Adam Donnan; Chloe Fletcher
August 2017

Redefining the boundaries of our membership

Over the past 12 months, the IES has been developing a new strategy which will guide the organisation over the next three years. In a series of blogs, IES CEO, Adam Donnan, explains the thinking behind this strategy and how it will change the work of the Institution. 

Although categorised as a professional body, in many ways the IES is the learned society for environmental sciences.

The organisation was founded in 1971 in Farnborough College which, at the time, was teaching the first environmental science programme in the world (although several other education institutions also claim this title). The IES has always had a strong role in the development of environmental science as a discipline in UK higher education and, in the past 15 years, has extended that role to applied science. Today, our unique position spanning across academic, government, research and applied science means we can lay claim to being the voice of UK environmental science.

It seems strange, therefore, that we have never published a working definition of environmental science. In a promotional leaflet published in 2013, we defined environmental science as “a multidisciplinary academic field that integrates physical and biological sciences in both the study of the environment and in finding solutions for environmental problems”.  For assessing the relevance of applicants' academic and work experience, we have relied on the QAA's ES3 Benchmark Statement. This offers insight into the nature of study and academic standards expected from graduates in earth sciences, environmental sciences and environmental studies.

As an academic outline, the ES3 benchmark may be constrained by the ‘territories’ of other academic disciplines. The real-world boundaries of environmental science may be broader. For example, a strong focus for the IES in recent years has been sustainable development. Despite the greater emphasis on sustainability within the most recent ES3 statement, sustainability science programmes, such as behavioural science, social science and economics, do not tend to fall within the ES3 bracket.

In the early part of 2017, an IES working group examined a range of interpretations of environmental science, with the aim of publishing a new definition. They came up with the following: “Environmental science is an integrative academic field, unifying the physical, chemical, biological, engineering and social sciences in the study of the environment and in finding sustainable solutions to environmental challenges.”

This broadened the IES’s previous characterisation by moving away from the narrow view that environmental science solely integrates the natural sciences, to one that encompasses a multitude of other disciplines including social and engineering sciences. In this definition, social science could refer, but is not limited to, the humanities, economics, geography, ethics and political science. Unlike some other definitions, it is goal-orientated towards "finding sustainable solutions to environmental challenges". We are unapologetic that environmental science is a science with a purpose. This definition was adopted by Council in April 2017 as part of the Institution’s new organisational strategy.

In the near future, we will be adapting our membership criteria to better reflect this new definition, extending to scientists with academic backgrounds beyond the confines of the ES3 statement. The working group unanimously agreed that our academic criteria should be amended to allow any degree programme within the physical, chemical, biological, engineering and social sciences to be considered relevant, provided its alignment with the environmental sciences is justifiable and evidenced.

Earlier this month, a proposal outlining the changes was submitted to the IES Council for further comment. Pending approval, these adjustments will come into effect in late-September, along with updates to our transparent Application Grading System, membership application forms and website. We will inform our members when any changes are made, so make sure to keep your eyes peeled. Who knows, you might be eligible for a regrade!

<< Part I: Standing up for science, scientists and the natural world
Part III: Being experts in an age of disdain for expertise >>