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Department of Geography


Professor Susan E Owens OBE, FAcSS, FBA

Emeritus Professor of Environment and Policy and Fellow Emerita of Newnham College

Environmental governance: policy processes; science and politics; environmental planning.



  • 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
  • 1981-2004: University Assistant Lecturer, University Lecturer, Reader in Environment and Policy, University of Cambridge Department of Geography
  • 2004-2016: Professor of Environment and Policy, University of Cambridge Department of Geography
  • 2010-2013: Head of the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


  • BSc (first class honours), Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia (1975)
  • PhD (Energy and planning), School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia (1981)
  • ScD (h.c.), Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm (2013)
  • ScD (h.c.), University of East Anglia (2015)


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

Susan Owens has researched and published widely in the field of environmental governance, focusing on policy processes in modern democracies, and in particular on the role of argument, evidence, ideas and advice in policy formation and change.

She has previously worked on interpretations of sustainable development in theory and practice, and has theorised connections between environmental 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 topics in environmental governance and science-policy relations. She held the King Carl XVI Gustaf Professorship of Environmental Science in 2008-9 (Stockholm Resilience Centre and Royal Institute of Technology [KTH]) and an Honorary Professorship at the University of Copenhagen, 2008-13.

She was appointed OBE in 1998 and elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2011. She holds Honorary Doctorates from KTH, Stockholm (2012) and the University of East Anglia (2015).

Further details on membership and external activities are given below.

Current and recent projects

Policy, Expertise and Trust (PEriTia) ERC Horizon 2020 project; Member of International Advisory Board with active involvement in project.

Making Sense of Science for Policy under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty, SAPEA (Science Advice to Policy from the European Academies). Member of Working Group 2019-20 and co-author of Evidence Review Report, SAPEA 2019 ISBN – 978-3-9820301-3-5; doi 10.26356/MASOS

Truth, Trust and Expertise: ALLEA (All European Academies) project, 2017-19. This international collaboration sought to interrogate current and past dynamics of public trust in expertise and the challenges faced at a time of contested interpretations of fact, evidence and truth. Involved in Working Group, co-author of several reports and plenary speaker at the ALLEA Annual Symposium, Science in Times of Challenged Trust and Uncertainty, Sofia, Bulgaria, May 2018.

Knowledge, Policy and Expertise: extended analysis of the practices and influence of the former Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) during a formative period for environmental politics and policy formation, 1970-2011. Originally funded by Leverhulme Trust and RCEP, drawing upon in-depth interviews, archival work, documentary analysis and personal experience of membership of the Commission for ten years.

Knowledge, Policy, and Expertise: The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-2011 was published by Oxford University Press in 2015 (see below). It explores key contemporary questions about relations among knowledge, policy-making and politics, through the lens of this long-standing, influential advisory body and its impacts on environmental policy in the UK and beyond. See also Journal of Environmental Law (2012); Global Environmental Change (2010); and chapter in Lentsch and Weingart (eds) (2011).

Recently-graduated PhD students

  • Thérèse Rudebeck: Corporations or Custodians of the Public Good? Exploring the Interaction of Corporate Water Stewardship and Global Water Governance (2018)
  • David Rose: ‘Nature in a Changing climate: Knowledge and Policy for Conservation, England 1990-2011 (2015)
  • Lindsay Galbraith: Making Space for Reconciliation in Canada’s Planning System (2014)
  • James Palmer: Science and Politics in European Energy and Environmental Policy: The Wicked Problem of Biofuels and Indirect Land-use Change (2013)
  • Elizabeth Rough (2012): Nuclear narratives: Framing the debate about civil nuclear power in the UK


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External activities

Professor Owens is a member of the Science Advisory Council for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and chairs one of its sub-groups, the Social Science Expert Group.

She is also a member of the Evidence Advisory Committee of Natural Resources Wales, chairs the Science Advisory Council of the Stockholm Environment Institute, sits on the Royal Academy of Engineering National Environmental Policy Centre (NEPC) Net Zero Working Group, and chairs the Project Advisory Group for the five-year ESRC-funded programme, Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science (ACCESS).

She has previously served on Defra’s Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee (HSAC); the Research Committee of ESRC (2007–11); the Council and Research Committee of the Royal Geographical Society (2009-2012); the Science Policy Advisory Group of the Royal Society (2008–13); and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) (1998–2008).