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Elspeth Spence

Dr Elspeth Spence

Research Associate

School of Psychology

+44 29208 70837
Tower Building, 70 Park Place, Cardiff, CF10 3AT


Research summary

Research theme: Social and Environmental

My main area of research is public perceptions of climate risks. I am currently working on a project aimed at exploring how the public perceive negative emissions technologies, with a  focus on enhanced rock weathering. Prior to this, for my PhD I worked on an  interdisciplinary project to assess perceptions of the emerging risk of ocean acidification.

Teaching summary

I currently supervise final year undergraduate research projects. During my PhD I was a tutor for first year undergraduates and was responsible for running tutorials aimed at developing report writing and statistical skills as well as marking assignments.











Research topics and related papers

Leverhulme Centre for Climate  Change Mitigation

Working as part of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation (LC3M) with Professor Nick Pidgeon, our current project will  examine how people understand negative emission technologies in at least the UK  and USA. This  international project is led by the University of Sheffield with collaborators  including Southampton, California (Riverside), Illinois, the Open University  and the South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme with a key focus on  enhanced weathering. This entails crushing minerals that naturally absorb  carbon dioxide and spreading them on fields, therefore speeding up and  enhancing the natural process of weathering. Our part  of the project will help develop effective public communications and raise  awareness and understanding of NETs more generally as well as on enhanced  weathering. As NETs become more of a reality as a way to reduce carbon dioxide  levels, it is crucial that we understand public perceptions of these  technologies because the public are likely to contribute to future decisions  around them.

Public perceptions of ocean  acidification

My interdisciplinary  PhD research was jointly supervised by Professor Nick Pidgeon in the School of Psychology and Professor Paul Pearson in the School of  Earth and Environmental Sciences. To explore how the public perceived ocean acidification I used a  mental models approach that adopts mixed methods. This approach is used to compare and examine public and expert perceptions of the risk issue to  help  inform risk communication. This emerging risk issue is novel to the general  public however it has potentially serious implications for marine ecosystems,  coastal populations and food webs. Ocean acidification is a separate risk issue  from climate change though is also caused by CO2 emissions, understanding  public perceptions of ocean acidification is important to develop communications  and raise awareness of this risk.
There were three phases to this research project.  Firstly an expert model was developed based on a literature review and expert  interview data (N=7). It explores the main themes that became evident including  the causes, impacts and responses to ocean acidification and highlighted areas  of certainty and uncertainty. Next, interviews with members of the public  (N=20) helped to establish their mental model of ocean acidification allowing  comparison to the expert model. Completion of this phase made it clear where  differences lie between the models. In the last phase a UK survey (N=954) based  on the previous data helped establish whether the conceptualisations found in  the interview phase applied more broadly. There was low awareness of this risk  with acid rain, chemical waste and pollution frequently believed to be the main  cause of OA. However, many respondents did recognise that it would impact on numerous organisms and knock-on  to marine ecosystems. Additionally, many  perceived OA as a highly negative issue despite their unfamiliarity with this  risk issue. Public  response to ocean acidification may mean that there would be greater support  for policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions.


The  current enhanced weathering research is part of a wider project (LC3M) funded  by a Research Centre award from the Leverhulme Trust.

My PhD was funded by the President's Scholarship.

Research group

Social  and Environmental Psychology
Understanding Risk Group

Research collaborators

Prof. Nick Pidgeon (School of Psychology)

Dr Emily Cox (School of Psychology)

Prof. Paul  Pearson (School of Earth and Environmental Sciences)


I supervise final year undergraduate research projects around public understanding of unfamiliar risk issues such as ocean acidification, as well as perceptions of marine climate change impacts, for example.


Undergraduate education

2006 – 2010: MA Psychology (Hons), University of Aberdeen

Postgraduate education

2013 –  2017: PhD Psychology, Cardiff University. Thesis titled 'Public risk  perceptions of ocean acidification’.

2011 – 2012: MRes in Psychology, University of Aberdeen.  Thesis titled 'Trust in information used to encourage pro-environmental  intentions from the public’.