‌The Big Dilemmas Project 

The Big Dilemmas Project is an exciting new interdisciplinary initiative that aims to come to a better understanding of sustainable futures and potential ways forward. It works towards solving complex sustainability problems, such as "How can we meet our energy needs without jeopardising the natural environment and future needs?".

Academics and students from across the University are working with stakeholders to investigate and tackle big dilemmas around energy demand, food and water security, health, biodiversity, and poverty and population.

The project is closely associated with the Climate change and Sustainable Futures research theme.

Lead by Prof Peter Cox (academic). Publications:

2012 Culm Grass Wetlands in North Devon

By Emma Easy

The field trip to Holsworthy Farm Estate to view how parts of its land were being managed to encourage biodiversity and improve the water quality of its streams was the first time I have been shown the natural world through the eyes of scientific and geographical experts. 

Naturalist Nick Baker pointed out to us species and natural phenomena that would otherwise have gone unseen, spinning a narrative from the birdsong he heard and interpreted, and explaining how investing value in land and nature provides a sense of wellbeing and reconnection with the natural world. 

Representatives from the Devon Wildlife Trust showed how the reintroduction of Culm grasslands, wetlands and wildflower meadows on the estate provided benefits for water quality, biodiversity and pollination: three things on which the human world depends for its long-term survival.  Finally, we were able to ask questions to the farm owners themselves about working with South West Water as part of their Upstream Thinking project. 

Seeing theories put into practice makes all the different, and you recognise the value – and fragility – of an area of land when you’re standing in the middle of it, watching how it works. 


2011 Severn Estuary

Naturalist and broadcaster, Nick Baker, led a fieldtrip to the Severn Estuary to explore and discuss the value of the estuary mud to wildlife as part of the Big Dilemmas project.

A group of students visited the Steart Peninsula in Somerset which is known for its diversity of habitats, including salt marshes. The vast mud flats sustain many species of migratory birds including curlews and lapwings and avocets. The location is the potential site of the Severn Barrage, a tidal energy barrage that would span between Wales and Somerset.

Conservationists who campaigned against the barrage argued that the loss of feeding grounds for birds together with the impact on marine life would have an irreversible negative impact on local and global ecosystems. For the time being the plan has been shelved as no public funding has been made available to support the construction.

With the stark image of Hinkley Nuclear Power Station as a back drop, students from across the University and academics from the Climate Change and Sustainable Futures research theme, including Prof Peter Cox, Prof Michael Finus and Dr Stewart Barr, learned about the biological richness of the estuary mud.

After the visit, the group debated whether biodiversity should be sacrificed to facilitate renewable energy constructions in a bid to mitigate climate change, as it would be likely that climate change would also impact on biodiversity in the long term.

The interdisciplinary Big Dilemmas project aims to tackle complex sustainability challenges. Students from across the University collaborate with academics and stakeholders to imagine potential ways forward.


Each year we establish a prestigious Think Tank of twenty students to join with academics in considering the sustainability problems at the heart of the Big Dilemmas project.

The Think Tank allows undergraduate and postgraduate students from across all disciplines to debate issues relevant to sustainability challenges with our leading academics.

 Conor Reid MSc Applied Ecology

As a new student to The University of Exeter, I am delighted to take this opportunity to get involved in such an exciting interdisciplinary initiative.

As a student of Applied Ecology my main areas of interests include, land use, conservation of biodiversity and sustainability. The Big Dilemmas project therefore neatly accompanies my studies in this field.

I hope that with this project we can really try to make a difference in the south west in terms of mitigation for climate change and the prospect of insuring enough food in the future without further impacting the land upon which both human and wildlife depend.

Sophia Campbell BA Geography

From an early age I have been interested in environmental and social global issues, recently becoming more aware about economic global issues.

Since studying Human Geography I have increasingly recognised the necessity for interdisciplinary solutions and awareness about the different stakeholders and their needs. My awareness of cross-discipline discussion has been heightened by experiences such as attending the COP15 climate talks in 2009 and attending various conferences and convergences surrounding sustainable living and the future of farming.

Embodied experiences such as volunteering on farms as well as being part of environmental action groups has also increased my drive to help find long term solutions to the global issues we face and will face in the future.

Emma Easy   MA Nature, Writing, Place  

For a Humanities student, it’s not often that you get the opportunity to cross disciplines and be able to work with others who have a different knowledge base to you – especially on environmental issues, something that I’ve been interested in for many years.

The Think Tank also offers me a chance to contribute towards a possible solution, rather than feel helpless, and unskilled, in tackling the problem.

Aside from wanting to learn from others, I hope that I’ll be able to provide some writing skills and some knowledge about historical and contemporary attitudes towards our relationship with the land, which I’ll be learning from my course.

 Whinda Yustisia  MSc Social and Organisational Psychology  

Pro-environmental behaviour is a topic that has drawn my attention since I was undergraduate student. For my bachelor thesis, I studied effects of environmental knowledge on willingness to reduce greenhouse gasses in daily life. After that, I worked for a research institution that mainly discuses topics in environmental and disaster psychology.

Through joining Big Dilemmas project, I hope to gain larger understanding of environmental problems. Furthermore, with my psychology background, hopefully I could offer different perspective in attempts to find solutions for this big dilemma.

Jane Keylock MSc Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture  

I wanted to be involved in the Big Dilemmas Project because the implications of food, water and energy insecurity can already be seen and we all have a responsibility to ensure that securing these necessities is achieved in a fair and sustainable way.

The Think Tank offers a great opportunity to think about the issues surrounding this topic and I look forward to hearing views from people with different backgrounds and to thinking about ways forward.

Megan Saunders   MSc Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture

Becoming part of the Big Dilemmas project nicely complements my Masters study in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. Successful approaches in solving the global problem of sustainability in relation to food, land and water requires an interdisciplinary approach – something this opportunity allows me to experience.

This project enables me to develop and increase my understanding of related issues in geography, economics, politics, health and ecology. A well-rounded knowledge of the wider issues allows us to make better informed decisions for the future – something I feel is vital in finding sustainable solutions. Sharing information and working together is a task government departments have not always been successful at.

I believe in the power of communication, between departments, and to the public and scientific community. May this project be the proof in the eating of the pudding.

 Ellena Caudwell  BSc Mathematics  

I feel the issues addressed in this year's Think Tank are very important and pressing issues, and future sustainability on the whole is something that appeals to me.

I am interested in looking into the options available, and hope we will find some possible solutions over the year to help on a local and potentially global scale.

Jemma Davie   MSci Mathematics (Climate Science)  Being part of the Big Dilemmas Think Tank appealed to me as I believe that the sustainability issues which the project is investigating are vitally important. Exploring these in an interdisciplinary setting will be an amazing opportunity to gain a broader understanding of the challenges that the world faces and ways to develop possible solutions. Looking at how we can adapt to environmental change is also linked to my degree.
Jessica Whiting   MSc Energy Policy  

I was motivated to join the Big Dilemmas Project as its a great opportunity to work with a wide range of students, academics and external organisations to explore real sustainability issues.

Food, water and energy represent some our basic needs as society but also some of the most difficult challenges in the coming decades. I’m especially interested in the conflicts and potential complements between various sustainability issues and how solutions will need to draw on a wide range of disciplines and experiences.

I hope that by being part of the Big Dilemmas project I can work alongside a range of disciplines to explore practical solutions to complex sustainability problems.

Alex Begg   BA Economics  

I applied to The Big Dilemmas Think Tank as I saw it as an opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the climate change science. The South West is of particular significance to me having grown up in the region and it will be interesting to look deeper into the general and more specific opportunities and threats that are likely to develop overtime.

I'm interested to gain more understanding into the behavioural decisions of society and reflect on why risk-averse communities seem so unmoved by climate change given the implications of inaction.

I'd hope that through the group I could contribute towards real progress in improving informed decision making of individuals, companies and local government in respect of the recurring issues of sustainable development.

Charlie Chapman
 FCH Geography and Business Management  

I  Study Geography and Management, which has given me a unique view of some of the world’s leading sustainability issues from both sides.

My first motivation to join an environmental think-tank like the Big Dilemmas Project came from reading a book called Climate Change: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Ever since, I’ve taken a strong interest in the necessity to encourage public awareness of the ongoing problems sustainable development faces.

The Big Dilemmas Project is a perfect opportunity for me to gain a unique insight into this field of work; through interacting with leading academics who offer innovative solutions to the growing demands that we face to provide a sustainable world for future generations.

 Katie Garvey  Politics (PhD)  

My current research looks at the impacts of peak oil and climate change on agriculture and aims to assess how dependent contemporary agriculture is on fossil fuels and petrochemicals. My research will assist in determining the implications for farm profitability in the face of higher and more turbulent oil prices. This will be a valuable contribution to UK farm businesses and the wider agricultural industry in reducing their vulnerability to rising input prices and pressures from greenhouse gas reduction commitments. This will contribute to improving the UK’s position in food and energy security in the future.

I am actively seeking the opportunity to build on my expertise and interact with other students and academics in a field that is sorely lacking in research activity, yet is of growing global concern. The benefit of participating in such a forum will be the opportunity to presenting my perceptive at a multidisciplinary forum and to liaise with a variety of academics and students in order to gain fresh perspectives and insight on the issue. Also, such an opportunity will hopefully enhance my credibility in my field of study.

 Honer Mackley-Ward  BA Geography, Environment and Society  

I was motivated to join the Big Dilemmas think tank by my genuine interest in matters of food, water and energy security, and the chance to work with like-minded people in the development of socially and environmentally sustainable resource management.

I feel the area of research is very closely linked to my studies as a Geographer with a centralised approach to the socio-political / science split of the discipline. I believe that bringing together such an interdisciplinary range of people to learn from one-another is the best way to come to pragmatic, workable solutions to some of the most complex questions of our time. I

In my view society needs to become more sustainable and it needs to start doing so at a rapid rate of change. Environmental change is not something in the far off future; it is something we need to deal with now and at every level.

Matthew Reeder   BA Geography  

The Big Dilemma project is exactly the thing I was looking to do at university. The project itself, as an interdisciplinary think tank, was attuned to my diverse range of interests and linked strongly with my concerns for environmental sustainability.

Participating in the Think Tank will be an excellent way to gain further insight into environmental change and management on a personal level of interest whilst contributing a piece of valuable and useful academic work to the public.

The nature of such a project is of pressing concern; food, water and energy security are only going to become more important topic areas in the future, by participating in this group I hope to gain a detailed insight into the issues the south west faces in terms of these areas and possible solutions for the future.

Imogen Crookes  BA Human Geography  

I joined the Think Tank due to a keen personal interest in sustainable development and the strong links to my dissertation and degree. Combining the project with the opportunity to work with people from a range of disciplines is enriching both academically and personally and I feel that it will enable me to apply my existing knowledge as well as opening exciting new areas of research.

Thomas Steward   MSc Energy Policy  

The growing population is bringing ever-increasing demands on our land, and examining exactly how best to make use of this limited resource is a hugely complex and important issue.

The Big Dilemmas project offers a unique opportunity to work alongside some of the leading experts in their fields, whilst also being able to exchange ideas with students from other subject areas. Multi-faceted questions require multi-disciplinary solutions, and this project offers an opportunity to be a part of such a process.

 Lucy Ovens  BSc Biodiversity and Ecology  My keen interest in ecology and sustainable development lead me to apply to this Big Dilemma. Not only does it compliment my degree well, but I also feel that the opportunity to collaborate with other disciplines and gain insight from other perspectives is an invaluable one. I believe that people can co-exist with nature and think that many solutions can be achieved through communication and cooperation. This think tank gives me the opportunity to be part of such a solution.
 Danielle Smith  MSc Applied Ecology  

I joined the Big Dilemmas Think Tank because I am interested in environmental issues and feel a multi-disciplinary approach is essential to developing sustainable projects. I value the experience of using my chosen specialisms in animal behaviour and ecology alongside other disciplines to assess complex proposals.

Having the opportunity to work alongside students and professionals to explore and assess different schemes, often trying to match conflicting human, energy, food and environmental agendas will add to my experience and skills. I feel I have a responsibility to work and find a balance between society’s needs for housing and energy and pressures this places on the natural environment and green spaces.

 Oliver Rubinstein Bayliss  FCH International Relations and Geography  

I am deeply attached to the South West of England, as well as being extremely concerned about the long term sustainability of the UK as a whole, so this year’s themes immediately caught my eye.

At the moment I feel quite frustrated, learning about the issues facing the South West and the UK as a whole, and not being able to anything to help resolve them.

Through this project I feel I will be well placed to make a significant contribution towards their resolution, so this really appeals to me. As well as my personal interest, I really like the idea of discussing my views with a broader group. Getting involved not just with other students, but with leading academics and those outside academia, is exciting, as I think it will give me an amazing opportunity to learn as well as to share my views.

 Ayman Karim  BA Economics and Finance  

Having grown up in Bangladesh, I have been exposed directly to the increasing risk that climate change currently poses to the livelihood of the people in my country. From increasing water salinity and floods in the southern parts of the country to increase in drought in the northern regions, climate change has played havoc on the lives of the 140 million plus people in Bangladesh. It is this direct impact on my country that has significantly intensified my interest in understanding the ways in which climate change adaptation and mitigation may be carried out.

With the United Kingdom being at the forefront of developing technologies and policies for better adaptation to climate change, it provides an ideal ground for me to learn much about climate change acclimation.

Coming from the Economics discipline, I am highly interested to know how climate change can affect economic development and influence the way businesses function in those regions.

Being a part of the Big Dilemma Project will provide me with a perfect platform to broaden my understanding of how different policies and business structures may enable individual, firms and the economy to adapt or mitigate the impact of climate change.

Academics involved in the Big Dilemmas project Think Tank are drawn from across a number of Colleges and disciplines.

Click on their name to visit their profile page and find out more about them.

AcademicJob title
Prof Susan Banducci Professor and Associate Dean of Education
Dr Stewart Barr Senior Lecturer in Human Geography
Dr Richard Brazier  Associate Professor of English Surface Processes
Dr Peter Connor Senior Lecturer in Renewable Engery Policy, Programme Director BSc and M.Eng Renewable Energy
Prof Peter Cox Professor - Climate System Dynamics
Prof Patrick Devine-Wright   Professor in Human Geography
Prof Michael Finus  
Prof Peta Foxall   
Prof Brendan Godley  Associate Professor of Conservation Biology
Prof Stephan Harrison   Associate Professor of Quaternary Science
Dr Tim Kurz Senior Lecturer in Public Responses to Climate Change
Dr Matt Lobley  Senior research Fellow and Codirector of the Centre for Rural Policy Research
Prof Catherine Mitchell Professor of Energy Policy
Prof Tim Quine  Professor of Earth System Science
Dr Robert Wilson  Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology
Dr Bridget Woodman Director of MSc Energy Policy
Professor Michael Winter OBE  Professor and Director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research
 Julie Witthaker Senior Lecturer in the Organisation of Markets

This is a groundbreaking and innovative project. It raises plenty of issues about how problems are framed and socially constructed, the values that are called upon when making choices and the interdependencies between individual and collective levels of analysis in addressing environmental problems.’

Patrick Devine Wright
Professor in Human Geography
Editor of Renewable Energy and the Public