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My colleagues behind the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine, have shown what can be done in the face of a deadly global threat. By producing a world-saving vaccine in record time, they have not just saved millions of lives, they have been an inspiration to me and researchers around the world - both for their rapid action and their scientific achievement. We environmental scientists must do the same – in the face of an even bigger threat than COVID-19: climate change and biodiversity loss. By Professor Nathalie Seddon, professor of biodiversity, director of the Nature-based Solutions Initiative.

This is not an exaggeration. There is general agreement in the climate science community that we need to reach net-zero by 2050 to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming. This means we need to stop emitting Greenhouse Gases and destroying ecosystems. But it also means scaling up nature-restoration, sustainably managing our working lands and figuring out how to extract Greenhouse Gases from the atmosphere and store them – all within the next decade or so.

Science must, and can, act now.  We do not have time for the usual slow, drawn-out environmental research

The environmental threat to humankind is existential. The millions who have tragically died in the pandemic, will be followed by many more if we do not take urgent action over these twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. Our failure to ‘bend the curve’ on either of them means our response needs to be much more ambitious – and rapid.   And today’s announcement is aimed at doing just that. Our rapid research project, the Agile Initiative, is being launched at Oxford with £10 million of official backing. This is a recognition, if it is needed, that science must, and can, act now.

We do not have time for the usual slow, drawn-out environmental research. The medical science community has been incredibly effective in its response to COVID-19. Our mission is as important - if not more so. Backed by UKRI, The Agile Initiative at the Oxford Martin School, brings together researchers from across the disciplinary spectrum with partners working on the ground to deliver rapid cutting-edge research; solutions to the environmental crisis in months – not years.

This is not an Ivory Tower approach... Our partnerships are key to this research.  Speed of delivery is important, but so is working closely with those who need the work and who also have expertise to share

This is not an Ivory Tower approach. Agile aims to deliver demand-led solutions through ‘sprints’, the first of which are already starting. Our partnerships are key to this research.  Speed of delivery is important, but so is working closely with those who need the work and who also have expertise to share. For example, our sprint which tackles how best to scale-up nature-based solutions in the UK, involves working closely with farmers, local communities and businesses, the Environment Agency, Natural England, National Trust, and more.

In support of a sprint, Minette Batters, the President of the National Farmers Union, said, ‘The NFU has particular interests in understanding how nature-based solutions can work better alongside food production … Farmers are crucial to the social fabric of our rural areas, with the farmed landscape the source of many benefits to society. We believe this project is key so that we can strike the right balance, to understand the trade-offs but also maximise the opportunities.’

Agile does not mean cutting corners, but acting quickly. UKRI has been visionary in backing us and trusting us to develop a new system, through which we will rapidly deliver cutting-edge scientific research into the hands of those that need it most, in other words decision makers in government and business, and practitioners on the ground.  I am not sure anything like this has ever been attempted before. This is not ‘consultancy’, we are not just synthesising existing work and advising policymakers, we are going to provide them with new cutting edge scientific research, working at a pace not usually seen or even attempted in the environmental sciences.

Agile does not mean cutting corners, but acting quickly...I am not sure anything like this has ever been attempted before. This is not ‘consultancy’...we are going to provide...new cutting edge scientific research, working at a pace not usually seen or even attempted in the environmental sciences

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, the former chief scientific adviser to the Government has told us, ‘Policy development often moves a pace which is an order of magnitude faster than research is able to respond by delivering support.’

And he points out, ‘Rapid response cannot be allowed to undermine quality in research but there is considerable room for researchers to be much better organised to drawing down on current knowledge and undertake new research on time frames which are meaningful to policy-makers.’

Each sprint is different but complementary and all are targeted at getting humanity onto a sustainable trajectory. They include how we reduce waste, transition to green fuels, and scale-up nature-based solutions and other forms of greenhouse gas removal and storage whilst also protecting biodiversity, jobs and human wellbeing. It is an honour to be directing this programme. It holds out the prospect of significant advances in terms of reversing biodiversity loss at scale and mitigating climate change. It holds out the hope of a healthy, greener and happier future.  

And we need this right now, because governments, companies and people are making pledges and plans for dealing with climate change and achieving net-zero and becoming nature positive.  Without the science underpinning such pledges, they risk being ineffective and possibly even harmful. The cross-disciplinary teams on the Agile sprints are working together to provide solutions which are not only good for the climate and biodiversity, but work for people and the economy as well.