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Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies

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Who: The project is led by Sarah Whatmore (Professor of Environment and Public Policy at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment), with co-investigators Neil Ward (Dean of Social Science at the University of East Anglia) and Stuart Lane (Director of the Institute of Hazard and Risk Research at Durham University). Research Associates were Sue Bradley (Newcastle University's Centre for Rural Economy), Catharina Landström (Oxford University) and Nick Odoni (Durham University); principal partners were individuals concerned by flooding in the two field study areas

What: A team of social and natural scientists worked with residents in Ryedale (North Yorkshire) where flooding is a matter of concern and the subject of public controversy 

Why: To develop better ways to engage citizens affected by flood risk in the conduct of scientific research

Where: Ryedale, North Yorkshire

When: Main activity ran between September 2007 and September 2008. Website and further work in this area is ongoing

Project description

The Ryedale Flood Research Group and the 'Understanding Environmental Knowledge Controversies' Project is an excellent example of developing effective ways of engaging citizens in interdisciplinary scientific work.

"The flood research project promised nothing, but ultimately delivered a lot.  It successfully combined the knowledge and expertise of the university-based scientists with ideas and local knowledge of the Ryedale residents, ultimately resulting in an ongoing flood alleviation scheme. What a wonderful learning experience." Ryedale participant

Scientists and residents met in six bi-monthly meetings, with additional activities (e.g. a reading group) in between. A member of the research team acted as co-ordinator and facilitator.

Residents participated as individuals affected by flood risk rather than as representatives of pre-existing constituencies. Using local knowledge and working with objects (maps, historical documents, photographs, video) the group developed a collective competency in exploring conflicting perspectives on flood risk management, and built a computer model specifically designed for the local catchment to try out their ideas.  The project has since been conducting similar work in Sussex.

PurposeInterview with Radio York

The project was set up to

  • investigate the relationship between environmental science and policy in the case of flood risk management, and to develop better ways to engage citizens affected by flood risk in the conduct of interdisciplinary scientific research
  • experiment with a new methodology (Competency Groups) where academics from different disciplines work together with people affected by an environmental problem (such as flooding or pollution) in localities in which the management of that problem is already a matter of public controversy

The project sought to engage with:

  • Policy makers
  • The Environment Agency
  • Communities affected by environmental controversies such as flooding
  • Those working in the field of public engagement
"I certainly got out of it what I intended, as in learning a lot more. But the fact that we actually did come up with what [could be] a workable solution and managed to put a report together, was more than I expected, initially.  Not as we got going, and certainly [not] when we were into the third and fourth meetings.  I don't think there was too much doubt that as we got into the project, things changed a little from us being guided - 'us' being the locals - to asserting ourselves more and saying, 'This is what we want to do and this is how we want to do it.'  And the academics - you - being able to facilitate it; being able to do the flood assessment [and] modelling - the sort of thing that we needed." Ryedale participant


In mid-June 2007, information about the project was distributed in Ryedale (posters in shop windows and community centres; leaflets circulated through the library and museum networks).  The coordinator (Sue Bradley) also contacted individuals directly (e.g. a former mayor; a local newspaper editor) to learn more about the local controversy and for help with distributing project details.  Two weeks after the initial publicity, the area was badly flooded and local newspapers printed details of the project alongside pictures of the floods.

Twenty people expressed an interest, and the co-ordinator discussed the project's aims with them by phone.  In late July, she and Neil Ward (who led the project's Public Engagement component) met thirteen respondents individually and, on the basis of geographical coverage and focus, invited eight to join the research team on what became "The Ryedale Flood Research Group".

Six scheduled meetings were held between September 2007 and July 2008, supplemented with field trips, informal meetings and a reading group.  The co-ordinator met members individually between each meeting for their feedback, which helped to shape the next agenda.  Communications between (and among) residents and the research team were also via letters, e-mails, phone-calls and a password-protected website.  This contact was important in building the personal relationships needed to develop ideas, not just about flood risk management, but also about the conduct of Competency Groups.  In addition to working with group members, the team conducted 'local context' interviews with local figures involved with flooding issues.

People arriving at exhibition

Towards the end of the meetings the Ryedale Flood Research Group decided to hold a one-day exhibition to share its work and present a report with recommendations for local flood risk management.  The event was held at the end of October 2008, four months after the end of the scheduled meetings.  It was attended by over 200 people, and the group's report: Making Space For People: Involving Local Knowledge in Flood Risk Research and Management in Ryedale, Yorkshire (Report of the Ryedale Flood Research Group) October 2008 was presented (see project website).  The Environment Agency is currently testing the group's recommendations for flood risk management with a view to running a pilot scheme with national potential. A CD of materials collected by participants is to be deposited with the local library service. Since June 2008 the research team has been conducting similar work in Sussex.

Resources created with, and for, participants

  • Websites with resources (photographs, flood-related documents and papers written by research team) and blogs for exchanging news and ideas between Competency Group members (academics and local residents)
  • Flood-related life story recordings with local residents outside the Competency Groups
  • CD of materials collected by group in course of the project (for local library)
  • Public website
  • Project website (external site)

Top tips

  • Categories such as 'local' and 'lay person' can be misleading. Participants may have valuable 'local knowledge' but their knowledge is not confined to the local. Similarly, respondents may have experience (e.g. of science) that overlaps with that of the research team (who are 'local people' themselves elsewhere)
  • Don't think of it as 'them and us': share enthusiasms and be open about uncertainties.  
  • Allow time to engage with participants on an ad hoc basis outside scheduled meetings (e.g. to hear feedback, respond to phone calls, answer queries, discuss ideas)
  • Remember that participants may not have web access or may prefer not to work online.  Be prepared to correspond by letter or telephone and to send paper copies of information.   
  • We did not anticipate how engaged residents would become in the work of the group and although we extended the meetings (eventually to three and a half hours), they still seemed rushed.  Ideally we would have had more interim meetings (e.g. for field trips) and to give more time for participants to share material they had collected
  • It would have been useful to have conducted the 'local context' interviews with local flood management officials and other local bodies prior to working with the group rather than concurrently


The project was funded under The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), with additional funding provided by the Scottish Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. 


  • Callon M. (1999) The role of lay people in the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge, Science, Technology and Society, 4 (1), p.81-94.
  • Callon, M., Lascoumbes, P. and Barthe, Y. (2009) Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Cooke, B. and U. Kothari(2002), Participation: The New Tyranny? London: Zed.
  • Demos (2004) See Through Science: Why Public Engagement Needs to Move Upstream. London: Demos.
  • Expert Group on Science and Governance (2007) Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously.  Report of the Expert Group to the European Commission's Science, Economy and Society Directorate.  Brussels: European Commission, Directorate-General for Research.
  • Stengers, I. The cosmopolitical proposal. (2005) In Latour B. and P.Wiebel (eds) Making things public: atmospheres of democracy : 994-1003. MIT Press, Cambridge MA
  • Experimental work by Pierre Stassart and colleagues at the University of Liège, described in: P. Stassart (2006) L'animation du groupe de compétences inter-disciplinaire In "Alimenter le lien entre consommateurs, éleveurs et animaux", Fondation Roi Baudouin, Bruxelles , pp. 14 - 24. (Translated by Sue Bradley and Andrew Donaldson: Running an Interdisciplinary Competency Group, Centre for Rural Economy Discussion Paper 19) [ ]


  • Community and local media websites
  • North Yorkshire (Ryedale) library service