The challenges facing the environment and society

21 December 2021


The challenges facing the environment and society

Reported by Ryan Francis, CSaP Policy Intern

Dr Molly Anderson led the final session of CSaP’s seminar series on government’s use of data, science, and evidence. Using her perspective of working in the Environment Agency’s Chief Scientist’s Group, she discussed the concept of reflexivity and the crucial role it could play in tackling current environmental challenges.

The Environment Agency works at arm’s length to the government: it is funded by and works closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), but has its own separate executive board.

What is reflexivity?

In this context, reflexivity can be best described as a self-examination of one's own beliefs, assessments, and practices during the process of research.

By applying the concept of reflexivity to the Environment Agency, Dr Anderson began by identifying key areas where the public body could carry out forward-looking research, with the intention of being in a better position to anticipate and respond to pressing environmental and societal issues.

She contends that the Environment Agency’s purpose shifts over time as a reflection of society. While the organisation is tasked in legislation to “protect and enhance the environment, contributing to sustainable development”, the interpretation of how it achieves that is necessarily influenced by a range of internal and external socio-political factors. Further the increasing complexity of environmental challenges means that it is more difficult to separate the environment from wider economic, political, and social spheres.

We have a conundrum whereby the EA has the responsibility to protect of the environment but does not control all the levers to do so.

Dr Anderson also reflected that the concept of scientific knowledge has shifted over the almost three decades of the Environment Agency’s existence. The definition of knowledge has “expanded” from the traditional sciences to include knowledge gained from local experience and value systems. Depending on the Environment Agency’s role and purpose there may be a need to develop a clearer way of feeding qualitative evidence into the decision-making process. Dr Anderson plans to use the insights, experiences, and connections gained through her Policy Fellowship with CSaP to ensure the Environmental Agency addresses these important epistemic challenges.

“I want to use my Fellowship to explore how the Environment Agency constructs its purpose and goals, how that has been affected over time...and whether the reflexive approach can actually improve knowledge and expertise.”

The seminar discussion explored some practical examples that expose the limitations of the Environment Agency’s role in resolving contested environmental issues. For example, new development requires consideration of environmental, social and economic factors. It is becoming clear that the cumulative assessments of new development within the built environment (e.g., a new housing development, a railway, or factory) is necessary to give a holistic picture, but this often goes beyond the Environment Agency’s remit, potentially limiting the ability to protect the environment in a more enlightened way.

Returning to reflexivity.

During the seminar, Dr Anderson emphasised that the role of the Environmental Agency is to seek and collect evidence; and cyclically, it is this knowledge that defines and forms its purpose in society. Reflexivity manifests in one continually challenging their own reasoning, which results in iterative modernisation of the EA. Dr Anderson contends that this could be crucial to ensure the Environment Agency remains current and best equipped to solve today’s most pressing environmental issues.

Photo by Thomas Richter on Unsplash

Dr Molly Anderson

Environment Agency (England)

Ryan Francis

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge