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International Land Use Study Centre

Image from the “DigiForest” project, funded by the Macaulay Development Trust.The International Land Use Study Centre (ILUSC) is an initiative supported by the Macaulay Development Trust aiming to promote scientific and impact excellence, at a time when the importance of land and natural resource for societal wellbeing is increasingly being recognised. The importance and complexities of rural land are well recognised. The OECD describes rural areas as ‘vital to the prosperity and well-being of all people’, constituting 80% of the territories of its 37 member states, and home to 30% of their population. Rural areas provide almost all the raw materials of food, freshwater, energy, timber, and minerals for society, and major resources that contribute to the environmental and cultural heritage of its communities. ILUSC will integrate and build on Hutton’s internationally recognised land and natural resource science to showcase and take this research forward, establishing a cutting-edge experiential research methods laboratory for public and academic use.

The James Hutton Institute has a vision for inclusive, open science that engages the public, stakeholder groups and scientists with a wide range of expertise in tackling the urgent problems of our time: climate change, food and water security, biodiversity preservation and One Health. Open Science requires that research processes, data and outputs are transparent and accessible and, in turn, ensures that knowledge creation and dissemination are more inclusive and efficient.

Why Open Science?

How we think about, do and communicate science needs to change. New digital technologies are transforming the way societies and researchers operate. New digital technologies are transforming the way societies operate, the growth in Artificial Intelligence and use of Big Data are giving rise to a new data-driven economic activities and a requirement for new skills.  At the same time, a single, viral image of the ‘plastic ocean’ – the millions of plastic containers polluting ocean life – can mobilise environmental behaviour and transform the impact of scientific research to a degree unthought of just a decade ago. Scientific approaches need to better understand and integrate these mediums and ways of knowing to enable society to address pressing health, security and environmental issues.

COVID-19 has demonstrated both the importance of excellent science, and the challenge of engaging the general public in making informed decisions about how they will live. It has highlighted the inequalities inherent in our society, and their impact on human health, well-being and vulnerability. COVID-19 is also accelerating the process of ‘virtualising’ our daily activities, creating new opportunities for both integration and exclusion. Post-COVID science will need to be visceral, relatable and digitally enabled, if it is to be effective in achieving transformational change.

Focus of the International Land Use Study Centre

The overall aim of ILUSC is to advance understanding of how rural land can be worked with, cared for, lived in and imagined, mobilising the transformative potential of transdisciplinary research and Open Science. ILUSC will develop four inter-related components:

  • Transdisciplinary open science initiatives on contemporary ‘grand challenges’, including climate change and transition to a post-carbon economy; food, energy and water security; soil and biodiversity protection; antimicrobial use and Covid-19 recovery
  • An experiential research methods lab which offers state-of-the-art facilities, training and collaboration spaces for public and academic use
  • Enhanced data management infrastructure to support research into Artificial Intelligence and Big Data applications in the natural environment and land use
  • Collaboration with a range of publics, including policymakers, urban and rural interest groups, farmers and other land managers, community groups, and particularly secondary school students, to transform the way people become involved with, appreciate and get excited about the future of their natural environment and land use.

Transdisciplinary Open Science Initiatives

To tackle global environmental and land-related grand challenges requires collaborative working between scientists from different disciplinary backgrounds working together alongside external stakeholders to ensure that the economic and societal impact of the research is maximised. The Institute has a good track record of conducting interdisciplinary research, particularly in relation to natural resource and water management, facilitated by a team-based approach to research focused on applied issues. 

We are now in ‘Mode 2 Science’, in which we are not seeking to reduce and flatten multiple stakeholder experiences to one single answer or truth. Instead, we seek to engage and mobilise such knowledges in ways that honours them, offers the methodological rigour to cope with that complexity, and still communicates clear points. 

ILUSC will undertake open science characterised by:

  • Theoretically informed design and analysis
  • Innovation in science-based techniques and approaches of digital media
  • Rigorous methodological design and critique
  • Inclusivity – of researchers and participants across ages, genders, races and orientations
  • Transdisciplinarity – integration of a range of scientific disciplines and non-scientists throughout the research process
  • Ethical research and data management.

Experiential Research Methods Lab

Recent research has demonstrated that much of how we respond to the world is unconscious – not based on active consideration of ‘facts’, but habits and emotions shaped by others’ behaviour and our own personal experiences. When we react strongly – and change our behaviour – it is often in response to images and ideas of high emotional impact. Understanding how the world is experienced is critical to understanding and influencing the behaviours that influence our health and engagement with natural resources – from food production and consumption, to environmental protection and leisure activities. These experiences are increasingly integrating and reliant on digital technologies and virtual (on-line) spaces. These mediums are often multimodal, linking text with a wide range of still or moving images, representing our surroundings in stylised or photorealistic forms.  Digitisation has enabled ‘big data’ – massive datasets – to be collected, analysed and mobilised in new ways to enable change.

The new James Hutton Institute DigiLab will enable cutting edge research into these experiences: the cognitive, emotional, and biophysical processes of encounter in everyday worlds. Many experiences that really matter to people and shape their behaviour are obscured or taken-for granted, and thus require methods that go deeper than stated opinions and preferences.  These methods range from new ways of conducting traditional survey and interview-based approaches, to creative multisensory (visual, auditory, olfactory, kinaesthetic and proprioceptive) and on-line techniques, which enable articulation of how we ‘think with our bodies’ in physical, virtual and integrated environments.

Experiential research methods are particularly effective at ‘giving voice’ to marginalised people, enabling those who are young, have learning difficulties, are less educated, or otherwise excluded to actively participate in and influence research processes. Novel ‘citizen science’ approaches provide a means of actively engaging hard to reach parts of society in scientific activity. Experiential methods also enable the non-human to have a ‘voice’ in research, which can enhance the rigour and ethics of research methods.

Enhanced Data Management Infrastructure

The crises around climate, biodiversity and resource use require urgent social and technical innovations from local to global levels. How societies operate and interact around the world are being transformed by their use of mobile and other digital devices. From Scotland to southern Africa, communities are using digital applications to create a more sustainable future.

Our growing community of research software engineers and computational social and natural scientists are utilising the latest in free and open source technologies to produce map-based apps and other innovative stakeholder engagement tools.  At the same time Hutton’s research in to the ethical and social impacts of a data-driven society along with issues of information governance are enabling a more sustainable digital future.  However, there is significant additional potential to harness data from remote and in-situ sensors and citizen science to enable sustainable land and water resource management.  This will require investment in hardware (both on-premises and in the cloud) and greater use of free and open-source software. For example, advances in machine learning (including deep learning neural networks) and workflows of satellite imagery are enabling real-time assessment and management of natural resources, from individual farmers’ fields to national policy outcomes.

Engaging young people

The need for improved public engagement with science has become clear over the last few years and has been further emphasised by the debate about the role of science in informing COVID-19 policy decisions. The open science agenda calls for meaningful interactions with the public to enable social learning and the recognition of multiple perspectives on issues.  This, in turn, helps to ensure science is relevant and has impact. It is clear that, post-COVID, such engagement can (and needs to be) both physical and virtual to achieve effective public dialogue and exchange of ideas. 

Looking beyond the public, the Institute has a strong track record of transdisciplinary research involving other types of stakeholders in the research process from the co-production of research questions to the ground-truthing of research findings. The location of the Craigiebuckler site in North East Scotland has facilitated this as the region is unique in the wealth and range of natural capital resources and has strong land-based sectors. Improving the engagement space at the Craigiebuckler site would further facilitate meetings with land use stakeholders, as well as allowing them to use the Institute for their own meetings if required. 

In the next few years we are looking to expand our outreach to engage with young people and expand our student opportunities to enrol classrooms and teachers in virtual and in situ opportunities to experience nature and the workings of the primary sector, particularly farming and forestry. Investing young people in land use and the natural environment is critical for addressing contemporary global challenges and equipping a cohort of future researchers. ILUSC will encourage and equip a new generation to critically engage in how rural land is understood and performed.

For more information on the project, please contact Lee-Ann Sutherland, ILUSC Director.


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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.