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Impact of MDT funding

What has been the impact of the MDT funding portfolio?

Since 2012, the Macaulay Development Trust has provided funding to the James Hutton Institute for:

  • 10 MDT Fellowships
  • 20 MDT PhD studentships
  • 14 seedcorn projects
  • 3 rapid response projects
  • 3 workshops, and  
  • various capital items (either fully or by providing match funding)

Funding has supported scientists and social scientists from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds to do innovative research supporting sustainable land use and vibrant rural communities across Scotland. The research has led to impacts on science as evidenced by over 50 journal publications and reports, providing a better understanding, fresh empirical evidence, and new methods for capturing and analysing data. It has leveraged additional funding for both capital equipment and follow-on projects, many of which have allowed insights gained in Scotland to bring international benefits. MDT contributions have supported policymakers at the national, regional and local level and have influenced the way Scotland’s land and natural resources are managed and used in practice.

The following examples are illustrative of the wide range of projects and topics areas that have received MDT funding:

  1. MDT Fellowship: Renewable Energy

Impacts: National policy development; Farm business decision-making; Community practice.
Connectivity impact: Community resilience.

The Renewable Energy Fellowship enabled an Agri-Renewables Strategy to be developed for the James Hutton Institute. This has increased corporate knowledge of the technical options and processes associated with developing, installing and operating renewable energy systems on the Institute estate,  and has increased connectivity between various Institute teams, notably Estates, Capital Projects, Finance, Science and the Executive.

The Fellowship has been key to several developments on the Institute’s research farms including the successful renegotiation of an Option and Lease Agreement for a 7 turbine development at Hartwood Farm and the planning and installation of a 50kW solar PV array at Glensaugh Farm and a 110kW solar PV array at Mylnefield Farm. Combined, the solar arrays have led to a significant reduction in costs of energy and in carbon emissions, abating 65 and 20 tonnes of CO2 emissions respectively. These two projects are on track to pay for their costs within 5 years of commissioning, contributing a surplus to the Institute for 20 to 25 years thereafter. Other project activities levered an additional £100k in funding for exploratory work on site suitability for renewable energy production on the Institute estate, including £50k for Fortissat Community Geothermal Energy at Hartwood Farm, and two Start-up grants (£15k each) on community renewables from the Scottish Government Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES) at Hartwood and Balruddery Farms.

The Fellowship included a four-month secondment to the Scottish Government where the Fellow contributed content for the Scottish Government consultation on a Scottish Energy Strategy (January 2017), and set up a dedicated UK-wide Pumped Hydro Storage Working Group on behalf of the relevant Scottish Government Ministers.  The Fellow also led a report Scottish Government through ClimateXChange on “The comparative costs of community and commercial renewable energy projects in Scotland” (Harnmeijer et al., 2015), cited in submissions to other public consultations (e.g. BEIS Call for Evidence on small-scale low carbon energy generation; by UKERC; Feed-in-Tariff Review, by the Energy Savings Trust).

Current contact: Deb Roberts (Fellow, Jelte Harnmeijer)

Harnmeijer, J., Harnmeijer, A., Bhopal, V., Robinson, S., Phimister, E., Roberts, D., and Msika, J. (2015). The comparative costs of community and commercial renewable energy projects in Scotland, Edinburgh: ClimateXChange. pp. 56.

  1. Seedcorn Project: Craigiebuckler Biodiversity Action Plan (2017 to 2020)

Instrumental impact: Land Management.
Attitudinal and cultural impacts: Public engagement and understanding.

The Craigiebuckler Biodiversity Action Plan (2017 to 2020) forms the basis of the planning prioritisation and management of the unique greenspace surrounding the James Hutton Institute’s Aberdeen site. Operationally, it is guiding on-the-ground actions contributing to the maintenance and enhancement of the estate for the local community and staff. From summer 2018, these actions have focused on the removal and replanting of the tree stock (e.g. where affected by disease), the removal of invasive species such as ivy, and the restoration of access paths for both the safety and ease of use of staff and local residents. The combined efforts are

A series of high-profile events designed to engage staff and the local community has significantly improved connections between the Institute and key stakeholder groups. In addition to members of the local community, attendance has included two serving Ministers in the Scottish Government, three MSPs who came with their families, nine councillors from Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire, and numerous representatives from various NGOs.

Members of the local community have expressed appreciation of the opportunities to learn and enjoy the Craigiebuckler estate. For example, one attendee at the BioBlitz (July 2017) which attracted over 300 people sent the following note:

“Just a quick email to say congratulations on a great event today. My 8 yr old daughter & I had an absolutely brilliant time & it's been the highlight of the summer holidays so far! There was so much to do, lots of interesting enthusiastic experts to speak to & learn from with the only downside being not quite enough time to see everything.... & we were there at 11am! Thanks so much & I hope that you'll be holding other similar events soon. (& if you have a mailing list please could you add me to it).”

The capability and knowledge of staff has been increased through hosting events such as the Autumn Watch (Sept. 2018).  This involved over 110 local residents and staff participating in a week-long series of activities including Fungal Forays, bat counting at Couper’s Pond, moth trapping and identification, and a family quiz evening. In-depth sessions included an event providing guidance on the use of camera traps at which camera trap boxes were purchased by attendees, and training provided on their installation and use. This provided new information on wildlife on the estate (e.g. at least one badger), and video materials for use in promoting debate about threats to urban wildlife. It has also stimulated the use of a camera trap at a local nature reserve with the support of the local managers.

More generally, the activities of the Action Plan are raising the reputation of the estate amongst the local community, helping to show that the Institute ‘walks the talk’ on biodiversity, whilst also conducting leading-edge research. This was exemplified by the launch of the film The Wild North East, Scotland’s Natural Gem (April 2018), watched by almost 100,000 online and attracting attendance of over 150 people to Craigiebuckler.

Contact: Robin Pakeman (original lead contact, Rose Toney)

  1. Rapid Response project:  Towards a database of biodiversity and ecological functions associated with European Tree Species

Instrumental impact: Adaptive strategies for dealing with disease outbreaks
Capacity building impact: Scientific benchmark data
Conceptual impact: New understanding
Connectivity impact: New international collaborations between researchers, and between researchers and government agencies.

This project provided a ranking of the relative ecological importance of European tree species which can be used in developing risk assessment of tree pests and diseases. It thus helps public and private sector woodland managers develop adaptive strategies to the benefit of biodiversity.

Outputs from the project have achieved a high profile amongst key stakeholders including statutory advisers to the UK Government and devolved administrations, notably the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Scottish Natural Heritage.

In addition to its direct outputs, the project helped to extend the researcher’s, and James Hutton Institute’s, connections with International peer groups, supporting their participation in an EU COST Action FP1401 (Global Warning) on an early warning system against alien tree pests. It supported a short term scientific mission to work at CABI, Switzerland, to review approaches to assess the ecological impact of a decline in an individual tree species or genera before a specific disease or pest is known. This, in turn, has expanded Institutional capabilities and has boosted leadership in a key area of public policy (e.g. Priority 4 in the draft Scottish Government Forestry Strategy).

Finally, the project led to the researcher being involved in a collaborative project on the “Potential ecological impact of box tree moth and box blight in the Eastern Black Sea Region” funded by the German Federal Foreign office (Total value 30,000 Euros; £5K to James Hutton Institute). One of the strategic aims of the funder is to facilitate greater connectivity between scientists in the western Caucasus regions, specifically the Republics of Abkhazia and Georgia, thereby supporting peaceful relations in the region.  The project was exceptional in this regard leading to not only a report to the German Federal Foreign Office but also (based upon information available) the first scientific paper co-authored by scientists from these areas (Mitchell et al., 2018).

Contact: Ruth Mitchell


Mitchell, R.,  Chitanava, S.,  Dbar, R., Kramarets, V., Lehtija¨rvi, A., Matchutadze, I., Mamadashvili, G., Matsiakh, I., Nacambo, S., Papazova-Anakieva, I., Sathyapala, S., Tuniyev, B., Ve´tek, G., Zukhbaia, M. and Kenis, M. (2018). Identifying the ecological and societal consequences of a decline in Buxus forests in Europe and the Caucasus. Biological Invasions. Online early.

  1. Seedcorn project:  Using the Touchtable interactive technology: The “Route Aware”

Conceptual impact:  exemplified new methods for analysing contested issues;
Capacity building impact: enhanced interdisciplinarity working.

The Route Aware project used a touchtable in participatory research for exploring the spatial patterns of people’s recreational behaviour. It enabled the capture of people’s knowledge and experiences of walking routes. The principal scientific output from the project was a refereed paper on exploring landscape engagement through a participatory touchtable approach, by Conniff et al. (2017). The project expanded the Institute’s capabilities in the use of visual methods for the study of contested spaces, and enhanced interdisciplinary working through greater connectivity between researchers, and between researchers, the public and stakeholders.

Testing and evaluating the use of the touchtable with stakeholder and public participants enabled the development of its operational use in a number of other research areas including a project on the contested land issue of grazing on common land and an SSSI.   In this project, the use of the touchtable enriched and enhanced communications between stakeholders on The research process connected public bodies (e.g. Crofting Commission, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Government Rural Payments Division), private sector (crofters, NFUS), advisors (SAC Consulting), and NGOs (European Forum on Natural Conservation and Pastoralism), to share different perspectives of the challenges faced by each party. 

Overall, the project increased staff understanding of how to use a touchtable as an effective research tool. It has built Institute capacity through the development of the technical and personal skills of individual staff as well as bringing together a combination of staff who had not worked with each other previously and has helped leverage additional research funding.

An important element arising from the project was the evolution of an Institute approach to ensuring research using visual methods complies with the best standards of research ethics.

Contact: Anna Conniff


Conniff, A., Colley, K. and Irvine, K.I. (2017). Exploring landscape engagement through a participatory touch table approach. Social Sciences, 6, 118; doi:10.3390/socsci6040118

  1. Capital grant:  Thermal Ionisation Mass Spectrometer (TIMS)

Instrumental impact: Private and public sector benefits through enforcement of regulations
Capacity building impact: Training of staff and students in new methods.
Connectivity impacts: New collaborations between researchers and researchers and businesses.

Purchase of the Thermal Ionisation Mass Spectrometer (TIMS), replacing the previous 24-year-old instrument, has enhanced the capability of the James Hutton Institute in the provenancing of materials from the natural environment. The team responsible for the TIMS have increased their capability for analysing smaller samples to a higher quality and over a broader range of isotopes. Operational time for a sample batch changeover has been reduced from 7 hours to 1.5 hours, operated from a remote desk and use of desktop software rather than in situ, and with paper printouts.

The ability of the instrument to measure unique isotope signatures enables differentiation between likely geographic sources of origin of samples. Currently, this a capability is providing evidence that is informing consideration of regulations and policing of food provenancing through direct input to the International Atomic Energy Authority project on Food Authenticity and traceability. The provision of evidence of the provenance of materials is also being pursued for public and private benefits in relation to tackling wildlife crime (e.g. measuring Strontium isotopes in bone and feathers to provenance possible origins of a bird of prey), and fraud in the origins of food (e.g. lemons and tomatoes, with University of Naples).

Testing the capabilities of the instrument has provided opportunities for new collaborations and capacity building through MSc and PhD projects. For example, with the University of Aberdeen, tests have been carried out to show that Ca isotopes could be used to differentiate between sheep fed on either seaweed or grass solely from the islands of Orkney, using measurements from the feedstock and the bones of sheep. Preliminary findings show prospects of differentiating between provenances of crops in Scotland using ratios of bioavailable Strontium in soils, which is also providing evidence of soil movement and marine influences.

The leading edge capabilities of the instrument has been used to promote the Institute as a world-leading research organisation. Opportunities have been created to showcase Institute facilities to visitors from government, NGOs with quasi-public responsibilities, industry, politics, public and visiting (national and international) research teams.

Contacts: Carol-Ann Craig, Barry Thornton