£10mn backing for fast-paced research on environmental policy questions

15 February 2022

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The Agile Initiative at the Oxford Martin School has been established with funding from the Natural Environment Research Council to provide rapid solutions to critical environmental issues.

It will deliver high-impact interdisciplinary research and contribute urgently-needed answers to inform environmental policy.

Fast-paced research ‘Sprints’ will respond to specific questions, identified in partnership with policymakers and key stakeholders across the UK, typically within 12 months, so evidence can feed into the policy cycle in real-time. Among the first ‘Sprints’, is research into how best to scale up nature-based solutions to climate change in the UK; store CO2 beneath our coastal seas; and transition to the use of non-fossil fuels for international shipping.

The Agile Initiative at the Oxford Martin School will be guided by an Independent Advisory Group and an Executive Board under Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Patrick Grant. It will be directed by Professor Nathalie Seddon and will bring together leading researchers from across the University working with close partners in government, policy, NGOs and business. The Oxford Martin School’s experience in bringing together multidisciplinary teams for solution-oriented research will be important for Agile’s success.

Seddon Nathalie

The mission of the Agile Initiative is to tackle global challenges by rapidly delivering solutions-oriented environmental science. By catalysing a shift in the research and research-funding culture, Agile will build long-term capacity to deliver high-quality research to decision-makers.

– Professor Nathalie Seddon, Professor of Biodiversity and Director of the Agile Initiative at the Oxford Martin School

Professor Grant, Oxford’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Research, says, "The Agile Initiative was inspired in part by the speed with which the University's vaccine team achieved success. We are now setting ourselves the challenge to bring similarly fast-paced science and solutions to pressing environmental problems, drawing on our deep and broad research capacity. Working with a range of partners and across disciplines, the new Agile Initiative will aim to provide timely insights and influential advice on pressing environmental issues to a range of audiences and policy-makers."

Professor Seddon adds, "We know we’ve got world-leading researchers who can produce solutions and we have innovation capability. The challenge for us is a matter of scale. AGILE will enable us to dial up the real-world impact of our environmental science and ensure the next generation is working differently – more efficiently, more cooperatively. It will enable Oxford and the organisations it inspires to develop and embed a new culture; one that embraces genuinely demand-led interdisciplinary research to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time."

Sprints have been chosen for their socioeconomic and environmental importance to policy, potential impact, and time-scale deliverability, and inclusiveness and diversity.

Other Sprints will be launched during the five-year programme with topics to be identified in collaboration with decision makers in government, business and NGOs – all focussed on environmental issues. Each Sprint will have a positive equality impact - projects will undertake an Equality Impact Assessment to evaluate the potential impacts and unintended consequences of proposed policy changes and identify mitigation strategies where needed. They will all be deliverable within a short time scale to have the greatest possible impact.

The first five Sprints are:

Sprint One: Providing guiding advice on accounting for biodiversity

Assessing public sector spending to incorporate for and account for biodiversity is a significant project at the Treasury (HMT). The team will focus on how to measure biodiversity impacts, how to balance biodiversity improvements with the social and economic welfare of people affected by them and how to deliver landscape-scale planning that supports biodiversity. Academic experts will work with HMT, Defra, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Balfour Beatty and the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

Sprint Two: Systemic innovation to transform regional nutrient flows

Optimising nutrient flows across cities and their rural neighbours to maximise their values in food supply and the wider bioeconomy is important to key Government environment and resource management commitments, including the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Waste and Resources Strategy. This Sprint will develop strategies for determining the best regional combination of nutrient recovery and utilisation options for both economic viability and environmental benefits. Modellers, engineers, food systems experts and biogeochemists from Oxford and Lancaster Universities will collaborate with Defra, Leicestershire County Council, Biffa, Aqua Enviro, 3-Keel, and Good Food Oxford.

Sprint Three: Scaling up Nature-based Solutions (NbS)

NbS have the potential to contribute to net zero, reverse biodiversity decline, reduce vulnerability to environmental change and support economic recovery. This Sprint will advance the science and practice of NbS and how these can be taken to scale in the UK. This will involve bringing new geospatial methods together with on-the-ground surveys and stakeholder engagement to develop a comprehensive approach to guide where, how and when NbS can be deployed. To answer these questions leading biodiversity and climate change experts at Oxford will partner with Natural England, the Environment Agency, National Farmers Union, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, RSPB, WWF UK, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment as well as local stakeholders at a range of sites where NbS are being implemented and evaluated.

Sprint Four: Pathways to the decarbonisation of shipping via green ammonia

There is a consensus that green ammonia will be the most suitable zero-carbon marine fuel for long-distance shipping as it offers a favourable balance between heating value, energy density, and cost of storage. It is, however, highly uncertain how shipping will transition away from fossil fuels. This project will provide answers based on the coupling of the economics of ammonia production with an understanding of shipping routes and political intent, such as national SDGs. The wider impacts on employment, land, and water use in the up-scaling of green ammonia production will also be considered. The research team combines a unique aggregation of expertise in green ammonia production and distribution, port infrastructure planning, net-zero shipping, and economic analysis.

Experts in green ammonia production, shipping and transport infrastructure planning, climate mitigation and economic analysis from the University, the Climate Change Committee, Lloyd’s Register, Ørsted and the Ammonia Energy Association will work on this Sprint.

Sprint Five: CO2 storage in and beneath our shelf seas

This Sprint will build a decision-making framework for environmental impact assessment of proposed sites for sub-sea CO2 storage in offshore reservoirs. This will assess and reduce tension between CO2 storage capacity versus the risk of CO2 leakage and additional carbon loss through disruption of carbon currently stored in the ecosystem. The team’s interdisciplinary academic team will work with BP, Ikon, Rockfield, CEFAS, BEIS, and OceanMind to make strides towards making carbon capture and storage a practical option.