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Professor Susan E Owens OBE, FAcSS, FBA

Professor Susan E Owens OBE, FAcSS, FBA

Emeritus Professor of Environment and Policy and Fellow Emerita 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, 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 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. 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 (KTH); and she was Honorary Professor at the University of Copenhagen, 2008-13. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2011 and 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-present: 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

Knowledge, Policy and Expertise: 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, documentary analysis and personal experience of membership of the Commission.

Knowledge, Policy, and Expertise: The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-2011 was published by Oxford University Press in 2015 (see below). This book 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).

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.

Current PhD students

  • Thérèse Rudebeck: Global water governance

Recently Graduated PhD Students

  • David Rose: Nature in a Changing Climate: Knowledge and Policy for Conservation in England 1990–2011
  • 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
  • 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


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 was published by Oxford University Press.


Most recent teaching commitments:

  • New Part II (final year) course: "Knowledge, Policy and Expertise"
  • Master of Geographical Research: contributions on environmental and science/policy issues

External activities

Professor Owens is a member of Defra's Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee (HSAC) and of the Science Advisory Council of the Stockholm Environment Institute (of which she is Chair-elect). 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, which prepares working papers and reports, and seeks to influence the direction of environmental governance within the European Union and its member states.