PhD workshop: Integrating scientific research and policy with spatial data

In total, 9 PhD students from various parts of the UK (Warwick, Sheffield, London, and Reading), Ireland (Dublin), and even The Netherlands (Wageningen and Amsterdam) came to the University of Reading to explore how research can best inform policy and practice and some of the key issues relating to spatial data and GIS applications.

After overcoming the busy Monday morning traffic, ialeUK’s chair Richard Smithers (Principal Consultant at AEA Technology) gave an inspiring talk about the science-policy interface. He started off with a fundamental consideration of the definitions of conservation and evidence, and of the demands of living with uncertainty. He suggested that scientists and policy makers need to consciously identify whether they need to act as ‘staunch advocates’ (consciously stating their values and objectives) or as ‘honest brokers’ (untainted by their personal values and objectives) when interpreting results. The danger is that we all slip into being ‘inadvertent advocates’, interpreting results not stating, or unconscious of, our values and objectives. Richard went on to consider recent and ongoing policy development and associated evidence needs relating to landscape ecology.

Although days might be spent considering life at the science-policy interface, Richard managed to give a valuable outline in just two hours, with plenty of food for thought. In the afternoon, the PhDs discussed their own research in relation to policy. Most of the participants would like their research to be policy-relevant, however, getting policy makers involved and agreeing on common goals were problems shared by all. Nevertheless, the exchange of experiences gave very useful new insights. In general, participants agreed that it is preferable to try to involve policy makers at the start of a PhD.

In the evening, it was time to relax and enjoyed some nice tapas and pizza in the city of Reading. Our stay at The Great Expectations Hotel was very pleasant and convenient. It gave us a good night rest and a firm breakfast for a brisk start of the second day of the workshop. 

The Tuesday morning traffic appeared to be not much better than Monday’s. Nevertheless, Kevin Watts (Landscape Ecologist at Forestry Research, research agency of the Forestry Commission) arrived in good spirits at the Department of Geography and Environmental Science in Reading. Using two research projects (i.e. UK Biodiversity Indicators for Defra and UK Woodland Resilience Indicators for Forestry Commission England), he nicely depicted different approaches to GIS-based research. He explained the different choices that need to be considered, including stakeholder participation, type of data, spatial and temporal resolution, and access of data and results. Phil Handley (GIS specialist at Forestry Research) took us further into the complex world of spatial data and GIS. Using the cute water vole as an example, he explained issues related to parameterisation (e.g. resistance surface and dispersal distance), tools and software, and gave us valuable tips of do’s and don’ts. Both Kevin and Phil underlined the trade-offs between complex and simple approaches. Of course, ideally we want a high level of detail and a very simple method or model, but we all know that compromises are inevitable. As PhDs, we also struggle to achieve the right balance between the desired level of detail and complexity, therefore, we discussed the choices we have made or require to make to achieve the best results. During our discussions we also recognised other issues we are dealing with (such as writing scripts using python or R statistics in combination with GIS software, geo-processing tools, and how to make a good map), which we would like to learn more about. This shows that there are plenty of topics for future workshops. Potential topics are presented on the ialeUK website ( If you are interested, or if you have another topic for a workshop, please let us know by leaving a comment.

The workshop was extremely useful  and proved to be a success. This workshop would not have been possible without the help of some great volunteers. I would like to thank Geoff Griffiths for arranging the venue, Sue Hawthorne for the delicious lunches, and of course the lecturers Richard Smithers, Kevin Watts, and Phil Handley for their valuable presentations and time! Ultimately, I want to thank the PhDs for their contribution!