What is the Nexus Network?
The Nexus Network is a three-year initiative to foster debate, innovative research and practical collaborations across the linked ‘nexus’ domains of food, energy, water and the environment. Participation in the network is open to researchers from all disciplines, and to decision makers in government, business and civil society.
The network is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and is being coordinated by a team from the University of Sussex, University of Sheffield, University of Exeter, University of East Anglia and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
The aims of the Nexus Network are to:
- Encourage debate, fund innovative research and improve decision making across the linked ‘nexus challenges’ of food, energy, water and the environment.
- Support interdisciplinary, cross-sector collaborations between social and natural scientists working on nexus topics, and between academic researchers and those in government, business and civil society engaged in these debates.
- Enable researchers and stakeholders in business, policy and civil society to develop and share new methodologies, data, conceptual frameworks, skills and practices directed towards nexus challenges.
What Does the Nexus Network do?
- We fund research on nexus-related topics through small grants (of between £5K and £50K) for pilot projects, working papers and cross-sector placements, to build links between researchers and other stakeholders interested in nexus topics.
- We provide opportunities for dialogue and debate through regular workshops on nexus themes and issues, and an annual conference exploring ‘what works at the nexus’.
- We develop a suite of methods, tools and briefing papers as a resource for research, policy and practitioner communities.
- We act as a UK hub for nexus-related news and discussion, via our website, and build links between the UK community and nexus-related initiatives at the international level.
What is the Nexus?
In the past five years, there has been a surge of interest in the idea of the ‘nexus’, as a way of thinking about the interdependencies, tensions and trade-offs between food, water and energy security, in the wider context of environmental change.
It is widely understood that these different systems are inextricably linked. Efforts to improve sustainability in one domain without considering wider connections often prove inadequate. More integrated approaches are required, which move beyond sectoral, policy and disciplinary silos.
The nexus came to prominence in the water domain; an influential 2011 report from the World Economic Forum described water security as ‘the gossamer that links together the web of food, energy, climate, economic growth and human security challenges.’
The concept gained further currency in the lead up to the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, and continues to attract the attention of a range of influential players in international science, policy, business and civil society.
The paper ‘Tracing the Water-Energy-Food nexus: Description, Theory and Practice’ by Hayley Leck, Declan Conway, Michael Bradshaw and Judith Rees, in the journal Geography Compass (Volume 9, Issue 8, pages 445–460, August 2015), provides a useful overview of recent initiatives around the nexus and examines how to move from nexus ‘rhetoric and ambition’ to a ‘detailed, research-based evidence on how to implement nexus research and deliver real-world solutions’.
Social science at the nexus
The language of the nexus highlights the need for interconnected thinking between different resource flows and systems, between the natural and social sciences, and between the research community and decision makers in policy, business and civil society. Social science has a particular role to play in advancing the integrated, interdisciplinary approaches that are required.
As the 2013 World Social Science Report puts it: ‘The social sciences must help to fundamentally reframe…global environmental change from a physical into a social problem.’
To date, nexus discussions have been dominated by concerns over natural resource scarcities, often couched in the language of increasing efficiency, reducing risks and enhancing security (of water, energy and food). The context in which a nexus approach is framed as being necessary is one of increasing pressure on the world’s natural resources, producing what Sir John Beddington, former UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser, memorably dubbed a ‘perfect storm’ of linked impacts.
There is a vast array of social scientific and interdisciplinary scholarship relevant to these debates: from political science; geography; economics; science, technology and innovation studies; economics; political ecology and many other disciplines. If the concept of the nexus is to be useful, social science insights will be vital to ensure that its social and political dimensions are not overlooked.
ESRC and the nexus
In the UK, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is spearheading efforts to support interdisciplinary research and cross-sector collaborations designed to tackle nexus challenges.
In January 2013, the ESRC held a ‘Big Ideas’ workshop to engage social science academics, government departments, businesses and other stakeholders around the question: ‘What are the future social science challenges that cut across the Energy-Environment-Food Nexus?’
This workshop identified a set of priorities for ESRC to take forward, each of which is influenced by nexus thinking. These priorities include: re-envisaging growth for a sustainable future; resilience and societal transformations; consumption, behaviour and socio-cultural change; public policy shaping, framing and learning; governance arrangements for sustainable resource use; and new data methods, skills and approaches.
The Nexus Network is the first in a series of linked investments in these priority areas. ESRC’s vision is for the Nexus Network to build a community of researchers and stakeholders that is better placed to tackle nexus interdependencies, trade-offs and decision-making processes. Further investments are planned over the next three years, and ESRC wants to work with the membership of the Nexus Network to scope and refine these future calls.