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Professor Susan E Owens OBE, AcSS, FBA

Professor Susan E Owens OBE, AcSS, FBA

Professor of Environment and Policy and Professorial Fellow of Newnham College

Environmental governance: policy processes; knowledge and policy learning; land use and environmental planning.


Susan Owens has researched and published widely in the field of environmental governance. Her current projects are concerned with relations between science and politics, and with the role of argument, evidence, ideas and advice in policy formation and change. She has also worked extensively on interpretations of sustainable development in theory and practice, particularly in the context of land use and environmental planning. Recently she has been interested in the 'subversive' functions of planning, exploring connections between planning conflicts (especially those concerned with contentious technologies and infrastructures) and developments in wider domains of public policy. She has supervised many PhD students on environmental and science/policy topics. She was appointed an OBE in 1998 and was a recipient of the Royal Geographical Society's 'Back' Award in 2000. She holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Copenhagen. For the academic year 2008-09 she was the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professor of Environmental Science, hosted by Stockholm University's Resilience Centre and the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2011 and received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, in 2012.


  • 1978-1980: Research Officer to the Energy Panel of the Social Science Research Council
  • 1980-1981: Research Fellow, Institute of Planning Studies, University of Nottingham
  • 1981-1986: University Assistant Lecturer in Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 1986-2000: University Lecturer in Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2000-2004: Reader in Environment and Policy, University of Cambridge Department of Geography
  • 2004-present: Professor of Environment and Policy, University of Cambridge Department of Geography
  • 2010-2013: Head of Department of Geography


  • BSc (first class honours), Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia (1975)
  • PhD, (Energy and planning) School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia (1981)


Environmental governance: science and politics; role of knowledge and advice in policy formation and change; planning processes as sites of conflict and policy evolution.

Current and recent projects

Experts and the Environment: ongoing, extended analysis of the practices and influence of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) during a formative period for environmental politics and policy formation, 1970-2011. Originally funded by funded by Leverhulme Trust and RCEP, drawing upon in-depth interviews, archival work and personal experience of membership of the Commission. See Journal of Environmental Law (2012); Global Environmental Change (2010); and chapter in Lentsch and Weingart (eds) (2011) below.

Modelling Futures: Understanding Risk and Uncertainty: the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar, 2009-10 (co-convened with D. Spiegelhalter and others, through Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities [CRASSH], University of Cambridge). Series of public lectures, workshops and final international conference exploring issues of risk and uncertainty in an interdisciplinary environment.

Appraisal, Institutional Learning and Sustainability: Defining a New Agenda (RES-221-25-0017), ESRC Environment and Behaviour New Opportunities Programme, 2003-04. This project explored the role of environmental appraisal in the political process, and ways in which it may help to modify the beliefs, values and behaviour of individuals and organisations. The aim was to develop a new theoretical framework for appraisal, and to contribute to practice that is better informed by social science. See Owens et al (2006) in Environment and Planning A; and Owens and Cowell (2011) Land and Limits below.

Current PhD students

  • James Palmer: Science and politics in the biofuels debate
  • Lindsay Galbraith: Beyond technical environmental planning in Canada: remaking 'native space' in policy making and the politics of streamlining
  • David Rose: Interpreting climate science in biodiversity policy and practice
  • Emily Noah: Consumers, citizens and identities in environmental policy: the case of stewardship schemes

Recently Graduated PhD Students

  • Elizabeth Rough (2012): Nuclear narratives: Framing the debate about civil nuclear power in the UK
  • Gareth Hughes (2009): Ideas into practice? Limitations and impacts of current strategies for integrating public knowledge into risk assessment processes for agricultural pesticides.
  • Louise Driffill (2008) Exploring the 'Missing Link': participatory and formal decision-making processes in waste planning in Wiltshire
  • Wilko Graf von Hardenburg (2007): Nature Conservation and Political Ideologies: A Comparative Study
  • Mike Nye (2006): Understanding business participation in UK emissions trading
  • Heather Lovell (2005): The governance of emerging socio-technical systems: the case of low energy housing in the UK


Selected publications

  • Owens, S. (2001) '"Engaging the public": information and deliberation in environmental policy.' Environment and Planning A 32:1141-1148
  • Owens, S. (2002) '"A collision of adverse opinions?": major projects, planning inquiries and policy change', Environment and Planning A 34: 949-957, 2002.
  • Owens, S. (2003) 'Is there a meaningful definition of sustainability?' Journal of Plant Genetic Resources 1, 1: 5-9.
  • Owens, S. (2004) 'Siting, sustainable development and social priorities', Journal of Risk Research 7, 2: 101-114.
  • Owens, S., Rayner, T. and Bina, O. (2004) 'New agendas for appraisal: reflections on theory, practice and research', Environment and Planning A 36, 11, 1943-1959.
  • Owens, S. (2005) 'Making a difference? Some perspectives on environmental research and policy', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 30, 3: 287-292.
  • Owens, S. and Cowell, R. (2006) 'Governing space: planning reform and the politics of sustainability', Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 24: 403-421
  • Owens, S., Petts, J. and Bulkeley, H. (2006) Theme Issue of Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, Knowledge and policy in the context of urban environments: Vol 24, no. 5, pp 633-717 (six papers including Owens, Petts and Bulkeley below)
  • Owens, S., Petts, J. and Bulkeley, H. (2006) 'Boundary work: knowledge, policy and the urban environment', Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 24, 5: 633-643
  • Petts, J., Owens, S. and Bulkeley, H. (2008) 'Crossing boundaries: interdisciplinarity in the context of urban environments', Geoforum 39, 2: 593-601
  • Owens, S. (2008) 'Why conserve marine environments?' Environmental Conservation 35, 1: 1-4
  • Owens, S. and Driffill, L. (2008) 'How can we change attitudes and behaviour in the context of energy?', Energy Policy 36, 12: 4412-4418
  • Lovell, H., Bulkeley, H. and Owens, S. (2009) 'Converging agendas: energy and climate change policies in the UK', Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 27, 1: 90-109
  • Owens, S. (2010) 'Learning across levels of governance: expert advice and the adoption of carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets in the UK', Global Environmental Change 20: 394-401. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2009.11.001
  • Owens, S. (2011) 'Three thoughts on the third wave', Critical Policy Studies 5, 3: 329-333. doi:10.1080/19460171.2011.606307
  • Owens, S. and Cowell, R. (2011) Land and Limits: Interpreting Sustainability in the Planning Process, 2nd edition, London: Routledge.
  • Owens, S. (2011) 'Knowledge, advice and influence: the role of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-2009', in P. Weingart and J. Lentsch (eds.) Between Science and Politics: Quality Control in the Advisory Process, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 73-101.
  • Owens, S. (2012) 'Experts and the environment: the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-2011', Journal of Environmental Law 24, 1: 1-22. doi:10.1093/jel/eqr031
  • Sutherland, W. et al (2012) 'A collaborative-derived science policy research agenda', PLoS One 7, 3 (9.3.12). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031824


Most recent teaching commitments:

  • Part II (final year) course: "Environment, Policy and Society"
  • Master of Philosophy in Environment and Development: contributions to core course, "Environment: ethics and policies".
  • Master of Geographical Research: contributions on environmental issues

External activities

Professor Owens is currently a member of the Science Policy Advisory Group of the Royal Society and of the Science Advisory Council of the Stockholm Environment Institute. From 1998 to 2008 she served on the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP), one of the longest-standing environmental advisory bodies in the UK. Reports to which she contributed in this capacity include:

  • Novel Materials in the Environment: the Case of Nanotechnology (2008)
  • The Urban Environment (2007)
  • Turning the Tide: Addressing the Impact of Fisheries on the Marine Environment (2004)
  • Chemicals in Products: Safeguarding the Environment and Human Health (2002)
  • The Environmental Effects of Civil Aircraft in Flight (2002)
  • Environmental Planning (2002)
  • Energy: The Changing Climate (2000)

She has also served on ESRC's Research Committee (2007-11) and the Council and Research Committee of the Royal Geographical Society (2009-2012).

From 2003-2006, she chaired the Governance Working Group of the European Environmental Advisory Councils (EEAC), a network of official environmental advisory bodies from different European countries, which prepares working papers and reports, and seeks to influence the direction of environmental governance within the European Union and its member states.

Previously, she has been a member of the Steering Group for a review of science in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development and the Countryside Commission. She has advised a number of governmental and non-governmental organisations.