UK: Changing times, changing lives

University of Leicester researchers are devising practical ways for people to change their lives in response to environmental change and natural catastrophes such as the floods in Pakistan and Australia, and rapid environmental events such as volcanic eruptions, landslides and tsunamis.

A new centre, Adapting to Changing Environments, was launched at the university last Thursday and will form the nucleus for academics in a range of subjects to develop practical technologies and policy initiatives that aim to make a real impact on people's lives.

The philosophical focus of the centre is to encourage multi- and inter-disciplinary research in an attempt to understand, monitor and model complex systems and issues. And then generate innovative, practical solutions to assist adaptation in a world of changing environments and climates, increasing population, and resource competition.

Centre Director Mike Petterson, a professor of applied and environmental geology, expects the impact of the research will reach far beyond producing rigorous academic papers. "This sort of research has got to go way beyond that. It's got to make a difference in the real world, affecting policy, the way we do things, and assisting industry and the knowledge economy.

"Decision makers increasingly are looking to researchers for practical solutions. For example, new technologies developed at Leicester are assisting cities in monitoring air pollution on a real-time basis and using these data to assist with traffic flow management and carbon footprint estimates. Other research focuses upon 'greening cities' in the UK in an effort to adapt to warming temperatures and increasing droughts.

Petterson said recent widespread UK forest fires and depleted reservoir levels might be a sign of new challenges countries face with the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events. Leicester researchers had gained experience with forest fires in Africa, along with their causes, impacts and footprints, which might be applicable in different environmental settings.

Holistic and multi-disciplinary studies of natural hazards and community resilience in the South West Pacific were assisting policy and decision-makers and local communities regarding living with vulnerable environments and reducing risk and danger to life and property.

"Current thinking with respect to generating improved resilience (the ability to prepare, respond and adapt to imminent threats and risks) suggests that science still has a long way to go to being embedded within policy, community awareness and risk reduction, Petterson said.

The new centre would attempt to generate world-class science and social science, and bring together teams with diverse but complementary skills across a range of disciplines that had the potential to break new ground and stimulate novel ways of thinking.

He said that to provide a 'critical mass' of core expertise, the centre would benefit from having three 'New Blood' lecturers, individuals with outstanding research potential who would have reduced teaching loads, guaranteed study leave, and start-up funding for travel.

A key feature of the new centre is that it will draw on the expertise of academics from various fields in a flexible way, building teams as required. The rationale is that many of the greatest advances in science occur when teams of scientists work together in new and unconventional ways across traditional discipline boundaries.

"We are trying to develop a platform that brings in engineers, natural scientists, mathematicians - and also, because it affects people - we need social scientists, economists and so on," Petterson said.