A new national research hub, initiated by a consortium of leading UK bodies, will be developing new ways to measure the effectiveness of domestic policies on energy, water, environment and food (the ‘nexus’), and how they affect wider society.

The focus of the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus (CECAN) will be to pioneer, test and promote evaluation approaches and methods across the energy, environment and food nexus where complexity presents a challenge to policy interventions, and so contribute to more effective policymaking.

Based at the University of Surrey and launching on 1 March 2016 - prior to a launch event in the summer - CECAN has been backed by £2.45 million of funding provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in collaboration with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC); the Environment Agency (EA); and the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

“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,” Andy Gibbs, Head of Economic Performance and Environment at the ESRC, said.

“Policy planning and evaluation are especially challenging when social and environmental problems are intertwined. For example, designing and evaluating a policy to increase agricultural output without using more land, water, and chemicals, and without causing loss of biodiversity needs close liaison with farmers, experts, businesses and citizens - and the policy needs to be both flexible and robust across these areas.

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

The centre will foster an 'open research' culture of knowledge exchange founded on a growing network of policymakers, practitioners and researchers – whilst at its core will be a strong group of academic and non-academic experts with many years' experience.

The centre is uniquely positioned to address some of the big policy challenges:

  • Each member of the core CECAN team is a world-leading researcher in their particular research area, has worked with or for policymakers or in policy-relevant areas, and is a methodological pioneer who in his or her own way has contributed to and created cutting-edge methodological approaches to understand these complex problems
  • Supplementing the core centre team, a network of academic and non-academic Fellows and Associates will join the centre. They will offer expert advice on areas that need specialist input for particular policy initiatives and innovations.

Work at CECAN will include developing and enhancing 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.

Nigel Gilbert, Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey and Director of CECAN, said: “We expect to have a substantial impact on how public 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.”

NERC Chief Executive, Professor Duncan Wingham, added: “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.”