Systems Thinking in Government: Defra Launches Systems Research Programme

Today, [3rd May, 2019] my team officially launches a new Defra Science project – the Systems Research Programme.

This programme breaks new ground by taking a “systems-thinking” approach to understanding the key policy questions across the Defra group. Defra manages different systems such as the food, water, waste, land use or marine. These systems involve many components which interact in defined ways at various scales. By mapping these systems – identifying the interdependencies between different components and relating these two areas of the Defra Portfolio – we have the opportunity to consider how Defra works and whether this needs to change.

The project will focus on five key environmental and operational areas: rural land use; food; air quality; marine and resources; and waste. My team, in partnership with six academic fellows and colleagues across Defra will develop the project. I am excited to be leading this partnership across the research and policymaking communities.

This is an exciting time for policy making in Defra. The new programme is part of Defra’s EU Exit science portfolio which will further our strategic science capability to deliver Defra’s ambitious 25 Year Environment Plan and ensure that new policies are informed by the best possible research. In the past, the science sponsored by Defra, has mostly been led by policy questions. This project is turning the tables by placing science at the centre of problem solving.

Why ‘systems’?

Systems thinking enables a holistic way of conceptualising a problem. It moves us away from managing issues in isolation to consideration of the connectedness between issues to understand their collective impacts on the system as a whole. By taking a systems approach, we can identify trade-offs and synergies between such areas to design better solutions for the system.

The issues on which we work are deeply interconnected and require highly joined up approaches. Mapping evidence across key areas within a system will allow us to pull together the relevant science required to address complex multidisciplinary environmental issues. Our environment does not operate within silos, and neither should we.

Our future policies will need solutions for the major challenges faced by our generation. Systems thinking supports this by enabling us to address such cross-cutting questions in a ‘mission-orientated’ way. However, it is more than a practical way of working; it potentially changes the philosophical basis upon which decisions are made. Holistic thinking is to some extent the opposite of ‘reductionist’ approaches that break down complex issues into their fundamental constituents – a philosophy which is often at the centre of how we look at evidence use in government. I am pleased that our project is one part of a changing research landscape that encourages this thinking, and includes innovative funding solutions such as UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

One issue I also see this project trying to resolve is how Defra can be more effective at engaging with the massive intellectual resource which sits with academia. My proposition is that Defra needs to be the body which convenes and leads this talent to deliver the kind of outcomes we are seeking. The academic community will not self-organise to do this without us seeding this with ideas and providing the intellectual frameworks for them to work within. The systems project is intended to develop this framework.

I am excited to be a part of this wider shift towards systems thinking, and look forwards to the development of our programme.

Further details of the Systems Research Programme can be found here: