems, research is focused on addressing key gaps in our understanding of the processes contributing to the functioning and resilience of our soils, water and biodiversity. Our research is providing new approaches for focussing and delivering sustainable land management practices, and exploring how we can better measure the health of ecosystems and the services they provide. This work feeds into policy and practitioner communities, leading to a healthier and more resilient environment. This work has provenance in Scotland and further afield.

For integrated and sustainable management of natural assets, our research provides the scientific capacity and knowledge brokerage to support the Scottish Government and its agencies to achieve their aims, and through these, contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We take great pride in working with partners from Government and beyond in developing and maintaining work in this area.

We look forward to contributing far more as the move towards a necessary and accurate consideration of our natural environment, and that this must be used in decision making, continues to gather momentum.


Kirsty Blackstock, James Hutton Institute

The Centre for Sustainable Cropping: A long-term platform for research and innovation

Our farmland environment is made up of a highly complex network of habitats that support an amazing diversity of plants and animals, microscopic soil organisms to farmland birds. Any changes to this intricate network of interactions can be subtle and sometimes unpredictable, so it is important we fully understand how our environment is changing over time.


You may be wondering what we can do to help? Well, at the Centre for Sustainable Cropping (CSC) near Dundee, we’re aiming to develop a cropping system that can produce high quality food, whilst still maintaining a healthy environment. This means using what we understand about ecology to work with the environment to improve the health and physical structure of the soil, minimise the losses of nutrients and chemicals from cultivated fields, and support a rich variety of farmland wildlife. With a balanced system of soil, water, plants and animals, we can, over time, reduce our reliance on chemicals to produce high crop yields and eventually, find a more sustainable way of producing food.

We are measuring the long-term effect of crop management on our environment. Established in 2009 our long term platform serves to help improve the sustainability of food production in Scotland and now, eight years on, we have learned a lot! We are using the information that we’ve gathered to refine our cropping system (how the soil, crops and environment are managed through each growing season) and improve on the level of sustainability we can achieve, while still growing highly productive and good quality crops.

The CSC is run by the James Hutton Institute and is the largest field-scale experiment at the institute, extending over 42 hectares and growing a variety of crops. It will also be the longest running experiment, since we aim to maintain the site for a minimum of 3 rotations (18+ years) to get a better understanding of the long-term impact of changes in how our crops are managed.

Our long term goal is to put together a single management package which includes looking after the soil, reducing losses of pollutants into the air and water and encouraging the diverse array of plants and insects needed to help control crop pests and diseases. We are measuring the effect of these management practices on the whole arable system, by comparing directly with standard agricultural practices.

This novel approach allows us to look at the arable environment as a whole, which means we can find out what the cost or benefit is for everything that depends on our farmland habitat, from soil micro-organisms and wild plants to crop yields and input costs.

Investment by the Scottish Government for this long term project means we can use the platform as an open research facility, providing fields, datasets and archived material for all sorts of new projects on many aspects of sustainable land management over (eventually!) many decades which will help us to get more for less through sustainable farming.

If you want to find out more or you’d like to come see our facilities for yourself then please just get in touch.

Dr Cathy Hawes

Coordinator for the Centre for Sustainable Cropping at The James Hutton Institute

SEFARI at the Royal Highland Show 2017

The Royal Highland Show, taking place over 22nd-25th June at Ingliston Showground, is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s iconic events. Over the four days, the Show attracts nearly 200,000 visitors from across the world, each with a different background but with a common interest in all things farming and rural – just like us!

On Thursday and Friday the showground is a hive of meetings and networking activities; we certainly make the most of these opportunities and meet with MSPs from all parties, commercial leaders and farmers in particular.

Indeed, many seek us out to get informed about the latest research or gain that extra bit of advice; while our scientists and educators gain real insight into the issues people face every day and the time to think about the ways we can help even more.

By the weekend, the showground fills with families and we have great fun finding new ways to engage the young and old with science. This year is no exception. Why not join us to learn about human health by crawling through a giant gut, get inspired by forestry and take control of a forest harvester simulator or get some recipe tips while watching the Kilted Chef Craig Wilson and one of our scientists cook up a storm.

SEFARI will kick things off on Thursday morning with an event focusing on the role science plays in building growth in the rural economy. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity Mr Fergus Ewing MSP will speak about how science and innovation can help the food and drink industry in particular.

The James Hutton Institute  marquee is located on avenue Q, where you can found out about crop science, food safety, land management, new farming technologies and much more.  On Thursday afternoon, they host a reception to celebrate the life and work of James Hutton – one of Scotland’s greatest ever scientists – while on Friday they showcase the Best Soil in Show prizes.

If you have the kids with you then you won’t need to walk far from there to find the RHET Discovery Centre. Here you can find out if you, or your kids, have the guts to crawl through a model of the intestines and find out more about the diverse bacteria that live there.

If all that crawling around makes you hungry then The Rowett Institute’s Dr Alex Johnstone will be joined by Kilted Chef Craig Wilson and together they will show you how to cook some delicious and nutritious food. This takes place on Friday between 11am-2pm in the President’s Marquee.

The Moredun Research Institute marquee can be found on 7th Avenue and has a history, heritage and futuristic theme. Visit them for advice or information about livestock health and new techniques for animal disease detection.  Scientists from EPIC will also be at hand to discuss biosecurity and its role in parasite control. On Friday at 4pm a new Biosecurity animation will be launched followed by a wine reception.

Close by on 7th avenue SRUC have a busy pavilion packed with activities for all ages and levels of knowledge about farming and rural affairs. This includes cutting edge farming technology and animal welfare research, how their research supports food & drink production and supply in Scotland and, more internationally, the challenges faced by Malawian farmers and how this compares with Scottish farming. If that’s not enough they will even let you loose on a forest harvester training simulator! Friday morning sees the return of their very popular Women in Agriculture event.

This is our first year attending the Show branded as SEFARI but it has long been a firm favourite in our calendars come rain or shine, so come see us!

Andrew Kelloe and Dr Michelle Wilson-Chalmers ¦ SEFARI Research and Communications Officers


World Environment Day – Take a Moment to Reconnect

World Environment Day, on 5 June 2017, is designated as “the United Nations’ most important day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment”. The theme for 2017 is connecting people to nature, and the UN is urging individuals to do something to take care of the Earth, or become an agent of change.

Pexel Pollution

This year, World Environment Day falls at a time when the mood around climate change has changed somewhat, particularly following the decision of President Donald Trump to seek to withdraw the United States of America from the Paris Agreement on climate change (which the USA has already ratified).

Following the announcement on 1 June 2017, the “readout” of conversations President Trump held with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, and Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom reported that President Trump:

“reiterated that the United States under the Trump Administration, will be the cleanest and most environmentally friendly country on Earth”.

In his speech, President Trump said:

“Staying in the agreement could also pose serious obstacles for the United States as we begin the process of unlocking the restrictions on America’s abundant energy reserves, which we have started very strongly.  It would once have been unthinkable that an international agreement could prevent the United States from conducting its own domestic economic affairs, but this is the new reality we face if we do not leave the agreement or if we do not negotiate a far better deal”.

The final few words are interesting, and generate the question – on what research and scientific basis will such negotiations and decisions be carried through? Significant reference was made in the speech to analysis carried out by National Economic Research Associates (NERA). There was no reference to a specific document in the speech but the most recent work published by NERA on greenhouse gas emissions was commissioned by the American Council for Capital Formulation. The small print of that work states the study “[…] does not take into account potential benefits from avoided emissions”. The US Environmental Protection Agency gives an illuminating perspective, with a snapshot from its climate change website showing content is being updated:


In Scotland, the commitment to tackling climate change is now long-standing, but it is also recognised that as the easier actions are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so decisions required to meet our statutory targets start to become more complex. This is where science and research can play an increasingly important role.

Researchers in SEFARI (Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes) work on climate change issues every day. This includes work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and on adapting to the changing climate, and sees delivery directly to policy makers in Scotland, often through partnership with colleagues in ClimateXChange, Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate.

Examples include:

  • Contributing to more efficient production systems, healthier soils and more sustainable crop rotations;
  • Understanding of crop plant genetics to breed for plants with improved disease and drought tolerance;
  • Exploring how – what is known as – “High Value Nature Farming” practices and restoration of degraded peatlands impact on improvements in biodiversity and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Exploring relationships between diet, grazing behaviour, genetics and control of infectious disease on greenhouse gas emissions, to underpin sustainable production of livestock in Scotland;
  • Supporting rural and climate policy together (e.g. efficiency and sustainability of Scottish beef industry);
  • Developing tools, techniques and best practice to allow the Scottish food and drink industry to reduce or valorise waste.
  • Analysing the relationship (supply and demand) between Scottish exports and imported products; and the implications of these on sustainability, economic growth, food supply network resilience and food security;
  • Improving measurement of greenhouse gas uptake and release in peatland/moorland ecosystems, including identification of ‘greenhouse gas hotspots’;
  • Improving understanding of impacts of management practices (such as muirburn) and changes in management (such as long-term agricultural intensification) on soil carbon sequestration;
  • Supporting innovation within Scotland’s food & drink small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) (e.g. working with Scotland Food and Drink, and the Food and Drink Federation to enhance SMEs access to research and innovation;
  • Enhancing livestock breeding approaches for improving quality, heath, welfare of animal, and reduced environmental impacts;
  • Identifying catchments and conservation areas most vulnerable to environmental change, and evaluate measures to mitigate the impacts of increasing water temperatures upon aquatic organisms;
  • Developing novel statistical techniques for detecting and predicting sudden ecological changes (tipping points), and interpreting high volumes of data from environmental sensor networks.

The SEFARI research being carried out on the topics above (and many more) is more important than it has ever been, and the challenge is to make sure it gets to the right places, at the right times, and in the right format, to best inform those who make the important decisions.

As we strive to achieve that goal, try to take a step back from the maelstrom of politics taking place this week – at a global and national level – and take some time to enjoy your own local environment! Take a deep breath…

Graeme Cook ¦ Director ¦ SEFARI Gateway


Cork Technology Assessment Conference.png
Images, top; The wine reception offering an opportunity to meet delegates on the first day; Bottom left: Ken in full flow at ‘best practice’ session; Bottom right: a key conversation with ‘futurista’ Wendy Schulz (USA/UK).

We weren’t altogether sure we were in the right conference as the chair announced that: “The next session is going to involve some role play.”

You might have thought that was the cue for a swift exit. And indeed it was, though only temporarily, and only to allow for the opportunity to discuss with some other conference attendees the intricacies of what “Technology Assessment” actually was.

This was up for discussion as we were representing SEFARI in Ireland at the 3rd European Technology Assessment Conference at University College Cork.

It didn’t escape our notice that in our roles with SEFARI as Sector Leads on Livestock (Philip Skuce) and Soil and Crops (Kenneth Loades) we are tasked with trying to demystify research for non-experts, but here we were, a little bamboozled ourselves. Despite reassurances from our director, Graeme, before we attended, neither of us were altogether sure what ‘Technology Assessment’ was!

It transpires that Technology Assessment represents all aspects of knowledge exchange around science, whether that be public engagement, or construction of responsible research agendas with citizens and stakeholders. It also includes the communication of the opportunities, and risks, of scientific research to those in government and parliament. So essentially what we at SEFARI are all about!

The conference was organised by a number of fellow Research Institutes in Europe and this is why we chose to go. There are many reasons why building further links with colleagues across Europe is important, and understanding best practice on how they get their messages across on complex science is just one of them. We were eager to learn and expand our networks.

The critical mass of Research Institutes involved with Technology Assessment seems to sit within mainland Europe, notably The Netherlands, Austria and Germany, but there were also representatives there from the UK Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST) and the Open University. The conference explored many aspects of communicating science to different audiences, how different countries organise this, what works and what doesn’t, and how you go about measuring the impact of knowledge exchange.

We had the opportunity to blow our own trumpet too – we had a slot in the session on ‘best practice’ and took the opportunity to introduce SEFARI, followed by explanation and promotion of the newly-formed collective in an international context. What was clear was that SEFARI is unique in its role in delivering to so many audiences.

There was a series of plenaries, short talks and workshops from which we learned a lot – for example, one very interesting session was on ‘horizon scanning’ (i.e. what’s next?) which, from a SEFARI perspective, highlights the value of us assigning some funding for the exploration of national and global challenges through our Think Tank initiative.

While in Cork, we also took the opportunity to gatecrash attend the All-Island Agri-food Summit, which was taking place nearby. The organisers were very accommodating and allowed us to sit in on very informative lectures from Prof Chris Elliott, an acknowledged international expert on global food security and a similarly stimulating presentation from Dr Helena McMahon from Taste of Science, Ireland. We took advantage of the networking opportunity afterwards to introduce and promote the work of SEFARI on agri-food in Scotland, and to foster collaboration with our Irish counterparts.

The conference allowed us to highlight SEFARI work and understand how different countries approach similar challenges in technology assessment. We are already discussing topics raised at the conference within SEFARI and how we can implement some of the ideas we picked up. As the conference closed there was talk of the location for the next meeting, people were keen for Edinburgh………watch this space!

Dr Kenneth Loades and Dr Philip Skuce Graeme Cook ¦ Sector Leads ¦ SEFARI Gateway