Energy, water, environment and food policy in the spotlight at new research centre backed by NERC

29 January 2016

Finding new ways to understand how the lives of people in the UK are affected by government decisions is a central aim of the new Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN).

Claas combine harvester

Based at the University of Surrey and initiated by leading UK bodies, including two research councils, Defra and the Environment Agency, its research will aid future decision-making on complex policy affecting a wide range of issues such as flooding and drainage, farming, housing and transport.

These policy areas operate within complex settings and require a robust approach to their evaluation. Each member of the core CECAN team is a world-leading researcher in their field, has worked with policymakers or in policy-relevant areas, and has already contributed to pioneering methodological approaches to policy evaluation.

Led by Director Nigel Gilbert, Professor of Sociology, the centre will launch on Tuesday 1 March, ahead of a public launch event this summer.

NERC's chief executive, Professor Duncan Wingham said:

Policies across energy, environment, food and water are particularly challenging to evaluate because they intervene in already complex systems - the centre will need to draw on an in-depth understanding of these systems. Our support for the centre speaks directly to NERC's strategic priority of addressing the challenges of managing our environment responsibly, using NERC's research as a robust evidence-base for environmental policy.

CECAN is backed by £2·45 million funding provided by NERC and the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), in collaboration with Defra, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, the Environment Agency and the Food Standards Agency.

Work at CECAN will include developing and improving methods for the evaluation of policies in complex settings; piloting these methods on a range of evaluation projects; organising educational programmes for practitioners, academics and policymakers; and publishing guides and toolkits for evaluators, those commissioning evaluations, and policy audiences.

Along with its core centre team, a network of academic and non-academic fellows and associates will join the centre for weeks or months. They will offer expert advice on areas that need specialist input for particular policy initiatives and innovations.

Andy Gibbs, head of economic performance & environment at ESRC, said:

Complex problems require new solutions with special kinds of methods and approaches to study them - this is exactly what this centre will provide.

We're delighted with the opening of CECAN which, with the use of innovative evaluation methodologies, will show how public policies can be designed to keep up with dynamic issues that cross boundaries and sectors. Policy planning and evaluation are especially challenging when social and environmental problems are intertwined. For example, designing and evaluating a policy on the risk of flooding needs close liaison with experts, local authorities and citizens on issues such as coastal erosion, drainage, farming, housing, transport - and the policy needs to be both flexible and robust across these areas.

Professor Gilbert said:

We are very pleased to have won this project, which is highly prestigious and is expected to have a substantial impact on how pubic policies are formulated, monitored and evaluated. The centre brings together an outstanding team from universities in the UK, Europe and the United States, as well as business consultancies and institutes that provide evaluation services to government.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC media office
01793 411939
07710 147485


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

2. The Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK's future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the government.

3. Led by Director Nigel Gilbert at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director Ben Shaw at the University of Westminster, the centre will involve UK-based co-investigators from the University of Surrey, Cranfield University, Durham University, Newcastle University, the University of Warwick, the University of Westminster, the University of York and Risk Solutions. Additional international co-investigators will be from the European Academy of Technology & Innovation Assessment and Arizona State University.