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Scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology will play a key role in a new £3.1M ‘Data Science of the Natural Environment’ project, announced today by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). 

The project brings together statisticians, computer scientists and environmental scientists alongside an array of public and private sector stakeholders to effect a step change in data culture in the environmental sciences.

John Watkins, Head of Environmental Informatics at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said, “Our role in the project is to turn modern advances in data science, such as machine learning, into practical solutions that work in the natural environment for management challenges such as the land use tradeoff between food, timber, energy, recreation, urban settlement, employment and aesthetic benefits.”

The grant focusses on three Grand Challenges in the area of environmental sciences – predicting ice sheet melt, modelling and mitigating poor air quality, managing land use for maximal societal benefit. The project team will create an integrated suite of novel data science tools – a modular platform which can be used by data scientists but also by environmental scientists and stakeholders without data science training.

Dr Paula Harrison, Principal Natural Capital Scientist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, will lead the work on land use management. This part of the project will include our partners: Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Government, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Environment Agency, DEFRA, and JBA. 

Universities and Science Minister, Sam Gyimah said, “We know the data we hold can change the way we live our lives and these important research projects will help us better understand the vast amount of data that is produced on a daily basis.  Some of the best minds in our Research Councils and at higher education institutions will work collaboratively on these projects with industry and public bodies, helping to extract value and use data to assist with decision making. Through our modern, ambitious Industrial Strategy and artificial intelligence Sector Deal and Grand Challenge, we will build on our reputation as a world-leader in this transformative technology, ensuring we make the very most of our data output and help build a Britain fit for the future.”

The Data Science of the Natural Environment project is be led by Professor David Leslie of Lancaster University. The project will be funded by a grant from EPSRC, accompanied by NERC in-kind funding.

This week EPSRC have announced five new research projects that take novel approaches to challenges in data science. “Data Science of the Natural Environment” is the only project of the five that involves environmental scientists.

Additional information

EPSRC announcement




Related staff

John currently manages staff and projects in the UKCEH Environmental Data Science group to deliver environmental informatics research and development and the operation of the Terrestrial and Freshwater Science Data Centre (EIDC). He also works with international groups (RDA) and projects (LTER Europe) to develop trans-national data infrastructures and services.

Prof. Paula Harrison is a Co-director of the Centre of Excellence in Environmental Data Science, a joint venture between UKCEH and Lancaster University. In this role she facilitates cross-disciplinary research addressing global environmental challenges through methodological advances in data science.