The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (Relu) has been running since 2004. Laura Meagher reports on its value and progress.

Laura Meagher

Rural areas in the UK, and elsewhere, are experiencing considerable change at a pace that makes many feel uneasy about the future. The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (Relu) uses a combination of natural and social sciences to advance understanding of the challenges they face.

I was recently tasked with measuring the impact of the project. As an independent evaluator, my bid was selected by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and I took on the job because I was interested in Relu as a large-scale experiment in the dynamics of both interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange.

In our analysis we reached not only researchers but also multiple stakeholders ranging from policy makers at various levels (UK-wide to local) to practitioners of various sorts; everything from farmers and conservationists to regulators and supermarket executives.

So what did we find?

Relu projects reached a variety of non-academic domains, in particular environment and land use, and a range of sectors, in particular the private sector and national UK policymaking. Impacts ranged from local community action in flood mitigation, to training of regulators about new bio-pesticides, to incorporation of research in UK-wide policies on integrated land and water management in the light of climate change.

Our analysis, together with Relu’s own Changing Landscapes publication, show thirty-two impacts from projects which ranged across different categories (not just “tangible” impacts):

  • Instrumental impacts: actual changes in policy or practice, such as contributions to food sourcing decision-making by a major supermarket company, and to Defra, and the Environment Agency’s (EA) catchment management approach with related pilots, facilitation of effective regulations for biopesticides, development by a farmer’s group of a specialist beef production chain.
  • Conceptual impacts:changes in knowledge, understanding or ways of seeing, such as helping a water company to see the business value of stakeholder engagement and sound science. And spreading awareness that rural and land use policies must be holistic and integrated, for example in regard to sustainable uplands.
  • Enduring connectivity: continuing interactions or soft networks between researchers and stakeholders, such as project team members continuing to be involved in catchment and uplands management, or being consulted by Defra, the EA, water companies, river trusts etc.
  • Attitude/culture change: such as researchers or stakeholders becoming more positive about knowledge exchange and more likely to participate in the future.

We have suggested since 2008 the last two as process-based types of impacts that can be captured in the short-term and which might also serve as proxy indicators of enhanced likelihood of later more tangible impacts.

Relu as a programme enhanced conceptual and practical understanding of ‘land use’ for policy makers at all levels from local to UK-wide and practitioners ranging from farmers to regulators to community leaders, and helped to change policies and practices. It also had influence in the research and science policy arenas, particularly in relation to interdisciplinarity and two-way knowledge exchange.

Furthermore, the Relu Programme Directorate created a distinctive culture oriented toward addressing stakeholder issues, enhancing commitment to knowledge exchange among both its researchers and stakeholders.

Further afield

An imaginative experiment in facilitating interdisciplinarity and knowledge exchange toward evidence-based policy and practice, Relu was co-funded with over £26.5M between 2004 and 2013 by BBSRC, ESRC and NERC, along with funding from the Scottish Government and Defra. This distinctive funding partnership reflects the complexity of issues tackled; Relu itself was an overtly interdisciplinary programme, with integration sought across social and natural sciences in its 39 projects and multiple smaller-scale activities.

Our approach to Relu’s impact evaluation, summarised in this research paper, emphasises the importance of capturing a range of subtle and varied types of impacts. Second, it digs deep into issues, roles and mechanisms so that we can use impact evaluation to illuminate processes by which impacts are (or are not) generated and to contribute in turn to future development of impacts.

Furthermore, our recent external evaluation of societal and economic impacts of the innovative Relu programme allowed us to apply our approach using a rich, multi-layered focus – obtaining results that we hope will be useful about how to facilitate the generation of impacts at the project level, but unusually also at the overall programme level.

Some key points:

  • Interdisciplinarity can enhance impacts by addressing complex problems in an integrative way; collaboration across funders can help, as can encouragement and bespoke review processes.
  • Impacts can be facilitated by funders’ selection of entrepreneurial leadership, and – for large initiatives – investment in a dedicated directorate with discretionary money to facilitate innovative behaviours.
  • The earlier knowledge exchange begins, the better. Especially in complex initiatives involving multiple projects as well as overall programme activities, funders should be comfortable with seeing a diversified portfolio of types and levels of knowledge exchange, and a corresponding range of types of impacts developing over time.
  • Formative evaluation during an initiative can foster awareness and improvement of processes; end-of-award and later evaluations can help in the identification of diverse impacts and impacts-in-progress.

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About Laura Meagher

As Senior Partner of Technology Development Group, now based in Scotland, Dr Laura Meagher conducts a range of projects related to strategic change in higher education, research, knowledge exchange and policy. She evaluates initiatives and funding schemes targeted toward interdisciplinarity, knowledge exchange or research impact and designs and conducts forward-looking workshops and also facilitates the actual development of interdisciplinary initiatives. She is co-author of Research Journeys: Practical Strategies for Capturing Creativity (2011, Bloomsbury Academic Press).

With a PhD from Duke University in zoology, focusing on evolution, and an interest in policy, Meagher was co-founder and first vice-president of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, the first such state-wide economic development effort now a model internationally, having led to well over 50,000 additional jobs and nearly $30Bn in annual biotechnology sector revenues. She spent 1995-1996 working with all of Scotland’s universities as part of her Fulbright Fellowship in Institutional Change, based at the University of Edinburgh.

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