12 – W.E. Wood

W.E. Wood was a railway engineer working in the wheatbelt of Western Australia who, in 1924, was the first to publish a correct diagnosis of the causes of water salinisation from dryland salinity. In honour of this achievement, the National Dryland Salinity Program named its national award for salinity research after him. Last Tuesday, August 3, I was lucky enough to receive the W.E. Wood Award for Salinity Research for 2004 at the dinner of the Salinity Solutions Conference in Bendigo. Here is a tidied up version of my brief acceptance speech for the award.

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Thank you to the National Dryland Salinity Program for this award. I am honoured to be associated with W.E. Wood in this way, and honoured to be bracketed with the four previous winners of the award. My research is quite different to theirs, and I am grateful to the NDSP for being willing to broaden their consideration of potential winners into an area that many people would not think of as a core area of salinity research.

I would like to acknowledge the many co-researchers, collaborators and research students who contributed in various ways to my salinity research, and my employers and funders who supported the research: The University of Western Australia, the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation. Thanks also to the colleagues who, from an early stage in the research, sat through discussions or write-ups on the apparently wild conclusions I was reaching. Most importantly, thanks to my family for putting up with all the time, energy and absence that has gone into my salinity work.

What I have tried to do in my research is to bring together the latest evidence from all the relevant disciplines into an economic framework to address some of the big questions about dryland salinity. Nobody had previously done this, at least not to the same extent, and I soon realised why. Dryland salinity is such a complex and diverse issue that an attempt to study it comprehensively can overwhelm you. But it is important to make the attempt because you reach conclusions that are different and that really matter.

There are no easy solutions to most of the salinity problems we face. I believe it is important to take a very long-term perspective on thinking about salinity, and when you do that you realise the folly of relying mainly on on-ground works, as we are currently doing in the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. Doing this, we will fall far short of the potential for policy to make a real difference to salinity.

On the agriculture side, my key conclusions included the crucial role of R&D to develop new, economically attractive methods for managing salinity, the importance of adapting to salinity and making productive use of it, and the importance of localised management in many cases, rather than Integrated Catchment Management.

On the non-agricultural side my analysis highlighted that we should be doing very hard-nosed prioritisation of funding, and tight targeting of funds to only the few most important of the assets under threat, rather than allocating funds thinly to many assets, as we have tended to do. I highlighted the role of on-farm economics as a key element in the catchment-wide economics of salinity management, and again concluded that plant-based R&D was a key response for some of the asset types at risk.

The bottom line from my research is that our salinity policies need a major overhaul. One of the reasons I am most pleased to win the W.E. Wood award is that the prestige that comes with it may help me to more effectively push for such an overhaul.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Ridley, A., and Pannell, D.J. (2005). The role of plants and plant-based R&D in managing dryland salinity in Australia, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 45: 1341-1355. Full journal paper (127K pdf)

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546. Final journal version (212K pdf file) also available via the Journal homepage: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8489.00156/abstract  Other publications on salinity

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