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Environmental impact

Guidance on identifying potential adverse environmental impact

Adverse environmental impact associated with projects not only has the potential to damage ecosystems, societies, and rare environments over the long term, but has the potential to bring both the University and the scientific process into disrepute, damaging our ability to initiate future research. As such, it is important that any impact is weighed against the longer term good generated by a project.

In accordance with the University's Research Ethics Policy, research with the potential for adverse environmental impact must be subject to review through the appropriate research ethics committee and formally approved before the research is undertaken. Researchers engaged in projects that may alter the environment should consider whether they need to submit an application for ethical review.

In addition, it is often a funder requirement that potential adverse environmental impact is considered as part of the ethical review. An extract from NERC's guidance:

"Approval to undertake the research must be granted before any work requiring approval begins. Ethical issues should be interpreted broadly and may encompass, among other things, relevant codes of practice, the involvement of human participants, tissue or data in research, the use of animals, research that may result in damage to the environment and the use of sensitive economic, social or personal data."

Firstly, please note that actions that are common to work practice outside of projects are not covered by the ethical process; for example, the carbon footprint associated with a normal level of flights would not need ethical approval. Such issues are under review as part of broader University green policies.

Typically, environmental impact will include one or more of:

  • The release of chemicals into the environment.
  • The release of organisms into the environment.
  • The removal, or damage, of resources from the environment, especially where these resources are unique or form an important element of the environmental system. NB: Some material can only be removed under licence e.g. some native species, transfer of soils to the UK from non- EU areas.
  • The permanent leaving of detrimental or uncommon materials in an environment.
  • Actions that impact on the workings of ecosystems.
  • Actions that impact on the wellbeing or livelihoods of people, including the potential bringing of uncommon diseases with researchers into protected communities.
  • Aesthetic damage, including visual, noise, and odour pollution.
  • Actions that enhance indirect risks by others, for example the disclosure of the location of rare resources, nesting sites, or growing locations.
  • Actions that impact on future environmental research, including oversampling, permanently changing an environmental system, and causing a deterioration in relationships with organisations or communities.
  • Actions that have the potential to raise public concerns, even when those concerns are unjustified, for example, the obvious carrying of chemicals through public spaces.

This list is not exclusive, nor is it necessarily the case that an ethical application will need to be made. In some cases, such issues will be dealt with under other processes (for example, the release of genetically modified organisms is subject to HSE approval and would need to be approved by the University Bio-safety manager), and in some cases low level issues are dealt with by community standards which researchers are expect to follow (for example, the Geologists' Association Code of Conduct for Rock Coring). In many cases a risk assessment will be required, but this may not negate the need for a separate ethics application. Standard moderate sampling in an ecosystem or environment which will recover within a year need not go to ethical review unless it is likely to cause aesthetic concerns with people in the area. However, if a project does fall into the areas above, or you suspect that other types of environmental impact are possible, the project team should discuss:

  • The potential type of impact, including the uniqueness and importance of the resources impacted.
  • The magnitude of any potential damage.
  • The spatial extent of any potential damage.
  • The temporal impact of any potential damage, for example, the time scale that environments will take to return to normal, and the impact during that recovery.
  • The recoverability of the environment, or the efforts that would be required to return the environment to normal.
  • The likelihood of the impact happening, balanced against the magnitude of impact if it did.

Advice may be sought from the Senior Research Ethics Administrator or the relevant Faculty Research Ethics Committee.

If there is potential for adverse environmental impact then an application for ethical review must be submitted. This contains space to outline the risk in terms of the six areas above, and to provide a statement of how the risks will be mitigated, and/ or the way in which risks are covered by current processes. It is accepted that some risks or damage may be justified in the pursuit of a greater good (for example, it may be reasonable to chop down a small number of healthy trees if it gives insights that aid globally in developing disease resistance technologies), therefore the form also contains a justification section where such arguments can be made.

The risks, harms, costs and benefits to the environment will need to be assessed as part of the ethical review, along with the risks and benefits to research participants and the researchers themselves. If there are additional or related risks to individual human participants, these should be detailed on the ethics form in the standard manner.

Further guidance