Building the science-policy interface to protect bathing water quality

About The Project


The project, led by the University of Stirling and supported by Lancaster University and Aberystwyth University, brought together cross-disciplinary expertise from academic, regulatory, and policy communities and interested organisations and campaign groups concerned with protecting and securing safe bathing water quality. The Working Group included a core membership of representatives from UKWIR, SEPA, EA, Defra, Bangor University and Surfers against Sewage and drew on a breadth of knowledge and experience from across the UK and the international community as well.

This website has evolved over the project lifetime and will hopefully prove to be a valuable resource for those interested in the technology/methodological debate surrounding the protection of bathing water quality.

What’s the problem?

The introduction of more stringent regulations associated with the revised Bathing Waters Directive in Europe is likely to result in lower compliance with microbiological standards. Meeting these new standards and avoiding infraction (and therefore economic consequences) will be a challenge. However, parallel debates over the suitability of traditional versus novel quantification methods add an extra layer of complexity for regulators to grapple with. Recently the US has begun to consider molecular-based enumeration tools as an alternative to ‘tried and tested’ albeit slower methods that rely on our ability to grow bacteria. However, with the emergence of rapid novel approaches come difficult decisions for how best to translate technological innovation into up-to-date regulation. As cutting edge science delivers new and more efficient technologies for microbial detection and enumeration there comes a requirement for balanced evaluation of such approaches with regard to their operational utility given their associated limitations and uncertainties at current time. For example, while molecular approaches provide rapid bacterial counts they have yet to be properly evaluated for regulatory monitoring purposes and there is much uncertainty regarding their precision and accuracy for microbial enumeration in the bathing zone. Without careful evaluation the same innovative science could actually bring about negative societal and economic impacts if implemented in haste due to poor understanding of how new and emerging techniques map onto existing health-related water quality standards. With more stringent standards drawing ever closer it is critical that science users and providers do not gamble with a methodological transition that could add further complications to the UK’s compliance record.


Decision-Making Framework

The overarching aim of the Working Group, through collaborative analysis of the current state of science and practice across these fields, was to integrate knowledge of cutting-edge innovative research in microbial quantification techniques with science-user needs. In light of the KE programme a ‘Decision-Making Framework’ (DMF) was be constructed by the WG to provide a consistent, comprehensive and co-ordinated strategy for decision making. We define a DMF as ‘a process for identifying and managing risks linked to an area of emerging concern, uncertainty or interest'; in this case the subject being emerging molecular quantification tools for microbial parameters in EU regulated waters.

The DMF drew on expertise of the WG in addition to a wider network of invited national and international experts whose microbiological knowledge and research activity complements key themes linked to:

  1. science and technology innovation;
  2. relevance to catchment management; and
  3. economic impacts on monitored waters, local economies, agencies and the state, all framed around commonly agreed science-user needs. The DMF will help users understand the current level of knowledge and ambiguity with regard to molecular quantification tools and how to formulate choice based on the current evidence-base.