‘Hidden histories’ informing the environmental research sector

Protect, Nela Ochoa 2006, Axel Stein Collection

Ten interdisciplinary research projects have been awarded funding to understand how the future of modern environmental science can be informed by the past.

‘Hidden histories of environmental science’ is a £994,000 cross-council collaboration between:

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Generating tangible research outputs

The funded projects aim to generate tangible research outputs that are relevant to the UK environmental sector by linking unexplored areas of history that relate to the natural sciences to the present-day UK context.

For example, understanding environmental research in the context of historical colonialism.

Where relevant to the research topic, the projects will provide practical recommendations, such as policy recommendations or peer learning to be taken forward in academic, community, and professional contexts.

Projects were welcome to include all relevant voices, histories and experiences, including those from former British colonies.

The aims of the resulting projects range from:

  • including local communities in understanding and predicting hazards such as volcanic eruptions
  • understanding barriers for students in earth sciences
  • exploring the contributions of enslaved people to scientific knowledge.

Christopher Smith, Executive Chair of AHRC, said:

Our environment is a historical artefact, shaped by industrialisation, human activity, and social behaviour.

These projects will help us to better understand our environment, the forces that have shaped it and affected our study of our landscapes and will lay the foundations for a better and more inclusive approach to the future of the environment in which we live.

Collaborative partnerships

Community and non-academic partners are a core part of these projects to assist the pursuit of excellent research and engage wider communities including the public where relevant.

The panel looked for co-development of the proposals that gave agency to the partners and recognised their expertise.

The funding panel also looked at how the cross-disciplinary research teams planned to build ongoing partnerships with best practice principles of collaborative working adopted from the outset.

Alison Robinson, Deputy Executive Chair of NERC, said:

This is the first time we have supported humanities and environmental science researchers working with non-academic organisations, learned societies and community groups to investigate these issues with a wide range of people, some of whom are new to the research sector.

The projects will offer a broader understanding of the wider social and historical context of environmental science and show how interdisciplinary projects can inform our understanding of the environment within which we all live.

Inclusivity at its heart

We aim to ensure that this programme actively demonstrates an inclusive approach.

We have been supported by:

  • an expert and diverse advisory board
  • a consultation event
  • a collaboration finder
  • partnership seed funding
  • an independent funding assessment panel.

We are grateful for the time and guidance from the advisory group who provided impartial and informed advice, insight, and challenge to AHRC and NERC.

The advisory group membership is as follows:

  • Mr David Bryan, Xtend Ltd, UK (Chair)
  • Professor Nicola Beaumont, Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Dr Joanna Burch-Brown, University of Bristol
  • Ms Jo Gay, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
  • Professor Dan Hicks, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
  • Dr Anjana Khatwa, Wessex Museums
  • Ms Judy Ling Wong CBE, Black Environment Network
  • Ms Miranda Lowe, Natural History Museum, London
  • Dr Patricia Noxolo, University of Birmingham
  • Professor Rich Pancost, University of Bristol
  • Dr Craig Poku, University of York
  • Professor Nalin Thakkar, The University of Manchester.

We would also like to extend our gratitude to the funding assessment panel members:

  • Dr Patricia Noxolo, University of Birmingham (Chair)
  • Professor Nicola Beaumont, Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Professor Robert Beckford, University of Winchester
  • Dr Stuart Black, University of Reading
  • Mr Patrick Campbell, Natural History Museum
  • Professor Julie Cupples, The University of Edinburgh
  • Mr Adam Donnan, Institution of Environmental Sciences
  • Dr Emma Dunne, University of Birmingham
  • Ms Jo Gay, Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
  • Dr Eli Lazarus, University of Southampton
  • Professor Maria Misra, University of Oxford
  • Professor Kate Pahl, Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Dr Craig Poku, University of York.

Further information

Hidden histories projects

The following descriptions are provided by the project leads:

Curating crises: the past as a key to improving the stewardship of hazard knowledges for the future

Team leader: Professor Jennifer Barclay, University of East Anglia

Project partners:

  • Seismic Research Centre (based at University of the West Indies)
  • Montserrat Volcano Observatory
  • The Royal Society.

This project hopes to stimulate critical and creative thinking about how researchers might respond to future environmental crises.

It will do this by integrating and acknowledging local observations alongside scientific data gathered during volcanic crises in the Caribbean.

Beginning in the Caribbean and UK, the project team will also ensure that information from past crises, found in archives, is made accessible to wider communities.

Activating the archive: African environmental histories and knowledges materialised in museum collections

Team leader: Dr Ashley Coutu, University of Oxford

Project partners:

  • Traditional Ecosystems Survival Tanzania (TEST)
  • BirdLife International UK
  • Yannick Ndoinyo, Director of TEST Trust, Tanzania
  • Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu, founder of SciTech Africa, Nigeria
  • Tunde Morakinyo, Africa Nature Investors, Nigeria.

Researchers will work with environmental scientists and activists from Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania to link historic archives of indigenous knowledge systems with policy in tackling contemporary environmental challenges.

They will do this through exploration of archives that were created during a period of colonial rule.

By working with students and young people in Oxford, the team will also develop new and flexible ways of public outreach to share knowledge through physical and virtual museum spaces.

Science and the colonies: hidden networks of botanical science, ecology and eugenics at the end of empire

Team leader: Professor Vinita Damodaran, University of Sussex

Project partners: John Innes Centre

This project will uncover and highlight the nature of hidden intellectual networks at the end of empire and the science that resulted around the interconnected origins of:

  • genetics
  • eugenics
  • ecology
  • humanism.

It will do this through published research and a public exhibition.

Taking this knowledge to new audiences will further help disseminate this knowledge to a wider audience both in Britain and India.

From blue iguanas to blue vervain: sharing the colonial histories from the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs)

Team leader: Ms Jodey Mary Peyton, UK Centre of Ecology and Hydrology

Project partners:

  • Montserrat National Trust
  • National Trust for the Cayman Islands
  • Meise Botanic Garden
  • Leeds Museums and Galleries
  • UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.

This project will demonstrate how colonialism has shaped and continues to shape the ecology of the UKOTs.

With case studies from Monserrat and the Cayman Islands, two of the UKOTs, we will explore ways in which the movement of species has shaped the ecology and culture on the islands.

We will also:

  • uncover and share hidden records from the UKOTs held in the UK
  • develop best practices for knowledge sharing to ensure that data and materials from UKOTs are shared equitably.

Decolonising Victorian histories: Frank Oates, geographic exploration and teaching imperial history and environmental science

Team leader: Dr Christopher Prior, University of Southampton

Project partners:

  • Gilbert White’s Museum
  • Royal Geographic Society
  • Geographical Association.

Researchers will create a repository of historical and geographical teaching and learning practices for secondary schools focused on the yet to be studied collection of Victorian explorer Frank Oates.

The aim is to explore ways the next generation of students can learn of diverse and inclusive socio-cultural and environmental histories.

The collection is held at the Gilbert White’s House museum in Selborne, northern Hampshire.

Cottonopolis: lessons for environmental science through the hidden histories of Manchester

Team leader: Dr Aditya Ramesh, The University of Manchester

Project partners:

  • British Geological Survey
  • The Geological Society of London
  • Manchester Geographical Society
  • Royal Geographical Society
  • John Rylands Research Institute and Library.

Working with various Manchester-based institutions engaged in climate science, Cottonopolis seeks to unravel the socio-environmental legacies of industrial cotton production in Manchester.

The project will examine the global impacts this legacy created on scientific knowledge and deliver talks and workshops and a public digital archive to share key findings with community groups.

It aims to re-cast the future of environmental sciences in Britain and beyond.

Confronting “historical wrongs” in Liverpool and beyond: creative responses and anticolonial approaches to environmental science

Team leader: Dr Shelda-Jane Smith, University of Liverpool

Project partners:

  • Merseyside Caribbean Community Centre
  • Surviving Society.

This project will establish best practice examples of how diverse, multidisciplinary research teams and community partners can be formed and constructively work together on complex and politically contentious issues.

Creative outputs will include a podcast featuring scientists, artists, and activists from underrepresented backgrounds.

They will share the importance of respecting, valuing, and listening to alternative ways of producing knowledge in the sciences.

Unearthing the contribution of indigenous and enslaved African knowledge systems to the St Vincent Botanical Garden under Dr Anderson (1785 to 1811)

Team leader: Dr Christina Ann Mary Welch, University of Winchester

Project partners:

  • Museum Detox
  • Antonio Carluccio Foundation
  • Kew Botanical Gardens
  • Natural History Museum
  • Linnean Society
  • University of the West Indies (Barbados).

As superintendent of St Vincent Botanical Garden (1785 to 1811), Dr Anderson contributed significantly to the contemporary scientific understanding of plants and their use.

This project will document the contribution of enslaved and indigenous people to these advances in botanical knowledge and to the development of the St. Vincent Botanical Garden.

It will provide access to key archival materials to those living in St Vincent today and the Garifuna and African-Caribbean communities living in New York and the UK.

Helping to redress how all museums, public gardens, and archives can describe the full and rich history of the organisms and archival materials on display to the public.

Decolonising UK earth science pedagogy: from the hidden histories of our geological institutions to inclusive curricula

Team leader: Dr Rebecca Williams, University of Hull

Project partners:

  • Geological Society of London
  • British Geological Survey
  • Black in Geoscience
  • Diversity in Geoscience, UK
  • Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers).

Addressing barriers to participation in the earth sciences is key to improving diversity.

Researchers will explore the unrecognised knowledge on which the foundational institutions of earth science are built.

By working with current students, academics and professional bodies, this project will seek to effect sector-wide change in discipline pedagogy and engage the public in a free geoscience exhibition.

British colonialism, marine sciences, and fisheries governance: lessons from Lake Malawi in the mid-20th century

Team leader: Dr David Wilson, University of Strathclyde

Project partners: Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy

This project will investigate the parallel development of colonial fisheries governance in Lake Malawi and a local, chief-regulated fishery in Mbenje Island, Malawi.

It will encourage sustainable development and empower community-led governance of marine spaces.

Comparing the underpinning knowledge and long-term impacts of these two historic fisheries to understand how to empower local and community knowledge within environmental science to inform just use of marine resources in Malawi in the future.

Top image:  Protect (credit: Nela Ochoa 2006, Axel Stein Collection)

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