NERC Community for Engaging Environments

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Geography and Environmental Sciences


The urgent issues of climate change, air quality concerns, resource and energy security, overexploitation, and pollution, mean that NERC environmental science research is integral to society and its future. Our Stage-1 Engaging Environments projects revealed: UK communities feel that they have a meaningful stake in tackling these issues; and researchers have a strong desire to integrate their work into society. The daunting scale of environmental issues and socio-economic conditions on the ground mean many feel powerless to act. This leads to apathy or anger, undermining appetite for debate and eroding trust in institutions.

A Stage-1 Community Research Report notes that there is a mismatch between what the public want and how scientists work. It suggests that one-way engagement through traditional dissemination is prevalent. The report acknowledges that publics and scientists recognise the need for integrated engagement and co-creation. This follows work by ComRes (2017) that showed people's interest in environmental research increases when they are able to make a connection to their own lives.

For us, public engagement with environmental research must be boldly re-imagined as a collective practice and joint endeavour. It needs to challenge the status quo. Our project enables new ways of understanding and supporting communities and researchers to bolster the emergence of collective responses to contemporary environmental change. In Stage-1, ENCOMPASS learnt how community organising develops power and agency through relationship building that emphasises how dependent we are on each other and devises action that results in positive change. OPENER established communities of practice that shared best practice and supported leadership in participatory citizen science. To enable communities to build agency and feel they have the power to act on environmental issues, we will develop and support relationship building between community leaders and environmental science researchers. This will give the UK public at large a voice and a stake in the environmental research that they pay for. We combine these strong elements in a coming of age of people-centred approaches that lower barriers to engagement and participation for both communities and researchers. We are integrating and learning from community organising in order to understand people's motivations, analyse power dynamics of institutions and build trust. Partnership and collaboration between diverse communities, the NERC research community, practitioners, public-facing organisations, and environmental NGOs are key to our ambition to advance open science in the UK.

Through building relationships, we will make a national call to action, where people share their story of the environment - acknowledging and capturing people's diverse encounters with the places where they live, the species they care about and the landscapes that matter most to them. People thus contribute to the debate in meaningful ways. We will put into practice approaches and tools that enable researchers to share the environmental science agenda with the public and to respond together to environmental challenges. We will implement a set of co-developed actions, capturing a range of levels of engagement from passive consumption to deeply involved DIY science. Our Stage-2 project will position NERC at the leading edge of the UKRI's "vision of a society in which research is created, used, challenged, valued, and shared by all" and sets a new benchmark for future projects.

The project team and wider partnership are leaders in: environmental science (climate, geology, ecology, soil, marine); public engagement; citizen science; social science; and public-facing organisations. We share a commitment to collective learning and the new ways of thinking and doing required to ensure the sustainability of a national community of practice that will become the NERC Community for Engaging Environments.


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