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


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

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



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


On SEFARI to the Emerald Isle

SEFARI has a crucial role in ensuring that the right research and expertise gets to the right people, at the right time and in the right format. This model has to deliver for policy makers, commercial interests and individuals alike – such challenges are shared the world over in the space between research and decision taking. SEFARI also has a role to better internationalise Scottish Government funded research on environment, food, agriculture and land.

While that means developing ways to take our messages beyond Scotland, it also opens up the opportunity for us to learn from others. This week we have a great example of an event which helps in both those challenges. Two key SEFARI staff, Dr Kenneth Loades, and Dr Philip Skuce are heading to Cork, Ireland, for the latest in a series of high-profile events exploring how the transformative power of science and technology can be better aligned to meet societal challenges, and how research can better underpin policymaking.

Cork 4.jpg

Dr Loades, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Soils and Crops, and Dr Skuce, the SEFARI Sector Lead for Livestock, are taking our own experiences to the table by using examples of interaction with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. Dr Loades said “This conference gives us a platform to show what Scottish research on environment, food, agriculture and land can offer, but also gives us the chance to learn from others trying to improve how science can better underpin policymaking and scrutiny”.

The 3rd European Technology Assessment Conference will explore key issues such as:

  • Health, ageing and wellbeing;
  • Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy;
  • Secure, clean and efficient energy;
  • Smart, green and integrated transport;
  • Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials; Inclusive, innovative and secure societies.

The conference is to be attended by a rich variety of those who carry out research in these areas, those who act as knowledge brokers, and those who require accurate and reliable research and data. This includes parliaments, governments, research institutes, universities and academies from across Europe and beyond. Dr Skuce said “We expect to learn valuable lessons on how others meet the challenges of ensuring policy makers and those with scrutiny roles have the best access to the right information and expertise. We will also learn how others measure the impact of these types of activity – all with a view to putting new ideas into practice at home”.

This trip delivers against another agenda too, perhaps one more traditionally aligned to the research areas delivered by SEFARI – the same venue, University College Cork, is also hosting an All Island Agri-Food Summit this presents the opportunity to take Scotland’s message to an Irish audience, and to learn about challenges and opportunities in the Irish context.

Graeme Cook ¦ Director ¦ SEFARI Gateway