Scottish rural communities leading climate change research

A child in a yellow raincoat looks at seaweed

Raasay community CLIMAVORE citizen science event, July 2022. Credit: Jordan Young

Outline of the programme

The Highlands and Islands Climate Change Community Grants supported communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to work together with researchers on addressing local climate change issues. People who have fewer opportunities to engage with research, in particular those in rural locations or who are young, marginalised or socioeconomically disadvantaged, were able to lead partnerships with researchers on challenges that mattered to them.

The scheme explored what a participatory, place-based, small grants programme could look like. One that allowed communities to design projects, choose researcher partners and allocate funds. The scheme’s launch coincided with UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021, with nine projects running from April to October 2022.

Read more about each of the projects.

Impact of the programme

The programme reveals how funding grass roots community groups and individuals can have important outcomes at a local level. They can build local knowledge, capacity and new ways of working with researchers to address climate issues in their locality.

Establishing more equitable relationships

A key success of the programme has been the creation of collaborative and more equitable relationships between communities and researchers. The programme addressed some of the power imbalances that can occur during research projects. In particular when academics carry out research on (rather than with) a community or place, without directly benefitting the people living there. Funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) supported these partnerships in the Highlands and Islands to work together to develop projects with local needs at their heart.

A group of people standing on a rocky shore surrounded by seaweed

Credit: UKRI

An outcome was the recognition of expertise across all the people involved. Researchers developed a greater appreciation of the value of community input, seeing local people’s knowledge as central to effective climate action in their local area. On the other hand, community members recognised that researchers are not necessarily able to provide all the answers but can work with people to navigate and address questions about their place.

Katriona McGlade, researcher, University of East Anglia said:

[W]e built the whole bid together, so it really came from a place of … a common need and a common interest and a common understanding of what was possible.

Building capacity for community action through engaging with research

The programme demonstrates that genuine co-production between communities and researchers results in effective work towards tackling climate change challenges with projects developing a better understanding of how to change behaviours in the local area. For instance, The GRAB Trust, a charitable social enterprise focused on reducing waste, worked with a researcher in marketing and sustainability and with local cafés in Oban. They trialled switching customers from using single-use plastics to reusable cups. This produced new insights into the barriers local people face to making this switch, such as the cost of reusables, especially given the high rent and housing costs in the region.

Several projects had wider regional impacts including sharing their findings with local councils and other stakeholder organisations. For instance, Trees for Life, a charity working with people to rewild the Scottish Highlands, reported that their project is influencing how they and their partners support young people to rewild the Caledonian Forest.

Across the projects the activities inspired enthusiasm and energy for collective climate action amongst local people, as well as strengthening community ties more broadly. The projects have also built capabilities for individuals to take part in climate research and action. Many participants reported an increase in general confidence but also in specific research and scientific skills. For example, Green Hive is a charity in Nairn in the Scottish Highlands, bringing people together to improve local green spaces. Their project resulted in seven volunteers being supported to develop new skills in conducting research about their local communities’ attitudes to the environment. Two people gained expertise that enabled them to secure jobs in relevant fields, one taking a role as a Climate Action Network Coordinator for their region.

Alison Stockwell, community organiser, Cothrom said:

A lot of [participants] said that they felt they were part of their community in ways they’d never been able to be before… [and were able to] process their feelings about [climate change] without feeling really overwhelmed and without feeling just purely negative.

Video credit: UKRI
Video transcript and on-screen captions are available by watching on YouTube.

UKRI learning outcomes

This UKRI funding programme was designed with and delivered by the British Science Association and supported by Science Ceilidh. These organisations gained useful insights into what works, and what doesn’t work, in supporting climate research led by communities, especially in rural Scotland. Crucially, the programme highlights the importance of supporting people to work at a local level, while linking them with regional or national activity.

The projects benefited significantly from the non-financial support provided, which included a series of meetings with the entire cohort of projects through a ‘community of practice’. The projects valued the opportunity to reflect honestly on their successes and challenges, and the ability to develop a wider network and focus on process over quantitative targets. The programme highlights the value of an independent ‘broker’ with existing links to the local places and stakeholders (in this instance Science Ceilidh) to support the projects through their journey and provide an open connection with the funders. The projects emphasised the need for further support to sustainably build on the equitable partnerships developed through a small grant. They also highlighted the need to collectively consider next steps, longer lasting impact and the legacy of their work together.

Families stand on a rocky shore, with boats floating on the sea

Credit: UKRI

Overall, the programme points to the need for wider culture change to enable these more equitable ways of working. It highlights the many obstacles that need to be removed to embed and scale up this approach across research and innovation. Through its public engagement strategy, UKRI is committed to supporting collaborations like these Highland and Islands projects. In addition UKRI values diverse forms of knowledge in order to break down the barriers between research and innovation and society.

Read the UKRI public engagement strategy.

This story draws on an evaluation carried out by Dr Heather Mendick. A summary of this work will be available on the main programme page in due course.

Last updated: 16 March 2023

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