skip to primary navigation skip to content


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.


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).


  • 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.

Current and recent projects

Truth, Trust and Expertise: Currently engaged in this ALLEA (All European Academies) project, 2017-19, which seeks 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.

Knowledge, Policy and Expertise: 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 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 a 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


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.
  • Cowell, R., Owens, S. (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
  • Owens, S. (2013) 'Commentary: Johan Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone et al. (2009), "A safe operating space for humanity", in L. Robin, S. Sörlin and P. Warde (eds.) The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 502–5. ISBN 9780300184617. Winner of the 2013 New England Book Festival Prize for 'Best Anthology'.
  • Owens, S. (2014) 'Knowing about limits', in E. Kessler and A. Karlqvist (eds.) A Changing World: Redrawing the Map, The Eleventh Royal Colloquium, May 2013, Climate, Human Migration, Food Security, 31–6. ISBN 978-91-637-4831-8.
  • Owens, S. and Whatmore, S. (2014) 'Nature and society', video conversation to accompany R. Lee, N. Castree, R. Kitchen et al. (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Human Geography, London: Sage. ISBN H/b 9780857022486; e-book 9781446265994.
  • Owens, S. (2015) Knowledge, Policy, and Expertise: The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-2011, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

External activities

Professor Owens is a member of Defra's Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee (HSAC) and Social Science Expert Group (SSEG), and of the SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by the European Academies) Working Group, Making Sense of Science. She has chaired the Science Advisory Council of the Stockholm Environment Institute since 2015. She has previously served on 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). Reports to which she contributed as a member of RCEP 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)

From 2003-2006, she chaired the Governance Working Group of the European Environmental Advisory Councils (EEAC), a network of official environmental advisory bodies in European countries.