Defra network’s evidence strategy: efficiency, collaboration, innovation…and more efficiency

This month Defra announced its new evidence strategy for 2014/15 for its network which highlights how they will encourage the production of more high quality evidence to assist policy makers. The strategy outlines how they hope to do this through working collaboratively, improving access to and quality of evidence and last but not least by improving efficiency to produce ‘value for money’ evidence.

This evidence strategy encompasses not just Defra’s evidence plans but the whole of its network’s shared policy priorities reflecting their desire to work more collaboratively on their evidence goals. The network includes bodies such as Natural England, Forestry Commission, and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. However, it is made clear that they also hope to strengthen their connections with other key partners and the scientific community. A strong theme of efficiency is echoed throughout the strategy. Evaluation of current projects and policies is highlighted as a necessary process in order to deduce where funding should be withdrawn or extended. However another way they hope to achieve their goals of delivering lots of high quality evidence on a tight budget is by encouraging more co-funding of projects.

Defra hope to use modelling to improve scientific understanding and suggest it may be a more economical approach. They pledge to make better use of data by making it more accessible to others, utilizing citizen science projects and social media and combining existing data sets to potentially answer novel questions.

Whilst Defra will continue to maintain their critical capability to respond to notifiable diseases and other known risks, they have acknowledged the need to investigate lesser known risks and react with a strongly evidence based approach. Defra have developed a new framework to decide where to invest in and have highlighted the need to identify research priorities that come out of horizon scanning procedures, reflecting the government’s pledge to improve their horizon scanning programme last July.

Risk analyses will help develop strategies, and prioritise key areas for example in combating tree pests and diseases, and coping with flooding. The wet winter has pushed research into flood resilience has been pushed high up the agenda, with research from the Joint Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) to help farmers build resilience to extreme weather in the face of climate change.

Defra have a number of statutory evidence obligations which will receive approximately 35% of the £200m allocated expenditure on evidence. This includes monitoring pesticide residues in food, monitoring air quality, monitoring animal and plant health, monitoring Marine Protected Areas, monitoring biodiversity and water quality. They anticipate that around 40% of this budget will be spent with external suppliers of evidence. Defra and partners hope to encourage innovation by jointly funding £160m of research into the technological advancements and  in agriculture over the next five years, to achieve sustainable intensification.

The scale of the evidence referred to varies, from small scale interactions in local communities, to the projected eight terabytes per day to be delivered by Copernicus satellites over the next few years. The strategy draws upon examples of best practice that it hopes to implement more widely, such as the Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI).  Nine projects have been jointly funded a total of £10m over five years by the five bodies in the partnership. The results from these projects inform agricultural, environmental stewardship, pesticide and pollinator health policy. More cooperative approaches could benefit large scale projects such as river catchment restoration which often require multiple organisations to combine resources to produce valuable evidence.

The Defra network have promised us efficiency, collaboration and innovation in their approach to tackling evidence needs and now face the critical question of how to implement this strategy.