In conversation with: Sarah Brown - How one Fellowship led to £3m in environmental grants

In conversation with: Sarah Brown - How one Fellowship led to £3m in environmental grants

As Sarah Brown (CF 2018) says, “I grew up with the sea, lived around the sea, couldn’t imagine my life without the sea, and here I am helping to restore the sea.” But just how did Sarah’s Churchill Fellowship help her develop her career in marine conservation and restoration?

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, and the daughter of keen sailors and environmental journalists, Sarah’s natural career path was working in a marine environment. But it was her Fellowship which helped shape her approach, and later led her to launching an environmental journalism award.

Shaping marine spatial planning

Back in 2018, Sarah, who lives and works in Scotland, realised the UK’s approach to marine spatial planning was at times struggling to engage relevant sections of the public. Marine spatial planning takes into account, during the planning process, the multiple different spatial and temporal uses of a marine area.

She could see that in the United States much more progress was being made, and her successful application for a Churchill Fellowship gave her the opportunity to learn about why this was so.

“I had been following the work of a number of different people doing marine planning engagement in the States but never expected to get the chance to actually meet them. When a friend, who had also been awarded a Churchill Fellowship, suggested I apply, I immediately knew what I wanted to do.”

Sarah’s learning showed it wasn’t that the States was further ahead than the UK in marine spatial planning, but that its approach was different.

“In the US, they have different legislative drivers, so a lot of their approach is based on the fact that if planners get it wrong, businesses and members of the public can easily sue them for losses. They really do have to engage a range of audiences in the planning process. Budgets are set on this basis; they make the calculation that it will cost X to engage versus Y if they are sued, and they opt for X.

“But the planning goals in the US and in the UK are the same, which is to take into account the multiple different spatial and temporal uses of the area in question, as well as the demands of the natural environment.”

Sarah learnt two key lessons during her research. The first was the approach to engagement. “In the States, they go about engagement in a way that is very direct and has a goal to achieve, operating in a similar way to running a marketing campaign. It’s less of what we would think of as a consultation process, and more about winning hearts and minds. We could benefit from adopting this way of working.”

The second, perhaps more prosaic lesson, was that this approach costs money.

At the time of her Fellowship, Sarah had been working on the Clyde Marine Plan. Led by the Scottish Government, the Plan brings together public and private sector partners to harness the opportunities of the Firth of Clyde and the surrounding area, to deliver economic, social and environmental benefits.

Here, Sarah started adopting the new ‘hearts and minds’ approach; for example, with targeted ‘consumer’ panels to assess attitudes and ambitions for marine planning in the wider population, and a programme of youth engagement to gain an understanding of how they saw the sea playing a role in their lives.

But the need for funding was still an issue. So, Sarah started looking at the funding side of engagement, and was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Marine Environmental Enhancement Fund (SMEEF) on behalf of the Scottish Government.

The model was simple: get funding from the private sector, which goes back out in the form of grants, while hearts and minds are engaged to ensure projects are successfully implemented. It is a virtuous circle. Marine industries, which rely upon the service of the sea in order to function, are encouraged to put investment back into the sea, to enhance the sea, so creating a functional, closed system.

SMEEF has been a phenomenal success.

“Had it not been for my Churchill Fellowship, I don’t know that I would be able to say that in the last 18 months I have got more than £3million of grants out the door and I am hoping to sign contracts for a further £3million in the next six months. I wouldn’t have had the network to support me, the ideas to inspire me and I wouldn’t have had the confidence either.

“The Churchill Fellowship is a real feather in my cap, and I make use of it. I drop it into conversations, I use it on my bio, and it definitely carries weight when I am out there looking for funding.”

The Fellowship’s legacy

The SMEEF model is now the blueprint for other projects across the UK and for other habitats, not just the marine environment.

“Genuinely, we were the first to do this and we did it well and made it work. With £3m out the door, people are thinking, ‘How on earth did you do that? We’ll have some of that’.”

There are great examples of projects that have been funded. In Argyll, seagrass beds are being restored and the level of CO2 sequestered is being measured. Grants have also been given for sand dune restoration to prevent flooding, invasive species removal and research into reducing cetacean entanglement.

In the Firth of Clyde, at the Canting Basin - once part of the Clyde ship building area, which has been empty for years – grants have funded a manmade floating reedbed system, and almost overnight wildlife has returned.

Inspiration leads to environmental awards

Sarah’s inspiration for her career goes back to her childhood and her parents’ keen interest in the sea. Family holidays involved sailing trips to the west coast of Scotland, in all weathers. Brian and Lesley Black were passionate about the environment and Brian became an award-winning environmental journalist.

Sadly, in 2019 and 2020 Sarah lost her parents to illness and accident. Their untimely passing and Sarah’s desire to honour their memory, led her to setting up an environmental journalism award.

Now in their third year, the Brian Black Memorial Awards, run in conjunction with Yachting Monthly, are open to journalists covering environmental issues, explored by sailing boat.

“Dad could be a bit dismissive of awards and gongs, but he did once win environmental journalist of the year and he was very proud of it, keeping the award on his shelf. So I think he’d approve.”

The winner of the first year’s award was a young journalist, writing about a Caribbean sailing adventure, and finding a beach in a remote corner of Aruba, covered in litter that had been dumped away from the tourist areas. It the second year, the winner was Arctic sailor Jom Amtrup, who wrote about experiencing global warming first hand and seeing the melting glaciers.

Sarah believes journalism has an important part to play in raising awareness.

“It’s akin to the idea of needing marketing to win hearts and minds for a project. The marine sailing side is putting a different slant on things, reaching a new audience, and putting the issue in a different way. The more ways we can reach people the better.”

And what is next for Sarah, in her quest to drive greater sustainability in the marine environment?

“I have been an environmentalist all my career, and if I can get into the latter part knowing I have established a substantial long term funding mechanism for marine enhancement, that to me is a tangible way to make a difference. I won’t put an upper limit on it, but £10m a year would be nice! Without doubt, I would not have been doing this if it wasn’t for the Churchill Fellowship.

“In terms of the awards, I want to see more talented journalists coming through and telling the marine environmental story, charting – hopefully – our root out of where we are and into something better.”

Words by: Jo Smyth


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


Newsletter Sign Up