Tackling the Rural Challenge

A fresh approach to research is needed if scientists are to tackle the complex problems in achieving sustainable rural economies. Experts from different disciplines need to work together. Research has to be sensitive to public concerns and the practical experience of those who manage the countryside.

This is the message from a major conference, launching research under the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) Programme . The Conference, on 19th January in Birmingham, is being opened by Lord Whitty, the Defra Minister responsible for science. It brings together over 100 scientists and representatives from rural organisations who will be potential users of the results of the research, including farmers, environmentalists, consumers and rural development groups .

Some of the questions the Programme addresses are how to:
- restore public interest in food chains
- tackle animal disease in a socially acceptable manner
- enable sustainable farming in a liberalised economy
- promote robust rural economies
- mitigate threats from climate change and invasive species
- reduce stress on water catchments

“To tackle this range of problems demands not only good research but also the harnessing of different types of expertise” comments the Programme’s Director, Professor Philip Lowe . Too often, in the past, a narrow approach to solving one problem has produced unintended and damaging consequences. “BSE, the Foot and Mouth crises, diffuse agricultural pollution and public opposition to GM crops are all examples of where the pursuit of single-minded objectives can lead us”. Such difficulties have undermined public trust in science. “Sustainable development” argues Professor Lowe “demands joined-up science that can take a broad view of problems and deliver holistic solutions”.

The type of research RELU is promoting covers all relevant subjects, from rural sociology to the natural sciences. It matches economists with ecologists, sociologists with soil scientists, political scientists with plant biologists. Funded by three research councils (the Economic and Social Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), the key to the programme is interdisciplinarity. Philip Lowe, says “We are aiming to bring together teams of people who have never worked together before, to solve the really difficult problems which they could not tackle on their own”. Forty different disciplines are feeding into the Programme from across the social, environmental and biological sciences.

The design of the programme has also involved extensive consultations with stakeholder groups and organisations to ensure socially accountable science. “It is important that research takes the public with it to avoid the mistakes of the past” comments Professor Lowe. “We are keen that the projects not only develop strong connections and synergies between them, but that they also network widely with those interested in the conduct and outcome of research”.

The conference marks the start of the First Round of projects funded by the Programme. A major thrust of the research funded to date concerns the promotion of sustainable food chains. Previous research has shown that when asked about the food they eat, people express most concern over the use of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones in food production and their effects on humans and the environment. Projects now underway include those assessing reduction in risks to health and the environment in food production, and studies of the biological, political and economic obstacles to adopting alternatives to pesticides.

In his opening address to the conference, Lord Whitty stated

"How the rural economy and natural environment are linked is a fertile area for research which can help us to develop a more sustainable approach to rural development. The challenge is to increase collaboration between natural sciences and social sciences - we have great strengths in both of these, but we require greater integration. RELU's emphasis on this fits very well with Defra’s increasing focus on a strong evidence base for policy development and delivery. I congratulate the Research Councils on this important initiative and I hope that by working together we can maximise the opportunities that RELU offers."

Contact Details:
Dr Joanna Daymond
Communications Manager
Email: j.s.daymond@ncl.ac.uk