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Department of Geography


The role and Influence of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970 -2011

This extended research analysed the practices, role and influence of one of the UK’s longest-standing environmental advisory bodies, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP). The RCEP was created under Harold Wilson’s Government in 1970 and abolished by the Coalition in 2011. The backdrop for the research is provided by the dramatic evolution of environmental science, policy and politics over four decades.

There is growing interest in science–policy interactions and the effects of knowledge and expert advice in policy- and decision-making. This research has been informed by, and contributes to, theories of the policy process, particularly those with a cognitive dimension (concerned with knowledge, ideas and argument as well as power, interests and institutions as important variables). It connects these theories to insights from science and technology studies (STS), particularly those involving boundary work and co-production, thus contributing to an understanding of authority and expertise and their place in modern democracies.

Initial empirical work for the study involved documentary analysis, archival research, and around 100 in-depth interviews with former members, chairs and secretariat of the Royal Commission, and with individuals in wider policy communities. Susan Owens’ own membership of the Royal Commission (1998–2008) provided a view ‘from the inside’, adding an important ethnographic dimension to the study. Analysis of extensive material has continued since then.

Overall the project contributes to a theory of expert advice, whilst also documenting the history and achievements of a unique institution in the evolution of environmental policy.


Other related publications

  • Owens, S. and Rayner, T. (1999) ‘”When knowledge matters”: The role and influence of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’, Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning 1, 1, 7-24.
  • Owens, S. (2003) ‘The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’, in G. Altner, H. Leitschuh-Fecht, G. Michelsen, U. E. Simonis and E. U. von Weizsäcker (eds.) Jarhbuch Ökologie 2004, München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 96-103.
  • Owens, S. (2006) ‘Risk and precaution: changing perspectives from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’, Science in Parliament 63, 1: 16-17.
  • 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.
  • Owens, S. (2011) ‘Three thoughts on the third wave’, Critical Policy Studies 5, 329-333.
  • Owens, S. (2011) ‘Knowledge, advice and influence: the role of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, 1970-2009’, in J. Lentsch and P. Weingart (eds.) The Politics of Scientific Advice: Institutional Design for Quality Assurance, Cambridge: CUP, 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.