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January 2012: Dr. Tim Daley

Imagine a world in which the scientists who were pioneering new understanding of earth system processes were also those who were most active in embedding that new knowledge in the delivery of social or economic value. That value might be represented by change in human behaviours. It might be embedded in new, exportable technologies. It might even be in both. The enlightenment economist, Adam Smith, might well have disapproved, recognising that the specialisation of labour results in improved efficiency and productivity. But that appears to be the developing world of academia, where the impact of research in terms of its measurable effect on policy or economy is now also the responsibility of the academics from whom that new knowledge has come. Despite the inevitable difficulties it will bring to some, the argument for this as a way forward is compelling. In large part, it is taxpayer’s money that is used to fund research. Why then should the sector not work to ensure that maximum value is returned to the investors?

The Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research (ISSR) with Plymouth University provides a vehicle for energising that transition, for bringing the academic and the “real world” together in the context of developing sustainability. Several projects are underway currently and it seems unfair to draw on one example, but that is all there is space for here.

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded research is currently being undertaken by a team that sees Plymouth University partnered with colleagues in Aberdeen, Swansea, Southampton and Exeter and is seeking to explore past changes in climate and its effect on peatland systems in both the northern and southern mid-latitudes. One of the early outputs from the research has revealed new insight not only into the mechanisms of regional climate change, but also linkage with carbon sequestration. Conservation of peatlands and their restoration has become a widespread management practice, partly on the belief that this improves carbon sequestration as well as providing a host of ecosystem services. Through the ISSR and assisted by a Royal Society grant, stakeholders will now be engaged with the new knowledge linking climate and carbon sequestration in peatlands. Through that linkage, it is hoped that experimental carbon accounting models can be developed that will allow that land owners to monetise the carbon asset that exists in their peatland and finance any required restoration via the carbon markets. The potential for a new mechanism for the delivery of a healthy environment is particularly exciting!

Inevitably, this process involves cross-disciplinary working and the drawing together of specific expertise. To that extent Adam Smith might well feel less aggrieved. The example, however, reflects awareness of just one of the potential applications of pure scientific research. Where the national steer has become increasingly clear, it is our sincere intention that the ISSR will grow this space and explore new and pioneering associations.

Dr. Tim Daley, ISSR Director (at time of writing, ISSR Deputy Director)

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