Dr Elspeth Spence

Research Associate

Research group:
Social & Environmental Psychology
029 208 70837
Tower Building, Park Place

Research summary

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

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.

Selected publications (2014 onwards)


Full list of publications


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 Ocean 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 pubic 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

Research collaborators

Prof. Nick Pidgeon (School of Psychology)

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

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 entitled ‘Trust in information used to encourage pro-environmental intentions from the public’.