The 2016 Environment and Sustainability Pathway Postgraduate Conference was celebrated on 7th June at the University of Leeds. The conference, arranged by three first year PhD students, elected as this years ‘pathway representatives’, namely Imogen Rattle from the University of Leeds and Hannah Curzon and Rosa Hernandez-Cruz from the University of York, was sponsored by the White Rose Doctoral Training Centre and well attended by around 60 delegates including PhD students, guest speakers and staff from the universities of Leeds, York and Sheffield.

P1010676The aim of the conference was to bring together researchers from a broad range of disciplines which make up the Environment and Sustainability pathway to discuss the challenges of ‘Turning Research into Action’ and to explore different types of research impacts from across the public, private, charity and commercial sectors. The conference started with two introductory talks defining  what is understood by and examples of   ‘research impacts,’ followed by a panel discussion with three guest speakers working in industry, a poster exhibition competition and lastly presentations from current PhD students working across multiple disciplines in the sustainability field.

After a warm welcome address from Samarthia Thankapann, this year’s Environment and Sustainability Pathway leader, the opening talk on Turning Research into Action was presented by Professor Andy Gouldson, from University of Leeds, who outlined the different perspectives of what research impact means and the different pathways to impact with research. Gouldson invited the audience to think and reflect about their own research and take a position, emphasising the importance of the questions we ask as researchers and how reaching impact with research can take a long time. In fact, impressive and thought provoking research has been known to lay dormant for many years, even several decades before gaining recognition. He also mentioned that early career researchers should think about the ethical quandaries around the impact agenda when deciding what is important to them, be it a ‘neutral analysis or active advocacy’ position as a preferred approach.

In the second talk, Dr Giles Budge, the lead scientific researcher at FERA Science Ltd, and senior lecturer at the University of Newcastle, used examples from his own career in Honey Bee and Crop Health research to show how different research projects can often resonate differently within different academic and policy circles and differently again between farmers and beekeepers on the ground. Crucially, the type of impact is often unpredictable and can, in many cases, be influenced by the media which can both undermine and promote new science.

Next on the agenda we heard insights from three environment and/or sustainability specialists,  namely Mike Childs from Friends of Earth, Andy Moores from the Environment Agency/DEFRA, and from Oliver Zwirner who has a wealth of  experience in research and policy in the European Commission. The aim of the panel discussion was to hear different perspectives from experts from different industry sectors. Each panellist had the opportunity to talk about the impact of research and campaigns from within their own organisation and the challenge of bringing scientific and operational perspectives together on top of time and financial constraints. A key message from the panel discussion was the importance of understanding the ‘research landscape’ and how our research fits into it, be it at a scientific level or operational level. Based on our position in this spectrum, researchers need to choose the appropriate methodology and think about the users, or to whom the research will be beneficial/relevant to, and the importance of using interdisciplinary language when disseminating research to different audiences. The panel also stressed the importance of considering the timing of research outputs i.e., when it is most impactful to publish a piece of research? But also from an ethical standpoint, the importance of publishing the limits of our research, i.e., what didn’t work, which, in the panel’s experience, is often missing from research outputs.

Following the insights provided by the panel and an interactive question and answer session, ten students from across all three White Rose universities presented their own research and what they thought would be the impact on society and to research in their field. The topics covered by the talks included human behaviour, climate change, food production, water quality, ecosystem services and well-being.

Throughout the day, a poster competition took place whereby many students who were not presenting had the opportunity to exhibit a poster of their research and all delegates were asked to vote for the best poster. No doubt owing to her clearly presented ideas, explicit consideration for the impacts of her research and her  enthusiasm on the day, the winner was Monica Ortiz from University of Sheffield who was awarded with a sustainably sourced  ’Yorkshire Hamper’ full of delicious local produce chosen by the organisers in a bid to support local business.

At the end of the day participants were invited to give feedback about the conference. Overall, the feedback was over-whelming positive with many students feeling that the guest speakers were inspirational, that there was a good balance between experienced speakers and PhD talks and a great blend of topics. Hannah, Imogen and Rosa would like to thank everyone who attended and presented at the conference for all of their fantastic contributions and enthusiasm throughout the day for ultimately making the event a huge success and a very worthwhile experience.